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Thomas Produce Sales revamps warehouse for food safety, adds solar

Charlie Thomas, Margie Kosnik and Chuck Thomas handle sales at Thomas Produce.

“In order to better serve our customers” and to better accommodate their food-safety and handling requirements, “we have revamped the whole warehouse,” said Chuck Thomas, president of Thomas Produce Sales Inc. in Nogales, AZ, here, during an interview with The Produce News Nov. 11.

“A lot of customers are requiring you to have third-party certification and proper facilities for handling their product, so we have done a lot of changes to accommodate that” and to be sure “that we don’t have any food-safety problems,” he said.

The renovation has involved an assortment of projects. “We have built structures to enclose things like insulation,” for example, he said. “We have put a cooler in. We have built a garage” for storage of wooden products and other items not allowed under food-safety protocols within the warehouse environment. “We have painted. We have cleaned everything. We have put gates up” and put in sinks and signage and done numerous other things “just to come up to speed with all the new food-safety requirements that our customers are demanding of us” and that are necessary for third-party certification.

The effort achieved its purpose, as the facility was granted U.S. Department of Agriculture certification at the beginning of November.

Additionally, because of the newly installed cooler, which will require a great deal of energy to operate, the company is putting in a solar power generation installation. “We have already started putting solar panels on the roof to generate electricity,” Mr. Thomas said. “That is going to take up the slack” when the facility’s energy consumption increases, especially in the springtime, with the refrigeration running.

Fortunately, given the seasonality of most of the produce in the Nogales deal, the new cooler does not need to be operated during the heat of the summer — and that is when the solar installation will be generating the most power. “We are not doing anything” with the cooler “from mid-June on,” and the power company will buy “anything extra we generate,” including the power generated by the system during the summer, when the cooler is not running, “so we ought to be getting some good credits that time of year.”

The company was fortunate to get in under the wire on government rebate programs and power company credits before available funding for those programs ran out for the year. With help from those subsidies, “this whole thing should pay for itself, I think, in 4.3 years” and will be generating free power thereafter, he said.

As of early November, the California office of Thomas Produce, which had been open all summer, was about wrapping up for the season. “That will run to probably Thanksgiving. Then we will shut that down and have the full crew back over here again,” Mr. Thomas said.

Even though there have been some water shortages in some of the growing areas in Mexico, “I think they’ve got some good plantings going,” he said. “So I anticipate a good season so long as the weather holds on — if we don’t have another 54-year freeze” like the one that happened last February.

With the near-completion of the new highway from Sinaloa to McAllen, TX, more and more Nogales companies are putting distribution warehouses in McAllen and bringing up some of their east-bound produce through McAllen rather than through Nogales, Mr. Thomas noted. “I am looking at us maybe having a presence there also,” not this year but probably by next year. “It is something I think we may have to do in the future,” he said. “I considered it for this year,” but there may not be enough distributors there with their warehouses “set up properly,” he said. It is possible, though, that by next year “we will have to have some people on the ground over there.”