Catania Worldwide and Stellar Distributing set to provide their own figs year-round

In early April, The Produce News reported that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service authorized the importation of Mexican figs into the United States, effective March 30, 2015. The final requirement for importing to the United States was to certify the irradiation facility, which was done in late April.Stellar-MX-figsStellar Distributing’s Brian Lapin, Kurt Cappeluti, Connie Gil, Nick Cappeluti and Michael Simmons celebrated the arrival of their first shipment of Mexican figs from Catania Worldwide’s own fields in Mexico.

The first Mexican figs to be imported into the U.S. for many decades landed in Madera, CA, on Monday, May 11. Stellar Distributing received the shipment from Catania Worldwide’s facilities in Mexico.

Catania Worldwide owns Stellar Distributing Inc., which is based in Madera, CA, and is a major grower, packer and shipper of California figs. Paul Catania, president of Catania Worldwide in Toronto, said the addition of Mexican figs as completely complementary and a great way to increase the promotion and consumption of fresh figs.

This places Catania and Stellar in the unique position to be fully vertically integrated to supply fresh figs to U.S. markets throughout the year.

Catania has been working with Mexican fig growers for four years, but shipped the first Mexican figs into the United States from his own 150 acres in the state of Sonora. May is the end of the growing season for the region, which will start again in late October, when Stellar Distributing will be wrapping up its California fig season.

Texas flooding wreaks havoc on crops

While the agriculturally rich Rio Grande Valley has been spared the brunt of the most recent storms and flooding in Texas, nine months of above-average rain has taken its toll in the fresh produce growing areas, with many acres having already been lost.

“We’ve had 60 inches of rain from the fall through the spring,” said Jimmy Bassetti, president of J&D Produce Inc. in Edinburg, TX. “No one has been spared.”

These May rains, which have produced flooding in many areas of the state, as well as Oklahoma and Kansas, have not delivered the same punch to south Texas. Many cities in the Rio Grande Valley have tallied impressive rain totals for the month, but they are still in single digits. In comparison, Houston received 10 inches of rain during one 24-hour period over the Memorial Day weekend.

“We didn’t get hit with that,” said Bassetti, “but we have had constant rains throughout our planting and growing and harvesting seasons.”

Bassetti was reluctant to put a number of it, but he said the Texas spring onion crop was probably the hardest hit, losing about 30 percent of its acreage. He noted that other fresh crops, including melons and vegetables, have been hit hard and the late spring and early summer harvest should be curtailed a bit because of it.

Jed Murray, general manager of Texas and Mexico crops for California-based Church Bros. LLC., echoed those same comments. “Some growers have seen their entire summer squash program washed out,” he said.

For those squash acres that will survive, he believes smaller sizes will prevail and so yield will be down. Agreeing that Rio Grande Valley has dodged this latest bullet, Murray said nonetheless “Thousands of acres have been affected” by the relentless rain of the past several months.

Bret Erickson, president and chief executive officer of the Texas International Produce Association, which is headquartered in the Rio Grande Valley city of Mission, said, “We have escaped the worst of it. We’ve had heavy rains and it’s really wet, but the flooding events have stayed north of us.”

But he agreed that the earlier rains “made a mess of the onion crop. Texas onions took it on the chin this year.”

He said a lot of growers couldn’t even get out into their fields to harvest their crop and lost entire fields. As he spoke May 26, Erickson said the current honeydew and cantaloupes harvests were being affected but he believed the summer watermelon crop would survive.

“The silver lining in the big picture is that this moisture is a good thing for our ground,” he said, noting that Texas had been in the midst of a pretty severe drought until it started raining late last summer. “But it has truly proven to be correct that when it rains, it pours.”

He said the ground is full of moisture, which will help growers get through the summer using very little water. This will help their bottom lines and it will help the fall and winter crops as there is nothing like “sweet rain water” to help a plant reach its potential.

But Erickson said while this deluge of rain has had a positive impact on the reservoirs in south Texas, it has not had quite the impact one would expect. The reservoirs were close to empty and most have seen significant gains bringing them up to 40-50 percent of capacity.

“Most of the heavy rain has been outside the watershed,” Erickson said. “It’s fallen east of the reservoirs and continued to move east. It’s not had the impact you’d expect.”

Bassetti said the heavy rains have delayed some trucks moving from south Texas to Houston and Dallas, but most produce truckers can figure out a way around the rain if they are delivering to other parts of the country.

Murray agreed, stating it has been a challenge to move produce into Houston and Dallas but not everywhere. It might add a few hours to the route but that is more of a nuisance for the driver than an impact on the receiver. There is no doubt some Houston and Dallas retailers, as well as those in smaller towns, are having some trouble stocking their shelves, but the public is having trouble getting to the stores anyway.

As the final days of May were winding down, the end of the rain was not in sight. Weather experts were predicting heavy rains into early June and said the flooding could go on for weeks. The groundwater tables are full and more rain has literally nowhere to go.

Bassetti worries that the same situation may occur in the Rio Grande Valley if it gets any major tropical storms this summer. Typically, he said the Texas soil can absorb the first heavy storm without much flooding. But that might not be the case this year when tropical storm season gets underway.

Officially, tropical storm season for the Atlantic and Caribbean runs from June 1 to Nov. 30. It was almost a decade ago when Hurricane Katrina hit land on Aug. 29, 2005.

