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The U.S. Department of Agriculture has imposed sanctions on two California produce businesses — Fontana Wholesale and Mpgwest — for failure to pay reparation awards issued under the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act.

The following businesses and individuals are currently restricted from operating in the produce industry:

  • Mpgwest LLC, operating out of La Quinta, for failing to pay a $293,949 award in favor of a California seller.  As of the issuance date of the reparation order, William L. Penny was listed as a member of the business.
  • Fontana Wholesale, operating out of Fontana, for failing to pay a $10,762 award in favor of a California seller.  As of the issuance date of the reparation order, Rafael Flores was listed as the officer, director and major stockholder of the business.

Additionally, California-based La Plaza Market LLC has posted a $75,000 cash surety bond with the USDA to obtain a license to operate in the produce industry. Under PACA regulations, the company was required to post the bond following its prior involvement in bankruptcy. USDA will hold the bond for three years, providing assurance to the industry that the company will be able to pay for produce purchased and to conduct business according to PACA rules.

In the past three years, USDA resolved approximately 3,500 PACA claims involving more than $58 million.  The USDA's experts also assisted more than 8,000 callers with issues valued at approximately $140 million.

Major hurricanes like Irma take a major toll on farmland, even when it’s very early in the season.

When Irma scathed the western side of Florida in early September, plantings in North Florida were in their early growth stage in greenhouses intended to protect them. Other young plants were already planted in fields, typically covered with plastic that protects them until they are sturdy.

Oakes Farms’ acreage in Immokalee, which is also the company’s headquarters, had about five million young plants in various stages of growth in greenhouses, and some recently planted in fields when news of the approaching hurricane became imminent.

hurricaneirma Company owner, Alfie Oakes, took immediate action and had as many plants as possible moved from the greenhouses to safer locations. While his action saved some plants, many that could not be moved were damaged or destroyed.

In addition to the loss of plants, the storm caused a tremendous amount of damage to fields and facilities.

Oakes Farms’ more than 400 laborers have been working daily to clean up, make repairs and relay plastic since the storm passed.

“All of the plants that were in the ground were destroyed,” said Steve Veneziano, vice president of the company. “We started replanting the plants that we saved from the greenhouses this week [Sept. 18].”

He added that about 10 percent of the plastic in the fields was salvageable, but is in need of patch repairs.

“Our entire labor force is contracted out,” Veneziano pointed out. “The majority are migrant workers that have experience in farm work, and roughly 15 percent are untrained general laborers from the local area who are in seek of work.”

As of Tuesday morning, Oakes Farms’ laborers had planted roughly 150-acres of peppers, eggplant, squash and cucumbers in a 72-hour period.

“And we’re moving full speed ahead,” he added. “We are thankful that we pulled the plants from the greenhouses in an effort to save as many as we could. The greenhouses were completely destroyed. We were able to save about 70 percent of these plants, and many of the younger plants are already back in a greenhouse for continued strengthening until they’re ready to plant.”

Oakes Farms’ packinghouse lost 75 percent of its roof, which had been totally repaired by Sept. 18.

Veneziano added that farms across Northern Florida suffered the same or similar losses, and now everyone’s mind-set is on rebuilding, replanting and moving forward.

Ben Rice and Brenda Briggs are the new leaders of Rice Fruit Co. At the company’s Sept. 14 board of directors meeting Rice was elected president, succeeding his father, David Rice. Briggs, vice president of sales and marketing, assumed the leadership of sales at the company earlier this year when John Rice stepped back from his duties. Ben Rice and Briggs join Ted Rice, company treasurer, as the top leadership in the organization.John-Rice-Brenda-Briggs-BJohn Rice, Brenda Briggs, Ben Rice and David Rice.

Ben joined Rice Fruit Co. in 2009. He graduated from Princeton in 2005 and earned an MBA from Penn State University in 2013. His work at Rice Fruit Co. has focused on the production side of the business. He represents the fourth generation of his family to run Rice Fruit Co., which was founded in 1913 by his great-grandfather.

Briggs joined Rice Fruit Co. in 1999 as the assistant sales manager after serving as director of the Pennsylvania Apple Marketing Program for six years. She earned a bachelor's degree from Dickinson College and an MBA from Mount Saint Mary’s College in Maryland. In addition to running the sales program with John Rice, she has become a recognized leader of the Eastern apple industry in her own right. She was recently asked to rejoin the board of the U.S. Apple Association, after previously serving as chair of USApple’s state executive committee and as chair of the USApple export council.

