From the ground up

Grocery Headquarters recognizes the produce world’s industry-changers with its inaugural 2014 Produce Trailblazer Awards.

proThe produce department continues to blossom. For years growers and marketers have shown the grocery industry that produce does not have to be boring. Traditional shelves of greens and bins of apples are complemented by innovative snack packs, creative usage ideas and value-added products with flavor—lots and lots of flavor.

Experimenting with new concepts in a tried-and-true category can be risky business. It takes creativity, perseverance and know-how to launch a hit product, or two, or many. When it happens though, it can be a game-changer.

Retailers often express their appreciation for the effort and commitment produce companies put forth. For that reason, and many more, Grocery Headquarters introduces its inaugural Produce Trailblazer Awards.

Commended by GHQ’s Board of Retailers, these companies grew their businesses from the ground up—literally—and have continuously impressed their customers with their dedication to the success and development of their respective categories.

Grocery Headquarters would like to honor the following 2014 Produce Trailblazer Award recipients.

In 1979 five growers in the Santa Maria Valley came together to create a company with a common goal: To grow and sell the best celery on the market. Soon, the growers began to invent new pieces of equipment to better harvest and trim fresh celery, and the business grew. It was not long before the company had developed into a value-added fresh cut processor, shipping to customers near and far.

Today, Apio is still located in Guadalupe, Calif., where access to all the major growing regions on the West Coast is a short drive away, and one of the most fertile growing regions, the Santa Maria Valley, is right next door. Cali Tanguay, marketing director, says, now, providing two of the bestselling brands in value-added produce, Eat Smart and GreenLine, Apio continues to subscribe to its original direction: Grow the best possible vegetables, harvest them efficiently, ship them carefully in the most effective packaging possible and provide the customer with the best quality year-round product throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

Apio continues to re-define the fresh cut category with products that have been designed to deliver true value by combining highly nutritious, premium culinary recipes with convenience and ease, says Tanguay. “The Eat Smart branded line of chef-inspired, fresh vegetable products delivers an exceptional tasting experience that no other brand can offer. With the introduction of our best-selling Eat Smart Sweet Kale Salad and the popular Ginger Bok Choy Salad kits, Apio has set a new standard for what consumers can expect from products they can rely on for flavor, consistency and value,” she adds.

Bolthouse Farms
“A bunch of carrot farmers,” is how Bolthouse Farms’ officials describe themselves. “It is our heritage and we have been at it since 1915,” says Suzanne Ginestro, vice president of strategic marketing. “Given that, we’re committed to delivering amazing, high-quality products to the market with our expansive portfolio of fresh carrots, bottled juices and salad dressings.”

The Bolthouse mission extends far beyond what it puts on the shelf. Top officials view Bolthouse as more than just a food company, but as a true retail partner, committed to getting more fruits and vegetables into people’s lives. “We know it’s not easy, and our goal is to help people make the healthy choice the easy choice. We do this with breakthrough product innovation and by delivering solutions like Baby Carrot Shakedowns that take healthy snacking to a whole new level,” says Ginestro. “We do this through marketing campaigns, such as the Food Porn Index website, which illuminates the under-representation of fruits and vegetables online and hopes to propel healthier social posting.” Behind the doors of the company’s Bakersfield, Calif.-based office, Bolthouse Farms spearheads efforts with produce industry leaders to engage its counterparts in its mission; the ultimate goal is motivating more support and marketing of fruits and vegetables.

Ginestro says Bolthouse Farms is committed to inspiring and changing the way people think about fruits and vegetables. “We believe we have the ability—and the obligation—to make fruits and veggies more accessible, available and attractive to everyone. When veggies are celebrated and embraced as much as junk food, then we will know that we have made an impact and will consider our mission accomplished,” she adds.

California Sun Dry Foods
Founded in September 1991, California Sun Dry Foods supplies sun-dried tomato products to supermarkets nationwide. By recasting the image of sun-dried tomatoes from an elite specialty item to an everyday food staple, this company has grown the category from a “small idea to one of the leading profit and volume categories in the grocery and produce departments,” says Gary DeAtley, CEO for the Danville, Calif.-based company.

California Sun Dry perfected the sun drying and packing processes in a manner that enhances the inherent flavor of the tomato, DeAtley adds, and uses only the finest ingredients, proprietary processing, innovative packaging and unique merchandising to make the market for sun-dried tomatoes.

