SEPC’s STEP-UPP class visits southern Florida

The Southeast Produce Council’s 2015 STEP-UPP class traveled to southern Florida April 7-10 to visit a variety of well-known produce facilities and farms as part of the program’s ongoing learning experience for class members to develop a greater understanding of the fresh produce industry.

The Southeast Training Education Program for Upcoming Produce Professionals is spearheaded by Faye Westfall, director of sales at DiMare Fresh Tampa, who serves as chairperson, and Tom Page, retired from Supervalu, who serves as vice chairperson.stepupp2113aTom Page (standing left) and Faye Westfall (standing right), coordinators of the Southeast Produce Council’s STEP-UPP program, with this year’s STEP-UPP class: (standing) Andrew Kemp of A&A Produce Co., Chris Kaszanits of BiLo/Winn Dixie, Codie Hair of United Supermarkets, (center) Eric Edwards of Harps, James Spears of Food City, Kevin Cazeaux of Rouses Supermarkets, (kneeling) Alison Rennie of Miitary Produce Group, Heather Hart of Freshfields Farm and Mayra Vazquez of Latin Specialties. More photos available here.

The nine members of the 2015 class on the tour were Alison Rennie of Military Produce Group, Andrew Kemp of A&A Produce Co., Chris Kaszanits of BiLo/Winn Dixie, Codie Hair of United Supermarkets, Eric Edwards of Harps, Heather Hart of Freshfields Farm, James Spears of Food City, Kevin Cazeaux of Rouses Supermarkets and Mayra Vazquez of Latin Specialties.

The 2015 class — the fifth class in the popular program — was announced at the SEPC’s fall conference back in September 2014. So when class members gathered Tuesday evening, April 7, at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Fort Lauderdale, FL, for an opening dinner, it was their first chance to reconnect with one another as they prepared for their visits.

The first stop early Wednesday morning was Brooks Tropicals in Homestead, FL. Mary Ostlund, marketing director at Brooks, welcomed everyone to the company, which was founded by Charlie Brooks in 1928. President Neal Palmer (Pal) Brooks and Chief Executive Officer Greg Smith head the company, which has grown to become a premier grower, packer and shipper of tropical fruit grown in Florida and around the Caribbean, according to the firm’s website.

The company handles a wide variety of items, but is probably best known for its avocados. Bill Brindle, the company’s vice president of sales, told the group that Brooks is growing more and more varieties to reach its ultimate goal of offering avocados all year long.

Ostlund led the group on a tour of the Brooks facility and some avocado groves, returning to the main office where the company hosted lunch. The company began getting into papayas in the early 2000s, and the lunch included some delicious papayas.

After lunch, the group traveled to The DiMare Co., also in Homestead, the home office for the farming end of this diversified company, with farms and facilities from coast to coast.

Tony DiMare, vice president of the company whose history goes back more than 80 years, led the group on a tour of the facility as well as into some tomato fields. He talked about the company as well as what it takes to produce the high-quality tomatoes that his company is known for throughout the produce industry.

He also touched a bit on some issues — including the labor issue — facing produce growers in Florida and many other areas of the country. “Everyone in agriculture is facing a shortage of labor,” he told the group. “And I don’t really see bringing in more labor in the future” as the solution. “We are losing a certain percentage of labor every year. Everybody is running into a shortfall. It affects everybody up and down the chain.”

That is especially true for an item like tomatoes, as the DiMare executive said that “right now we are 100 percent hand harvested.” He did note that his company is looking at some new ground varieties of tomatoes that could be harvested by machine, but that scenario is probably a long way off.

The day ended with a wonderful dinner at a local restaurant, hosted by The DiMare Co.

The group visited three companies Thursday, beginning with Duda Farm Fresh Foods in Belle Glade, FL. Jessie Garza, general manager at Duda, took the group into a field to see workers harvesting Romaine lettuce. The group also saw what is perhaps Duda’s signature item, celery. As Steve Lee, Duda’s farm operations manager put it, “Celery is what we’ve been growing the longest. It’s the largest volume item. It’s our jewel.”

The group also toured part of the company’s radish facility, donning lab coats, gloves and hairnets in keeping with food-safety procedures. It was no surprise that food-safety procedures and protocols were strictly observed at all companies visited by the STEP-UPP class.

After lunch at Duda, the group boarded the bus for the next stop: Hugh H. Branch Inc. in South Bay, FL. The firm was founded in 1957 by Hugh Branch Sr. Brett C. Bergmann, who has been with the company for 25 years, bought the company in 2006 from Branch, who will be 91 years old this June.