David Rice joined the company in 1973 after graduating from Princeton and serving in the U.S. Peace Corps. His primary responsibilities have been in production, in addition to his executive role. He was elected president in 1991 with the passing of his father, Arthur E. Rice. He will remain active in the business although he is planning to take some additional time away for travel.

John Rice became head of sales in 1975. He served twice as chairman of the U.S. Apple Association and the Pennsylvania Apple Marketing Board. 

Rice Fruit Co. is located in Gardners, PA, and was founded in 1913. 

For retailers looking to boost organic sales focus should be placed on berries and packaged salads.

In an educational seminar prior to the opening of the New England Produce Council show entitled Excellence in Organic Merchandising, Matt Seeley, chief executive officer of the Organic Produce Network, emphasized that berries and packaged salads were driving organic produce sales. Packaged salads were the top selling organic produce item in the past year, while berries were second largest, with an increase of 22 percent in dollar sales versus a year ago. Overall, said Seeley, organic sales have seen an 8 percent increase in dollars and 10 percent increase in volume.NEPC-organic-eventMatt Seeley, CEO of the Organic Produce Network; Kevin Barry, director of produce and floral at Big Y Foods Inc.; Denise Dryzga, category manager of fresh fruits and organics at Hannaford Supermarkets; and Anthony Sattler, president of the New England Produce Council. Photo by Gordon M. Hochberg

“Organic fresh produce is a gateway to other organic food sales,” said Seeley. “Vitamins, supplements, nutraceuticals — all incorporate organics. In health and beauty, it is not enough to have cucumber lotion, it is going to have to be organic cucumber lotion.”

When it comes to organic purchasers, millennials and households with incomes over $100,000 per year are the primary buyers. College graduates, Hispanics and Asians also skew higher, said Seeley.

The seminar included a retail point of view, as Kevin Barry, director of produce and floral at Big Y Foods Inc. and Denise Dryzga, category manager of fresh fruits and organics at Hannaford Supermarkets joined Seeley to discuss the opportunities and challenges within the organic segment.

One of the main issues facing retailers is whether to segregate or integrate organics within the store. Barry and Dryzga said they incorporate strategies for both concepts.

“We didn’t have enough data to say one was better than the other, so we came up with a new system,” said Barry. “In front we have bins with just organic items, anything on sale or anything we are trying to push. Then we have a set within a set.”

He said to picture a 28-foot-long island, the four feet in the center would be organic and around it would be conventional. “The customer still sees conventional and organic,” he said. “It seems to work for us.”

Dryzga said some of Hannaford’s bigger organic categories — such as berries, potatoes, bananas or salad dressings — are integrated within sets. “Then we have some of our satellite areas where we lead into organic with some smaller categories,” she said. “We think this gives us a better line-up for our customer to find both conventional and organics and it helps us trade up some of customers.”

The two retailers also discussed the importance of correctly identifying organic products — for the consumers’ benefit, as well as their own. One of the biggest issues is getting organic produce rung up at the front end properly, they both said.

“We are trying different things to solve for that,” said Dryzga. “We are banding, we are asking our vendors to make bigger, bolder stickers that will capture the attention of our cashiers. We want to do this so organics get the credit and our customers get what they want.”

In addition to larger stickers, Barry wondered what could be done to get the cost of organics down.

“The closer we can get [the price] to conventional, the better the whole category will be,” he said.

Pure Palm Produce, a Bakersfield, CA-based grower that specializes in California-grown Medjool dates, is now shipping fresh crop from the Coachella Valley.16oz-Pure-Palm-Medjool-Dates Top

“The 2017 Medjool Date Harvest is under way in California’s Coachella Valley,” said Ben Antongiovanni, president of Pure Palm Produce. “This year’s harvest was about 10 days later than last year, but in line with the traditional start date, which is usually the last week in August or first week of September. Harvest came just in time as we finished up shipments of last year’s crop and had a seamless transition to new crop medjool dates with no hold over.”

Medjool Dates are harvested in the fall and stored and shipped 365 days a year.

“It is our job to keep our retail partner supplied year round and get them into new crop as soon as possible,” said Antongiovanni. “That means precise forecasting for the summer months to ensure no customer is shorted and that we have shipped out all previous year crop as new crop is starting to be packed. Our commitment to our partners is to keep them supplied with the finest quality Medjool dates and together grow sales.”

In addition to high-quality Medjool dates, Pure Palm offers a full line of value-added California pitted dates, chopped dates, Golden Zahidi dates, coconut date rolls and almond date rolls.