The company’s line of sun-dried tomato products includes the traditional tomatoes in oil and herbs, spread, garlic, pesto, salsa and pasta sauce. In addition, the company pioneered the “cello pack” concept, offering sun-dried tomatoes in an easy-to-use 3-ounce package. Company officials describe the production process: The finest tomatoes are dried in the California sun and then packed in a reclosable bag, resulting in a brilliantly red, intensely flavored product that is ready to eat without re-hydration. Recently the company expanded this segment with the introduction of Smoked, Spicy and Italian-style cello packs.

The company has successfully grown the brand and category by adhering to four basic marketing principles. They are, according to officials:

  • Offer only the highest quality products produced with consistent attention to raw materials, drying procedures and processing standards.
  • Generate trial through in-store promotions and various consumer-oriented media vehicles.
  • Avoid “trial rejection” by insuring the products meet or exceed consumers’ expectations.
  • Increase consumption with new and existing consumers by providing a consistent stream of new recipes and usage ideas.

“California Sun Dry’s in-store merchandising program has changed the product’s specialty food image and promoted ease-of-use and year-round versatility of sun-dried tomatoes,” says DeAtley.

Classic Salads
Classic Salads was formed in 2000 as a processor of gourmet packaged baby-leaf salads for restaurants and supermarkets. These salads consist primarily of Spring Mix, Baby Spinach, Arugula and Baby Kale. The grower of the raw product for these salads, Classic Baby Vegetable, has a 30-year history of farming organic and conventional vegetables and strawberries in the Salinas Valley.

Since Classic Salads is the grower, harvester and processor, the Watsonville, Calif.-based company has control over all quality aspects, from seed to finished salad, and employs proprietary techniques and equipment for washing, drying, packaging and cooling of the salads in order to achieve optimal quality and shelf life for its customers. “The objective is to create the finest quality baby-leaf salads in the industry,” says John Burge, vice president of sales and marketing. “We grow all products using either organic or sustainable conventional growing practices with a true commitment to the environment.”

An important factor in differentiating Classic Salads from its competitors, says Burge, is the fact that the company maintains two separate seasonal processing facilities (eight months in Northern California and four months in Arizona) to match the two areas where raw product must be grown during the winter and summer months. If the company had to truck their raw product from the winter-growing region in Arizona to the processing plant in California, it would add at least one extra day to the age of raw product before being washed and packaged, he adds. With this structure, Classic Salads is able to process its salads the same day as harvested in the area where the raw product is grown seasonally, resulting in better overall shelf life.

The fresh packaged salads are full of vitamins and nutrients, contain zero fat or cholesterol and are rich in Vitamins A and C; they are extremely low in calories, usually 20 to 35 per serving and many contain valuable anti-oxidant properties. “We recently introduced two new salad varieties containing baby kale, which has 800% of the RDA of Vitamin K and 200% of Vitamins A and C. Truly a superfood by any definition,” says Burge.

The baby-leaf salad varieties are washed and ready-to-eat: “They are the ultimate in convenience for active healthy lifestyles. With virtually zero preparation time, they can be taken and eaten anywhere,” he adds.

CMI is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. It would be hard to recognize the company it used to be and is now. Being “extremely progressive” in everything from sales to marketing to varietal research to facility improvements is what makes CMI stand out, says Bob Mast, president. The Wenatchee, Wash.-based grower supplies multiple retailers across North America and ships to 57 countries.

Company officials believe that to be successful in the long-term, they must do a significant amount of reinvesting each and every year. “We are constantly improving our selections with new varieties and updating existing varietal strains for improved color and eating experience,” says Mast. One way CMI enhances the eating experience is with exclusive branded apples from breading programs around the world. Ambrosia, KIKU and Kanzi are three of these brands that are seeing great success.  “It serves as a point of difference against the competition,” says Mast.

CMI also invests in developing its packaging, such as its pouch bags, and retail tools to help retailers drive incremental sales and raise awareness of its categories in order to educate consumers. The company is also proud of its “unprecedented sales support,” an approach Mast calls “set it and forget it.” Mast says CMI also strives to make it easy to do business with them. For example, once a customer sends over an order, it is completely taken care of. “We try to over deliver. We are very honest with our customers and try to maintain integrity. They have a tough job and many times we are educating them so that they can than share that information with other people in their organization, so we want to be as accurate as possible,” he adds.

Over the past couple years, CMI has updated several of its apple lines and opened a new facility. Next up is one of its cherry facilities, where it is installing a 32 optical sorting line. According to officials, it will really improve the consistency and focuses the cherry program on size, quality and grade.

CMI officials see themselves as doing more than just selling fruit, but feel a real responsibility towards helping retailers find new and improved ways to sell their fruits, as well as raise customer awareness and provide them with educational tools. “We want to take out the ‘me-too’ concept and give them displays that are unique and stand out,” says Mast. “Overall, we want our customers to know we are a one-stop shop and a go-to company when they are looking for a partner. When they send over an order CMI is going to meet or exceed their expectations consistently.”