Bergmann took the group into a fresh cornfield where class members were able to pluck ears of corn right off the stalks. (I did, too, and they were absolutely delicious!) Bergmann also led the group on a tour of the facility.

The last stop of the day was J&J Family of Farms, headquartered in Loxahatchee, FL, just west of West Palm Beach. J&J was formed in 1983, but the company’s roots in the produce industry go back to 1923, according to the firm’s website.

Brian Rayfield, vice president of business development, led the group into some fields, where they saw a variety of commodities, including yellow squash, spaghetti squash, green peppers and yellow peppers.

While showing the group around the company’s facility, Rayfield noted that the company is in the process of rebranding; the older “J&J Produce” label is being used for the foodservice sector, while the newer “J&J Family of Farms” label is being used for the retail sector.

“We changed the box to support our retail initiative,” said Rayfield. “The growth in our company is going to come from retail.”

Rayfield hosted dinner at a local restaurant for the group after the tour.

On Friday, the final day of the tour, the class heard a presentation on strategic marketing initiatives by Tom Perny, a marketing specialist with the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services’ Division of Marketing & Development.

Perny told the class that the division’s mission is to drive awareness and sales of Florida’s commodities by developing and expanding marketing opportunities for fresh Florida products, and that its objective is to promote sales of Florida commodities across retail, trade and consumer channels.

In terms of 2013 production values, he said that among all the states, Florida ranks first in oranges, grapefruits, fresh tomatoes, watermelon, snap beans, cucumbers and squash (yellow and zucchini).

Florida has been getting more into fresh blueberry production in recent years, said Perny, and the warm-weather state is also getting more into fresh peaches, especially varieties that require fewer chill hours than those in cooler areas of the Southeast.

Perny’s presentation marked the end of the STEP-UPP group’s tour of southern Florida, but the class will be back on the road very soon. The group’s itinerary will take it to South Carolina in June, and will conclude at the SEPC fall conference, which has been renamed the Southern Innovations Symposium and will take place Sept. 17-19 in Charleston, SC.

Meijer Curbside service offers online ordering, drive-thru convenience

Meijer has launched a new way to shop called Meijer Curbside. This new shopping service allows customers to shop for their items online and enjoy the convenience of picking up their groceries curbside without leaving the car.meijcurb

Currently being piloted at a single store, the Meijer Curbside program enlists specially trained team members to hand select every item in a customer’s order and shop according to special instructions and personal preferences. The Grand Rapids, MI-based retailer is considering future rollout possibilities in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky later this year.

“The way customers shop for food is changing, and Meijer Curbside is one more way we are striving to find solutions to everyday challenges and bring more convenience to our customers,” Michael Ross, vice president of customer marketing and emerging technology, said in a press release. “Meijer Curbside allows us to help our customers save time by remotely shopping for items throughout our store and choosing their own personal pick-up time.”

After placing orders online at, customers choose their preferred pick-up time, between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. daily. For Meijer Curbside orders of one to 12 items, orders can be picked up in as little as one hour. For orders of 13 or more items, customers can schedule pick up in about three hours. Customers can also place an order up to three days in advance. For a limited time during the pilot program, Meijer is offering the service at no charge. Following this initial phase the service will cost $5 per order.

The Meijer Curbside team shops all orders prior to scheduled pick-up times and keeps all grocery items at the optimal temperature, using dedicated freezers, refrigerators and warmers to keep everything on shopping lists fresh and safe until customers arrive. More than 23,000 of the most commonly shopping grocery items and preferred general merchandise are currently available for Meijer Curbside orders, as well as prepared meals and sides, specialty cakes, and pre-order party trays.

When customers arrive for pick up at the designated drive-thru area, the Meijer Curbside team loads orders in their car and uses a mobile device to take payment by credit card. Meijer mPerks digital coupons are accepted for all orders. Customers can sign up for mPerks at Currently, paper coupons are not accepted on Meijer Curbside orders.

Versatility key for Idaho fingerlings

With a tender interior and small to medium in size, Idaho fingerlings are popular as a side dish due to their versatility — they can be cooked or roasted whole, stuffed, shaved and chipped, and even braised in oil for a earthy confit.ipc

Idaho produces three main fingerling varieties:

  • French fingerlings offer a smooth, dark rosy skin; waxy, yellow flesh interior; and a delicate, nutty flavor.
  • Russian Banana fingerlings are smaller than French fingerlings and present a buff yellow skin; light-yellow interior; waxy flesh; and a rich, buttery flavor.
  • Purple Peruvian fingerlings make a dramatic impression with purple skin and dry, bright purple interior. They have a mild potato flavor.