Fairway launching smaller-format store

Fairway Market will be opening the prototype of its new store model in Brooklyn, NY. The location will have a smaller footprint and lower cost structure than Fairway's existing stores with the same broad offering of fresh, specialty, organic and conventional products.fairway

"We are excited about the announcement of the new Fairway Market located in a densely populated submarket with ample parking in a dynamic section of Brooklyn," Jack Murphy, Fairway's chief executive officer, said in a press release.

"We expect to further improve the profitability of the store by optimizing space allocations between departments based on learnings from recently conducted productivity studies," Murphy said. "We have also spent a lot of time designing a more capital efficient store and believe that we can build this store with a lower cost per square foot than our existing locations. We will continue to remain focused on searching for high-quality locations, which we believe will be accretive to our long term growth strategy."

The announcement was made when Fairway reported its financial results for its fiscal 2015 fourth quarter.

"During the fourth quarter, we made significant progress in a number of key operating disciplines," Murphy said. "Strategic pricing, marketing and merchandising programs were implemented fleetwide which, combined with basic operational disciplines and a collective focus on responsible growth and profitability, have created a strong foundation for future growth.

"We are extremely pleased with our performance throughout the back half of the fiscal year and look forward to capitalizing on this momentum as we move into fiscal 2016," Murphy said in the release.

Houweling’s acquires Colorado-based Sun Valley Farms

Delta, BC-based greenhouse grower and marketer Houweling's Nurseries Ltd. has acquired Loveland, CO-based Sun Valley Farms Inc.

The deal sees Houweling's Tomatoes expand its sales and service in key Mountain States, and is well aligned geographically to Houweling's new state-of-the-art greenhouse production facility in Mona, UT.Houwelings-Tomatoes-Inside-GreenhouseTomatoes growing in a Houweling's greenhouse.

"In addition to improved access and sales service coverage, we establish sourcing capabilities with pre-built track-and-trace structure and excellent grower relationships, backstopping our own grown product to improve customer fill rates and deliver overall service excellence,” Kevin Doran, chief operating officer at Houweling's, said in a press release.

The Sun Valley Farms business will continue to operate independently under the leadership of Dave Fahrenbruch, president and chief executive officer.

"For Sun Valley Farms, being vertically integrated with a large North American producer is the direct to grower model our customers want,” Fahrenbruch said in the release. “With the expansion in Utah Houweling's has solidified its position in the Western United States and is a perfect fit for Sun Valley and our customers.”

PMA suggests produce-friendly changes to FDA’s FSMA strategy

WASHINGTON — When the Food & Drug Administration implements the Food Safety Modernization Act, don’t charge any user fees, offer education and technical assistance to any sized sector and let industry help in drafting the guidance documents. These were some of the suggestions offered by the Produce Marketing Association in its 19-page comments to the FDA last week.

FDA asked for comments by May 26 on the FSMA implementation strategy, the key blueprint the agency will follow in developing work plans and setting out priorities before inspectors begin implementing the new food-safety law. Four years after Congress passed FSMA, the agency is planning to publish the final produce safety and preventive control rules by September.

PMA said the agency should stick to financing the program with federally appropriated money, such as the $109.5 million requested by the administration this fiscal year, rather than asking for user fees, inspection fees or registration fees to pick up the tab.

“PMA and its members absolutely understand that FDA needs sufficient budgetary resources for food-safety tools, infrastructure, and personnel to appropriately implement FSMA,” said Jim Gorny, PMA’s vice president of food safety and technology. “However, we believe these financial resources should come from the federal budget rather than unfairly and disproportionally falling on the food industry sector.”

PMA noted the proposed $11.5 million earmarked for industry education and technical assistance will fall far short of meeting the need of the entire food industry. “It is imperative that sufficient resources be allocated to educate industry about FSMA implementation and compliance before FDA regulates,” Gorny said.

“It would be short-sighted for FDA to limit or focus education outreach and technical assistance to any one business sector or enterprise size,” PMA told the FDA in its comments. “As such, PMA respectfully requests that the FDA consider and implement education and training for all produce business sectors irrespective of their size or production practices employed. A healthy food sector is a diverse food sector with all types of operations providing an abundant and safe food supply to American consumers.”

FDA officials have indicated plans to develop guidance documents to help sectors of the industry comply with the far-reaching law, and PMA wants to make sure industry has a role in the drafting of these documents.

“PMA wishes to express a strong desire to engage early, often and repeatedly with FDA on the development of applicable guidance documents for produce industry operations and provide an opportunity to explain and discuss current industry best practices and preventive controls to address identified ‘significant hazards,’” the group said.

“We also request that FDA consider routinely convening an expert group composed of industry, academia and government (state, local, territorial and tribal) subject matter experts to draft and update model [Compliance Policy Guides] for each of the FDA FSMA implementing regulations, make recommendations to the agency as to what preventive controls, policies, procedures or practices would address the identified hazard appropriately and deem the firm to be ‘in-compliance’ with applicable regulations.”

In other comments, PMA asked the FDA to clarify the roles of inspectors, who will be tasked with providing technical assistance to industry while verifying compliance, and to set up an adjudication system when inspectors and industry disagree on interpretation of the law.