Del Monte Fresh Produce N.A.
Del Monte Fresh Produce N.A. is a marketer and distributor of fresh and fresh cut fruit and vegetables. The company markets its products in North America under the Del Monte brand. “It is a symbol of product innovation, quality, freshness and reliability for more than 120 years,” says Dionysios Christou, vice president of marketing for the Coral Gables, Fla.-based company.

Christou adds that as an industry leader in innovation and quality, Del Monte Fresh Produce is focused on offering product solutions that address customer and consumer needs in a sustainable manner. “Del Monte Fresh also provides best-in-class category management support to drive continuous category growth for customers competing in all channels,” he says.

Over the years, the company has invested heavily in bringing innovative products to market, including its Del Monte Gold Extra Sweet Pineapple, a fresh pineapple that has “revolutionized the tropical fruit category,” according to company officials, and its proprietary MAG Melon. Del Monte is also known for its large variety of fresh cut fruits and vegetables that come in convenient packaging designed to address today’s busy consumer lifestyles.

“What also sets us apart is our vertical integration and meticulous handling practices which allow us to ensure that our products reach our customers at their peak of freshness, delivering the ultimate produce eating experience Del Monte is known for by consumers around the world,” says Christou.

Dole Food Co.
The Dole Food Co. goal is to help people understand the benefits of eating five-to-13 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. The Westlake Village, Calif.-based company’s worldwide team of growers, packers, processors, shippers and employees are singularly committed to improving America’s nutritional health through increased fruit and vegetable consumption, says Bil Goldfield, director of corporate communications. “They work towards reversing a number of negative health trends, among them poor diet and inadequate exercise as the leading cause of preventable death.”

Dole is a founding member of the National “5 A Day for Better Health” Program, a leading supporter of Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools and has developed a number of technology-based nutrition education programs for children and other audiences.

“We are also out to make eating fresh fruits and vegetables delicious, easy and fun. We do this through compelling new recipes and serving suggestions, innovative products, creative marketing campaigns and cooperative retailer programs that show that a produce-based diet and lifestyle can taste and feel good, too,” says Goldfield. “From our new products and promotional campaigns to our charitable partnerships, everything we do at Dole has the goal of increasing America’s nutritional health.”

At the request of retailers and consumers nationwide, Dole Fresh Fruit is launching an expanded Peel the Love Tour in 2014 following the success of the 2013 inaugural tour designed to reacquaint consumers with the fun and versatility of bananas and offer new ways to add fresh produce to summer meals. Organized by Dole Bananas and co-sponsored by Blue Diamond Almond Breeze Almondmilk, two separate Tour caravans will take the healthy-eating-can-be-fun message to consumers at local supermarkets, public events and venues in 26 cities in 20 states over 104 days. The colorfully wrapped Tour vehicles and “Banana Cabanas” will offer banana recipes, product samples, banana-themed coloring books and other giveaways.

On the Dole Fresh Vegetables side, Dole Salads continues to launch products that combine taste with superior nutrition, say company officials. For 2014, these include two Dole All Natural Chopped Salad Kits; Dole Power Up Greens, a new line of nutrient-dense tender greens, including baby kale, spinach, chard and other dark leafy greens; and the Dole All Natural Kale Caesar Salad Kit, the first new kit to combine kale and other super greens with Dole’s Caesar recipe.

Fresherized Foods
The story of Fresherized Foods began in 1989 with Don Bowden, a Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas restaurant owner. Bowden was trying to serve a great product to his customers, while dealing with the finicky nature of fresh avocado fruits, say officials at the company.

Fast forward to 2014 and Fresherized Foods is now serving avocado, guacamole and salsa products to retailers and restaurants across the nation and around the world. “What was true back then is still true today,” says Tracey Altman, vice president of marketing and product innovation. “We are creating the highest quality product in an innovative and forward thinking way.”

According to officials at the Saginaw, Texas-based company, Fresherized Foods helped lead the growth of the refrigerated guacamole dip category to new heights in the produce department with its Wholly Guacamole products, and today has expanded the produce dip category with its line of Wholly Salsa products and new bean dips. Last year, Wholly Guacamole dips moved to 8- and 16-ounce peel-and-serve trays, and the 2-ounce snack packs became 100-calorie mini cups, which are great on-the-go and perfect for both dipping and squeezing the perfect amount of guacamole, says Altman.

“We use consumer trends as much as we use IRI data. The trends are taking us to different categories within produce as well as around the store that we have never been,” says Altman. “Gone are the days when avocados were thought of as a high-fat fruit to avoid.

