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West Coast Tomato’s success due to team effort from field to front office

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Bob Spencer of West Coast Tomato with Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli of the Center for Produce Safety at the Florida Tomato Conference earlier this year. (Photo by Chip Carter)

After a great spring season, Bob Spencer of West Coast Tomato LLC in Palmetto, FL thought a terrific fall might be too much to ask for. He has been pleasantly surprised with the way both his crop and the market are shaping up as the season ramps up to full speed.

“We’ve got a decent crop fortunately,” Mr. Spencer said in early November. “We have enough — we don’t have bumper crops, which is good news from a market standpoint. We’re starting off with a decent market and that’s going to increase each week that we go along. I’m excited and ready to rock and roll, ready to go.”

West Coast benefitted from a hard freeze that wiped out Mexican tomato production earlier this year and sent the market for a bountiful Florida spring crop through the roof, he said.

“We were very fortunate,” Mr. Spencer said. “It was not a pleasant year up until that point but ended up being a very positive year for the Florida tomato growers. I’m just happy when I look at the bottom line after a year like last year. Any year when you can go another year and your net income is not encapsulated — meaning negative — is a good year.”

But that terrific spring was no guarantee that West Coast and other Florida growers could carry that momentum into fall and the coming season.

“The reality is it doesn’t impact the current situation at all,” Mr. Spencer said. “The real thing that’s amazing to me is, we’ve been able to have some pretty good years here in the middle of a disastrous national economy. There are a lot of businesses in the communities we live and work in and deliver product into that are struggling and holding on, and many of them have not been able to hold on, and yet we’ve been able to be successful. We have lot to be thankful for. It has not been an economy that’s conducive to being successful, yet we’ve been able to be.”

That is testament to West Coast’s operation and its commitment to its team members, from field workers to the front office. Understanding markets and planning ahead has helped the company prosper while others have struggled.

“It starts in the fields with the people that help plant the crops, cultivate the crops and harvest the crops, and it goes with the people who are overseeing that, it goes with the crew chiefs, the farm managers, the packinghouse, with the people who receive and grade the product and make sure it goes in the right boxes,” Mr. Spencer said.

“It’s everybody in the system who’s part of the team being motivated to work hard and efficiently so that we’re able to have a successful year,” Mr. Spencer said. “We may have the greatest ideas sitting in our offices, but if we don’t motivate the people we work with, we’re not going to be successful. It’s a team effort.”

He continued, “You’ve got to be prudent in how much you plant and the timing of your planting. You learn from your mistakes. When you overplant as a company and get your rear end burnt you learn from that. So it’s not so much being smart and pulling your hand off the stove as it is learning from your mistakes and staying away from the stove. We’ve learned from mistakes in the past and been fortunate the mistakes we made weren’t so huge that we’re still around to learn more.”