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Andrew & Williamson diversifies geographically to minimize weather impacts

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Javier Espinosa, Culiacan production manager for Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce, in a golden grape tomato field in full bloom under a protective structure.

“Last season was a real roller coaster ride” for Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce, a San Diego-based company with operations in Nogales, AZ, according to Mark Munger, vice president of marketing.

A&W grows tomatoes and cucumbers in various locations in Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula as well as in the Culiacan area of the state of Sinaloa, Mexico. In Culiacan, “we were set up last season, I think, for probably the best season that we have ever had. We had some fairly significant growth going into the season,” he said. And it appeared that “we had probably some of the best quality crops that we ever had, and then we got hit by that freeze. It was really disruptive,” knocking out about 40 percent of the company’s Culiacan production. Newer fields that were planted later for the latter part of the marketing season “had almost 100-percent damage to them,” he said, and “needless to say, it rocked us as a company.”

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Mark Munger

Fortunately, said Mr. Munger, “we did have some other production areas that were going in a smaller way,” enabling A&W to continue delivering some product to core customers.

But A&W learned a great deal from the experience, he said. A lot of the decisions that we made going into this season were influenced by what the company learned from last year. As a result, the biggest thing that is different going into the 2011-12 season is that it has created some fairly significant geographic diversity in order to minimize the impact of a major weather event, such as the one that occurred last winter.

A&W already has technological diversity, Mr. Munger noted. “We have open-field and we have shadehouses, which gives us a little bit of flexibility. But when you have a weather event like that — one of those hundred-year things, or whatever they call it — it almost doesn’t matter what kind of technology you have. Everybody got hurt.”

Culiacan continues to be A&W’s largest production area during the winter season, but the company now has “put another couple of areas into production ... basically as a backup,” he said.

“We’ve got a fairly significant farming operation this season in La Paz, at the tip of Baja,” he said. The La Paz season “really mirrors the Culiacan season.” Tomatoes grown by A&W in La Paz will not come up through Nogales but through San Diego.

In addition to that, the company is extending its season in the Vizcaino area of central Baja, implementing more extensively a technique that was successfully tested last year and one that “really saved us during the freeze,” Mr. Munger said. “Normally, Vizcaino is a fall and spring production area, and it goes out of production during the Culiacan season. What we have done is taken a fairly significant portion of our Vizcaino shadehouse production and rather than pull it out at the end of fall, we have found that even with cooler weather we can still grow really good quality tomatoes all winter long.”

The methods used do not achieve optimal production, but they do make Vizcaino “a very functional growing region during the winter,” he said. “So we will have Roma tomatoes and round tomatoes” throughout the winter from Vizcaino.

Assuring a continuity of supply through the winter is becoming increasingly important, Mr. Munger explained. “As we become more strategic with our foodservice and retail customers, they are relying on us — in some cases 100 percent — for their tomato supply, and we cannot allow there to be some kind of event that takes us out of production even for a short period of time.”

Those changes “have not affected our volumes in Nogales,” he emphasized. “We have still increased our Nogales program” with, again, a combination of shadehouses and open field. “Our primary products there are going to be Roma tomatoes, vine-ripe round tomatoes and our snack tomatoes,” including a new red grape tomato variety called Olivia and a new golden grape tomato variety.

“Our total volume is going up about 15 percent” for the Nogales deal, consistent with the company’s long-term growth strategy, he said.

A&W also is continuing to do cucumbers in Nogales, although “we are doing a little bit less” in-house growing of the cucumbers and more partnering with “ a couple of other cucumber growers that specialize just in cukes,” he said. That has allowed A&W to expand its snack tomato program and its round tomato program “in our existing shadehouses.”

In its snack tomato program, A&W has been working very closely for nearly five years with some breeders who have developed varieties of grape tomatoes. This year, the company’s red grape tomato production in Culiacan will be 100 percent in the new Olivia variety, which is “just fantastic,” he said. He described it as deep red, crunchy and absolutely sweet.

A&W’s new golden grape tomato variety is exclusive to the company, and “we are going to have some fairly significant expansion on our total acreage on that” this winter with sufficient volume so “that we will be able to introduce it to more customers,” Mr. Munger said. The tomato has a “beautiful vibrant yellow-golden color” and “very high Brix,” and “bar none, it is probably the best snack tomato that I have ever tasted.”

A&W started growing snack tomatoes six years ago, but it was not until the company was sure it had the right varieties that the category received a lot of focus. “When I talk about the right varieties, it is all about flavor,” he said. A&W now has dedicated acreage and dedicated packing facilities just for the snack tomatoes as well as “a dedicated team that is learning how to do them really well.”

The objective is to become fairly significant snack tomato producers. Since there is a lot of product out there, the tomatoes must “taste good if you want to sell more of them,” he said. A&W has been slow to expand its program “because we didn’t feel like we had the best tools available. And now we really do.”

A&W also continues to focus on expanding its organic program. “In Culiacan, we will be continuing to increase our organic Roma and our organic grape tomato production,” Mr. Munger said. “We have been getting great feedback and response from our customers” and have seen steady sales increases even “through this recession.”