Today, we’re seeing consumers enjoy avocado and guacamole for breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus as a snack and a nutritious swap for mayo and ranch.” The company connects regularly with consumers through social media—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest—and learns about all the new and inventive ways consumers are using Wholly products.

Altman adds that the best part of Fresherized Foods’ story is that “it’s not over yet.” Under the MegaMex and Hormel umbrella, Fresherized Foods has new opportunities to grow and expand beyond officials previous expectations. “Through consumer insights and new product and packaging innovations, the best is yet to come,” she says.

Grimmway Farms
Grimmway Farms’ roots run deep. The company’s story began in 1968, when brothers Rod and Bob Grimm set up a roadside produce stand in Anaheim, California. About 10 years later, the brothers moved north to Kern County, where the family farm prospered under their dedication to quality and customer service.

Almost five decades later, the Grimm family remains deeply committed to providing healthy products for the marketplace, and the enduring legacy has been passed on to all members of the Grimmway Team, says Bob Borda, vice president of marketing. “Together, the Grimmway Farms’ family strives to be dedicated caretakers of the land and a dependable source for quality organic and conventional produce. The company’s commitment to these guiding principles has enabled our company to conduct business with the highest integrity while staying connected to our customers.”

Officials for Grimmway Farms, based in Bakersfield, Calif., attribute “a passion to grow and produce premium quality vegetables” as a driving force behind the success of the company. “Our conservative values have provided the foundation for us to stay true to our roots. Through this approach, we focus on our customers’ needs by providing them with consistent quality and service. Doing what we say we are going to do and treating people the way they want to be treated is the key to our success,” Borda adds.

To stay current on consumers’ needs is the company goal. This is done, according to officials, by continually studying the latest consumer patterns to create products within and ahead of the latest trends. They strive to strike a fine balance of knowing the consumer, while utilizing their retail partners’ information to enhance joint business plans that create real-time category solutions. “The preparation involved with planning and consistently delivering quality produce to feed the 20%-plus growth in the organic carrot category (organic baby carrots, organic whole carrots and organic value added carrots) is just one example of how successful collaboration with our retailers offers increased availability for highly trending items,” says Borda. “There is nothing like seeing quality plans come together with high levels of execution.”

Grimmway Farms’ family values run deep and wide throughout the organization. Their values encourage a prosperous working environment, which contributes to a strong retention of employees, say officials. “The combined years of industry knowledge and expertise allow Grimmway Farms to deliver quality products to our retail partners while meeting the demands of our health-conscious consumers,” Borda says.

Idaho Potato Commission
The “Grown in Idaho” seal is recognized around the world. The force behind the famous trademark is the Idaho Potato Commission (IPC). Established in 1937, the IPC, based in Eagle, Idaho, is the state agency responsible for promoting and protecting the “Grown in Idaho” seal, which assures consumers they are purchasing genuine Idaho potatoes.

The goal of the IPC from the very beginning, according to officials, was to contribute to the economic welfare of the state of Idaho, its potato growers and other potato-related businesses by doing the following:

  • Leading, through facilitation, the various Idaho potato organizations in achieving mutually beneficial goals, including conducting strategic analyses of markets and marketing opportunities; maximizing research and education funds in improving quality, yield and variety expansion; and working with state and federal government agencies and national industry organizations to better leverage support.
  • Promoting and advertising Idaho’s famous brand and certification marks with consumers, retailers/wholesalers and foodservice operators/distributors, and expanding both domestically and internationally all forms of Idaho potatoes.
  • Protecting Idaho potato registered trademarks and certification marks through approval and monitoring procedures, which ensure compliance and aggressively challenging any improper usage.

It is Idaho’s ideal growing conditions that differentiate Idaho potatoes from those grown in other states, says Seth Pemsler, vice president retail/international. “Idaho’s growing season of warm days and cool nights, ample mountain-fed irrigation and rich volcanic soil, give Idaho potatoes their unique texture, taste and dependable performance.”

Idaho Russet potatoes consistently average high solids, year after year, which combined with a low moisture content makes Idaho’s Russet potatoes superior to those produced in other states, says Pemsler. This results in fluffier baked potatoes, crispier and larger French fries and more consistent mashed potatoes, he adds.

Kingdom Fresh Farms
Kingdom Fresh Farms began in 2005 marketing greenhouse tomatoes grown in Torreon, Mexico. Over the past nine years, the Donna, Texas-based company grew from about 800,000 packages to just under four million packages, and had to move five times because it outgrew its warehouse space.