Idaho fingerlings are available beginning with fall harvest through spring. Their texture makes them an ideal complement to tender seasonal vegetables.

Idaho Potato Commission preparations tips include:

  • To expedite roasting times, steam or microwave the fingerlings first.
  • Boil fingerlings in a solution of water and apple cider vinegar maintain color and flavor.
  • Toss them in a 50-50 combination of olive oil and butter to produce a roasted potato color and flavor.
  • Herbs and spices take fingerling flavor profiles to the next level. Experiment with sage, rosemary, savory, dill and fennel.

For more information about Idaho fingerlings, visit To research menu concepts using all the Idaho potato varieties, visit the IPC recipe database at While on the site, check out the helpful size guide and Idaho potato preparation tips, and find answers and solutions to operational and culinary FAQs.

Washington apricot crop slated for mid-June

The Washington fresh apricot crop should hit the market by about the middle of June and be fairly close to the 642,000 24-pound cartons that were produced last year, according to James Michael, vice president of marketing for North America for the Washington State Fruit Commission.

James said that represents about 30 percent of the total crop from the West, with California leading the way with about 70 percent, or 1.5 million cartons.  He noted there are also some small production areas in several East Coast states. The Produce News, quoting from a now-out-of-date website previously maintained by the defunct California Apricot Advisory Board and the California Fresh Apricot Council, published an article earlier this week online that California represents about 95 percent of U.S. production. That article will also appear in the April 20 issue of the publication. At most, California represents 70 percent of the crop, and it may likely be a bit less than that when all the shipped fruit from every regions is calculated at the end of the season.

James said the Washington crop is progressing well with very good spring weather conditions expected to produce a high-quality product. He said the trees appear to have a little lighter set but he anticipated fresh market production would be very close to last year. Washington apricots should be in the marketplace for about a month until mid-July.

Record numbers of exhibitors, attendees pack 90th annual CPMA show in Montreal

MONTREAL — With almost 300 exhibitors occupying 500 exhibit spaces at the Palais de congrès de Montréal, here, the Canadian Produce Marketing Association’s 90th annual convention and trade show, under way April 15-17, is the largest CPMA trade show yet.

“This is the largest show we’ve had in our 90 year history both in terms of attendees and exhibitors,” said CPMA Director Guy Millete of Courchesne Larose Ltée. “It’s a tribute to a lot of hard work by a lot of people behind the scenes to make it happen.”CPMA-3Chef Michael Smith, the new Canadian Half Your Plate ambassador, with the program’s mascot, Freggie.

Representatives from seven countries have booths on the trade show floor, with 65 first-time exhibitors taking part and 48 new CPMA members exhibiting for the first time. More than 50 companies are participating in the New Product Showcase.

The theme of this year’s CPMA is “Educate, Create, Innovate” and there is ample evidence of that on the trade show floor.

“In this day and age we are regularly faced with challenges in the various aspects of our businesses," said outgoing CPMA Board Chair Bernadette Hamel of Metro Richelieu. "To overcome these challenges we rely on education, creativity and innovation to consistently find new and effective ways to move our products from field to fork.”

Legendary chef Michael Smith, host of “Chef Michaels Kitchen,” “Chef Abroad” and “Chef at Home” on Food Network Canada, represent one of those new approaches.CPMA-2Lemoneira showed off its new striped lemons with an acrobatic team that walked the floor doing stunts and juggling fruit. Smith made his debut April 16 as CPMA’s brand ambassador for the Half Your Plate campaign.

“We need to get families back in the kitchen preparing fresh and healthy meals and Chef Michael is the perfect ambassador to inspire change,” said CPMA President Ron Lemaire. “He truly embodies the philosophy of the Half Your Plate campaign.”

 “I’m a big fan of Half Your Plate and proud to be joining the team," said Smith. "We all know how important it is to eat lots of fruits and vegetables every single day but not all of us know how. That’s where I come in.”

Produce is the main focus here, of course, but hockey is a close second. The National Hockey League playoffs began this week, with the Montreal Canadiens and a handful of other Canadian teams among those vying for the vaunted Stanley Cup, and have infused another layer of excitement into the proceedings.

From the opening President’s VIP reception April 15 to the trade show floor to the rollicking after party April 16 at the Montreal Westin, hockey has been front and center, with games displayed on big screen TVs and in one case even projected on an entire wall.

Hockey mania inspired CPMA members to pick up sticks and gloves of their own and gather for the first annual “Half Your Plate” Hockey Classic April 15 at Concordia University in Montréal.

The CPMA host association — Quebec Produce Marketing Association this year — fielded one team, while CPMA members from across Canada comprised the other in a quintessentially Canadian event.