“We are just about finished with our GlobalGAP certification, which is a big deal,” said Matt Biscotti, who handles strawberry sales at Sweet Darling Sales Inc. in Aptos, CA, near Watsonville, CA.
A company’s level of food-safety compliance is becoming not only of greater interest to customers but more transparent with safety and traceability initiatives that are in place.
During the off-season between the 2012 and 2013 crops, Sweet Darling has been involved in performing various upgrades to its strawberry cooler, which is located in nearby Castroville.
“We’re not really expanding,” Mr. Biscotti explained. “We just have some facilities that were in need of work. Part of the GlobalGAP certification has brought some attention to some things we wanted to do, and now is a good time to do those things and help the certification along as well,” making GlobalGAP certification easier to achieve.
On the production side, acreage and anticipated volume for Sweet Darling are just about the same as they have been for the last couple of years, Mr. Biscotti said. However, “we moved a little bit of our acreage around. This year we are probably more contiguous in acreage than we have been in the past.” All of the company’s strawberry ranches currently are “right off the coastal bluff” in the area of Aptos and Watsonville, “so we have a lot of continuity to the ground that we are farming,” he said.
The ranches are all within a 10-minute drive of the company headquarters and sales office in Aptos.
The primary strawberry variety being grown by Sweet Darling, as was also the case last year, is Albion.
The company also has a strawberry-breeding program. “We are really busy at that,” but nothing is ready to roll out, Mr. Biscotti said. “We do have some [experimental] varieties in the ground that we are continuing to test,” but they are not yet ready for commercial production.
All of Sweet Darling’s berries are grown by John Larse, who is also the company owner and president. Mr. Larse is “a great grower,” Mr. Biscotti said. “He has been at it a long time. It is a science to him, and I think arguably he does it as well as anybody out there.”
All growers have “a passion for what they do or they wouldn’t be in it. That is just innate within farming,” he continued. But with Mr. Larse, “his name on our label means an awful lot to him. Customer satisfaction is paramount.”
That same passion carries over into the breeding program. Mr. Larse is never satisfied, Mr. Biscotti said. “He is always looking for something that will set us apart and be different and create great customer satisfaction.”
The breeding “is not a new program for us,” but something the company has been engaged in “for several years now,” he said. Mr. Larse is “always trialing different things. During the past year, he put in some new facilities “to help enable him to continue doing the breeding.”
Sweet Darling is a medium-sized company, which has many advantages, according to Mr. Biscotti. “We are not too big, we are not too small. We really have the ability to pick and pack according to customer needs. We have the ability to turn trucks in a real quick manner” and get them in and out so that they are “not waiting all day.” Those are “things that are important to our customers.”
There may at times be a little waiting, however, and for good reason. “We don’t warehouse product,” he said. Still, “we are right at that perfect size where we are able to take care of people, and what is important is getting them in and out.”
Sweet Darling has “a great customer base,” Mr. Biscotti said. “We talk to everybody between the covers of the Blue Book, and there are long-term customers that John had prior to my coming on board” three years ago. Some are people he has done business with for the past 20 or 25 years.
“We are fortunate to have that kind of support from them,” Mr. Biscotti said. That support comes “from the confidence that they have and what Sweet Darling has done in the field” in terms of quality control.