Kingdom Fresh Farms offerings also transitioned from packaged items to mostly vine-ripened rounds, Grape and Roma tomatoes, and more recently expanded to include mini-sweet bell peppers. “These are a big item that is growing in the grocery sector right now,” says Dan Edmeier, vice president of sales and marketing. “We have done experimental planting over the last two years and this will be our first year for commercial planting.”

The company’s tomato sales have boomed in the last three to four years, according to officials. It is because the growers finally perfected the seed for the rounds and Romas. “We have proprietary seeds for the micro climate where we grow, which is extremely hot so not every seed will do well there,” says Edmeier, adding that it took them nine years to perfect the seed. “We are very proud of the seed; it is an extremely hard tomato. One of the challenges in our business, particularly in foodservice, is cutting tomatoes on a slicing machine. Many tomatoes are too soft and get crushed.

“Our challenge has been to find and develop a seed that produces a hard, vine-ripened tomato,” he adds. “We finally perfected it to the point that business is beginning to blossom because of this tomato.” Additionally, the company recently purchased a ranch in Pueblo, Mexico, that will open the doors to year-round availability.
All of Kingdom Fresh’s product is grown in a greenhouse or shade house—a fact that Edmeier believes sets them apart. He says protected agriculture is on the rise and a lot of retailers only want product from a greenhouse or shade house. “Field product has become very problematic. So as far as that’s concerned, we are ahead of the curve.”

Litehouse Foods
More than 50 years ago Litehouse Foods founder, Edward Hawkins Sr., was a chef well-known for his homemade, blue cheese dressing. In 1963 he opened his own restaurant in Hope, Idaho, where customers loved the dressing so much that they would ask to take some home with them. So the Hawkins family got some jars, had labels made, bought ingredients at a local grocery store and produced a few cases to sell to grocers.

“The dressings were very well received,” says Jim Frank, president and CEO. “Through hard work, focus on quality and customer service, we’ve grown from those early days into a leader in the refrigerated salad dressing category. Litehouse has flourished by following our guiding principles of faith, stewardship, integrity, commitment to excellence and accountability.”

It has always been important to the Hawkins family to create good, steady, year-round jobs in the community. Therefore, instead of selling the Sandpoint, Idaho-based company to one of the many large food producers who made offers to buy the growing brand, the family chose to turn the company over to its employees through an Employee Stock Ownership Plan. “This makes every employee at Litehouse an owner, living the American dream of working hard for a company that they have a personal interest in the continuing success of,” says Frank. “Our employees have a deep commitment to delivering outstanding products, exceeding customer expectations and maintaining the family values that have made this company the success that it is.”

Officials say they capture consumers’ attention by offering dressings with fresh ingredients in the refrigerated section of the produce aisle. “As consumers seek out healthy delicious and nutritious foods to feed their families, they are shopping in greater numbers in the perimeter of the store, right in the produce section. Our dressings are refrigerated because they are made with fresh ingredients just like you would at home or in a restaurant,” says Frank.

All of Litehouse Foods’ fresh products are made from high-quality ingredients with no preservatives, or MSG and nothing artificial. From its OPA! Greek Yogurt Dressing, that is gluten-free and made with fewer calories and more protein, to its Instantly Fresh Herbs that are freeze-dried immediately after harvest in order to retain their natural flavor, aroma and nutritional benefits, the company is “continually innovating to bring our customers and consumers the best tasting and best-for-you products available. We are focused on continuing to be the category leader by introducing new flavors and products,” says Frank, “and the next few years will be our most exciting yet.”

Monterey Mushrooms
Monterey Mushrooms was established in 1971 as a family-owned and operated farm in Royal Oaks, Calif. Today, Monterey is vertically integrated with control over all aspects of mushroom production, from seed to consumer. With 10 mushroom growing farms strategically located throughout North America, Monterey’s mushrooms are literally “locally grown” nationwide, says Joe Caldwell, vice president. “This means that Monterey is uniquely positioned to deliver the best, most innovative mushroom products possible to consumers throughout the country.”

Monterey is the country’s largest and only national marketer of fresh mushrooms, say company officials, supplying unique, innovative and high-quality products for sale to supermarkets, foodservice and ingredient manufacturer operations, as well as for preparation of processed, canned and frozen mushroom products.

Monterey, headquartered in Watsonville, Calif., has production, sales and administrative offices internationally, and officials are proud of the company’s highly committed and engaged employees who work together in high performance teams to develop seeds, grow, harvest, package and distribute quality mushrooms every day.

Much of the company’s work and innovation exhibits its commitment to the environment. Its sustained commitment to food safety and continuous product innovation has been rewarded with strong brand loyalty and recognition from consumers for over three decades, plus the PMA Impact Award for packaging in 2007 and 2011.

“Our vision is to be the best integrated fresh mushroom company in North America by efficiently delivering superior value to our customers and consumers. Monterey has a dedicated group of men and women who are aligned and engaged with the company’s mission and who have the passion and competence to excel and accomplish great things,” says Caldwell. This is partially recognized by the ongoing commitment to families and children through the Carl Victor Fields Scholarship Program. This program has now provided more than $2 million over the past 20 years to help fulfill the dreams of more than a thousand young people throughout North America.

Monterey’s commitment to excellence expands beyond employees to its customers. It is exhibited through its expanded logistics fleet and improved packaging that is not only biodegradable and compostable but improves the company’s sustainability efforts and communication to consumers. “Consumer feedback is tremendous. Increased capacity for organically grown mushrooms will meet the growing demand for this sector. Improved nutrition in our vitamin D mushrooms now provides 100% Daily Value of vitamin D in just a 3-ounce serving of brown or white mushrooms, making normal meals much more nutritious for families,” says Caldwell.

National Watermelon Promotion Board
This year is a big one for the National Watermelon Promotion Board (NWPB), and the watermelon industry overall: 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the NWPB, the 50th anniversary of the National Watermelon Queen program and the 100th anniversary of the National Watermelon Association.

The NWPB was established under the USDA to do three things, says Gordon Hunt, director of marketing and communications: One, conduct research into all aspects of watermelon; two, run promotions; and three, share information about the product with customers.

The board has been successful in its endeavors. “We have heard it all the way from Walmart down to the mom-and-pop grocers that they really like the information they are receiving. Retailers are not looking for big promotions. They know customers want watermelon; they are just looking for additional information to share with consumers about why they should eat more of it,” says Hunt.

The board provides materials to retailers to remind shoppers about the health benefits of eating watermelon, and also recipes that use a number of different products, such as salmon, chicken and steak, to boost sales across the store. “Since watermelon is not a branded product, it makes an excellent cross-promotional item,” says Hunt.

Many of the board’s milestones have come from research into the health benefits of watermelon, such as discovering that watermelon contains lycopene. Studies discovered that there is more lycopene in a serving-size of watermelon than in an equivalent serving-size of tomatoes, says Hunt, which is something he says the tomato and ketchup industries have been promoting strongly.

One of the biggest milestones has been the recent research into the presence of citrulline in watermelon and its benefits for athletes. It was discovered “by accident,” says Hunt, when some members of the ultrarunning community stated their preference for watermelon over sports drinks, saying it helps them run farther and faster. The NWPB found in a study it conducted with the USDA that watermelon contains the amino acid citrulline, which the body converts into L-argenine and helps relax the blood vessels.

“Basically it is increasing the efficiency of your cardiovascular system and appears to be reversing the effects of hypertension,” says Hunt, adding that watermelon is quickly being picked up by the running community as a result of the research. “I expect to see watermelon continue to replace sports drinks as an all-natural hydration tool.”

New York Apple Association
Created in the late 1950s, the New York Apple Association (NYAA) sets a high quality standard for the apples grown in the state. Second in the country for apple production, New York provides unique growing conditions that produce apples that stand apart, says Jim Allen, president and CEO of the Fishers, N.Y.-based organization. “Most of New York’s apples are grown in the fertile glacier soils around the Great Lakes where the nights get very cold and there is adequate moisture; it is the right formula to produce very high quality apples.” Allen adds that eastern apples tend to have a higher acid ratio giving them “more of a bite.” The state grows a broad selection of varieties, including new ones like Snap Dragon and Ruby Frost, which are just being introduced to the marketplace.

One avenue that the NYAA markets its products is by getting involved in community events, such as sponsoring the NYC Marathon, and supporting organizations like the American Cancer Society and other cancer research programs. “We know that eating fresh fruits and vegetables supports a healthy diet and helps fight disease, so we tie them together. We use the NYC Marathon to spread the message about the healthy attributes of running or exercise along with eating apples,” says Allen.

Health is a prominent message of the association. Linda Quinn, R.D. and spokesperson for NYAA, makes public appearances around the state, as well as on TV and radio to promote the health attributes of the fruit. Recently she went on tour in support of cancer awareness, sharing health and nutrition information about apples and how consumers can incorporate them into their diets.

In addition to marketing New York apples, the association is very active in representing the state and its growers in both federal and state government affairs, such as immigration, food safety and the Farm Bill among others.

NYAA wants retailers to know that New York is a consistent supplier, delivering product 12 months of the year—and delivering it quickly. “Sitting within two-thirds of the population of the U.S., we can be to Boston, D.C., Atlanta, Chicago and everywhere in between very quickly. That really plays well,” says Allen.

Potandon Produce
As the overall consumption of fresh produce continues to grow, Potandon Produce is working hard to expand fresh potato usage with many new and innovative products. Over the past ten years, the Idaho Falls, Idaho-based company has introduced some of the most successful new potato varieties to the industry under the Klondike Brands and Green Giant labels, say company officials, ushering in what they consider a new standard in selection at store level. Potandon has brought excitement to the potato category with the addition of mini potatoes, microwave packages and new varieties, and retailers are getting behind the associated sales push, officials add.

Potandon is once again poised to dazzle the industry with its newest potato variety, Klondike Royale. This bright yellow-skinned potato with kiss-shaped purple markings and a creamy yellow flesh is certain to become a staple in homes across the country, says Dick Thomas, senior vice president of sales. “Potandon has been working for years to produce new varieties that offer high-quality potatoes that have great presentation and taste great. We will continue to come to the market with new potato types that will offer this increased selection to consumers.”

Potandon attributes strategic marketing as a key to its success. Forward thinking campaigns aimed at increased brand awareness and a strategic targeting of Millennials are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to building business, say officials. “We can see the opportunity to build sales by demonstrating to Millennials that potatoes are a healthy addition to their diet with multiple uses that fit well into their busy lifestyles,” says Jamey Higham, vice president of sales. “Often times these young adults are looking for a new way to make the traditional recipes their mothers passed along to them. We offer them ideas to do just that and that thinking opens the door to new meal creation and increased potato consumption.”

The 2013 New Twist campaign presented consumers with new recipes to spice up traditional baked potatoes and scalloped potatoes, and the feedback Potandon officials received validated that this “modernizing” was hitting the mark with consumers. Potandon has continued to build their relationship with the young adult shopper through a partnership with Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and a recently launched web-based campaign with Jenn Bare from the website

Potandon has also worked intimately with retailers and their produce departments to introduce new website functionality and training components developed especially for produce buyers and retail managers. With a heavy dose of best practices in handling, merchandising, promoting and storage, Potandon is bringing their wealth of knowledge to the store level to create an environment rich in all things potato and onion.

Rainier Fruit Co.
In the last 60 years, Rainier Fruit Co. has transitioned from a small grower into a prominent vertically integrated Northwest fruit business. The foundation for the Selah, Wash.-based grower’s success, according to Suzanne Wolter, director of marketing, is founder Bill Zirkle’s vision and philosophy that continues through the leadership of his son Mark, the company’s president.

Part of that vision is to remain focused on growing varieties in optimal locations, the quality of the product entering the marketplace and the overall product mix. “Attention to detail in the orchards is the very core of our business and permeates throughout all aspects of the organization,” says Wolter.

The only commitment that comes before product quality is the company’s investment in people. Labor is by far the industry’s biggest challenge due to grower’s dependence on manual labor, says Wolter. For example, at Rainier there is a high level of detail involved in hand thinning the tree crops. “We need multiple crews during peak months working double shifts to pack all our blueberries, cherries, pears and apples. Then, each order is individually inspected before shipping, requiring a large quality control staff familiar with each customer’s needs,” she adds.

Finding, training and retaining qualified individuals may be a continuous challenge for the company, but maintaining a family atmosphere during rapid growth has been an integral component to Rainier’s success. “Rainier has managed to build a supportive team environment. Visitors regularly comment on the pride, ownership and enthusiasm exuded by everyone with whom they come in contact,” Wolter adds.

Remaining relevant and profitable in a rapidly changing marketplace is another challenge for growers producing permanent crops, such as apples, pears, cherries and blueberries. Attention to trend lines is increasingly important to producing the right product mix, according to Rainier officials, and the apple category transformation is the perfect example of how progressiveness and a willingness to invest in the unknown launched Rainier to the forefront of its categories. “Our early investment in Honeycrisp, club varieties like Junami and Lady Alice and organic blueberries, as well as our rapid growth into organic production and instantaneous development of cherry acreage was all risky,” says Wolter.

“Had we not made these decisive investments, we’d find ourselves as spectators to an exciting period for our categories. Communicating this information to our retail and foodservice partners, and then putting programs into action that develop profitable growth continues to be a focus for our sales and marketing team and the foundation for our customer relationships.”

Taylor Farms Retail
In an effort to enhance consumers’ eating experience, Taylor Farms Retail invests in both product and packaging innovation while delivering on freshness and convenience. Its product packaging includes breathable film and rigid containers that include proprietary lazor — perf technology.

“The technology allows us to bring to market a variety of salad and vegetable varieties that previously were not able to be combined together, and deliver fresh wholesome salads to consumers after transportation,” says Vicky St. Geme, vice president of marketing for the Salinas, Calif.-based company. “Today we have made the advancements that bring varieties together.”

An example of this is the company’s chopped salad varieties: Taylor Farms Original Chopped Salads have created a new segment within complete salad kits, say company officials. They attribute the secret of their success to creative recipe blends with veggies, salads and fresh herbs. “Consumers share their positive experiences with the chopped salads with us on a daily basis, and our retail partners are enjoying a new profit stream,” says St. Geme.

The chopped salad recipes are now available in single-serve size; all the single-serve salads follow the same recipes as the bag chopped salad but with added protein, developed to deliver a full, satisfying meal.

USA Onions/Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Committee
USA Onions/Idaho-E. Oregon Onion Committee ships more than one billion pounds of yellow, red and white onions across the country each season. Representing approximately 300 growers and 36 marketers, the Parma, Idaho-based organization operates under the “only storage onion Marketing Order in the U.S.,” says Sherise Jones, marketing director, adding that it requires higher size and grade standards than USDA.

Under the Marketing Order, established in 1957, USA Onions exports product, conducts research and organizes promotions. “In everything we do, we try to engage with our retailers to help them move product in the category,” says Jones. “Education is key. We teach buyers and consumers the value of a Spanish growing onion and its cooking applications. Years ago the Spanish variety onion was considered a utility type of onion. I think that we have elevated that image. These are specialty crops that have particular values and characteristics.”

USA Onions is also certified in the American Heart Association’s Heart Check program, which requires at least 10% of the daily requirement for key vitamins and minerals, 10% of vitamin C in the case of USA Onions, she adds.

In addition to improving yields and combating disease, one of the most influential research topics conducted under USA Onions is in traceability. USA Onions’ shippers have implemented very cutting-edge traceability programs, including state-of-the-art equipment applications and monitoring and documentation, says Jones. “Retailers seek us out because of our growers’ food safety programs. There are a lot of really stringent requirements, particularly when it comes to changes and negotiating long-term relationships, so having that in place has really been key.

Jones attributes some of the technological advancements to a generational shift happening in the workforce. “We have a lot of third and fourth generation farmers. What is really cool is that a lot of the younger family members are going off to college to study agriculture and farming, and then bringing home with them new ideas, techniques and uses for technology. It is becoming a pretty cool industry to work in again,” says Jones. With the tagline “Healthy and Homegrown,” USA Onions is the local producer if you are in New York City or Atlanta.

Vidalia Onion Committee
The discovery of Vidalia onions was an accident, according to officials at the Vidalia Onion Committee (VOC); farmers stumbled upon the “onion that wasn’t hot” and began selling it at the town market during the Great Depression. The “sweet onions from Vidalia” soon became known throughout the state, leading the Piggly Wiggly grocery store to stock the newfound variety on its store shelves. By 1978 the onions had their own festival in Vidalia, Ga., and in 1989 the VOC was established to fund production research; marketing research and development; and marketing promotion programs for Vidalia onions.

Vidalia onions have not swayed in popularity since the early days: A recent research study found that sweet onions are the category leader, and when in season Vidalia onions represent 62% of sweet onion sales, say committee officials. The research also showed that the 2013 Vidalia onion volume growth outpaced both sweet and total onions and drove the growth of sweet onion dollars.

Vidalia has powerful brand recognition with consumers outside the stores as well. Over the past several years, the Vidalia, Ga.-based VOC has implemented some eye-catching Vidalia promotions, from the 2010 Shrek campaign that appeared in the Wall Street Journal and on ABC World News Tonight, to the 2011-12 Country Music promotions in partnership with Universal Music. “In our most recent 2013 Flavors of Summer campaign, we partnered with national brands to highlight the seasonality of Vidalia onions. These campaigns increased the visibility of Vidalia onions reaching millions of consumer impressions nationwide,” says Susan Waters, executive director.

This year, the VOC is implementing a long-term promotional campaign entitled “V is for Vidalia” that focuses on the benefits and versatility of Vidalia onions. A series of healthier recipes will be highlighted on the 2014 high-graphic Vidalia onion bags, the website and social media efforts as part of the campaign. The VOC has also been working with the Produce for Better Health Foundation and the “Half Your Plate” sponsorship.

“With the new U.S. Dietary Guidelines identifying ‘fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables’ as a key message, and with the public health community primed to support it, there is an opportunity to enhance and further extend the message,” says Waters. VOC has joined together with Red Sun Farms to sponsor a half your plate recipe highlighting its products: “The bell pepper and Vidalia onion Strata with fresh salsa will be our sponsored 2014 recipe,” she adds.

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