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STEP-UPP class hits the road in Florida

step5466TAMPA, FL — The Southeast Produce Council's 2018 STEP-UPP class gathered the second week in April to see fruit and vegetable fields as well as the facilities of some major well-known produce companies in the state of Florida. The trip was part of the program's ongoing learning experience for class members to develop a greater understanding of the fresh produce industry.

Al Finch, president of Florida Classic Growers, welcomed the STEP-UPP group.

The 12 members of the 2018 class on the Florida tour were Rose Aluotto of Blue Apron, Donny Arnold of Lowes Foods, Anna Brown of Food Lion, Lee Butram of Associated Wholesale Grocers, Lauren Horning of FreshPoint Grocers, Jessica Kopp of Southeastern Grocers, John Osmack of Schnucks Markets, Jason Riggs of Harps Foods, Patrick Ruffner of Rouses Supermarkets, Jamie Thompson of Food City, Matthew Mills of Freshfields Farm and Steven Valenzuela of United Supermarkets.

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 Mike Roberts, director of produce operations at Harps Foods Stores, who serves as vice chairperson. Westfall also serves as chairman of the Southeast Produce Council's board of directors.

The 2018 class -- the eighth class in this very popular program -- was announced at the council's Southern Innovations Organics & Foodservice Expo on Hilton Head Island, SC, back in September 2017. So when class members gathered Tuesday evening, April 10, at the Resort & Club at Little Harbor in Ruskin, FL, it was their first chance to connect with one another as they prepared for a full schedule of events during the next few days.

The first stop on Wednesday, April 11, was Florida Classic Growers in Dundee, FL, which is the exclusive marketer for Dundee Citrus Growers Association. Al Finch, president of Florida Classic Growers, and Steven B. Callaham, executive vice president and chief executive officer of Dundee CGA, led the STEP-UPP group on a tour of the companies' facilities.

The group saw blueberries and peaches growing in the fields, and then saw those items and citrus being packed and run on the packinglines. Florida Classic Growers will ship about 2 million pounds of blueberries this season, which will account for about 10 percent of all Florida blueberry production, according to the two executives. "We're looking to continue to expand this program with more growers coming into our [Florida Classic Growers] family," said Finch.

After lunch hosted by the two companies, the STEP-UPP group headed to Tampa for the next stop: C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc.

Jaime Cimino and T.J. Rahll welcomed the group to the Tampa office of the Southeast region for C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc., which is headquartered in Eden Prairie, MN.

The two men led the group on a tour of the office, and then the class members watched a video about the company. The group learned a lot about the company, including the fact that C.H. Robinson provides eight core services: sourcing, truckload, LTL consolidation, intermodal, air, ocean, Customs and managed services.

The group also learned that C.H. Robinson's core commodities are dry vegetables, greens, tropical, melons, apples, asparagus, berries, citrus, corn, grapes, organics and tomatoes. An informative question-and-answer discussion about the company followed, and the day's activities concluded with a dinner hosted by C.H. Robinson.

On Thursday morning, April 12, the first stop was Wish Farms in Alturas, FL.

Teddy Koukoulis, the company's director of blueberry operations, led the STEP-UPP class through tunnels where blueberries were growing in pots. He noted that the tunnels can be misted to give some protection to the tender berries in very cold weather.

The class also met Amber Maloney, the company's director of marketing; Andy Gutierrez, the company's vice president of operations; and Gary Wishnatzki, the third-generation family owner. Wishnatzki talked about blueberries and told the STEP-UPP class a bit about the history of the company, which goes back to the old Washington Market in Lower Manhattan.

After lunch courtesy of Wish Farms, the class got back on the bus to the next destination: the DiMare facility in Apollo Beach, FL.

Tony DiMare, executive vice president of DiMare Inc., shared some history of the family-owned company with the class, and then led them on a tour of cherry and grape tomatoes in a nearby field.

He noted that warm weather in February had brought tomatoes on earlier than normal, and while he was seeing a bumper crop with excellent quality, prices on tomatoes and a number of vegetables from Florida were lower than growers needed.

He also touched on the North American Free Trade Agreement, immigration reform and the ongoing labor situation.

In the evening, the class saw round tomatoes going through the packingline, and DiMare noted that all the tomatoes that the class was seeing on the packingline were harvested earlier in the day. The evening ended with dinner, hosted by DiMare.

On Friday, the final day of the tour, the class headed to DiMare Fresh Tampa, where Chuck Bruno, vice president of that division, talked about what it takes to get the best possible product. "We pack to each customer's specifications," he stated.

After touring DiMare Fresh Tampa, the class heard a presentation by the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services by Tom Perny, trade development supervisor for the department's Division of Marketing & Development, and Heather G. Miller, development representative at the same division.

Perny noted that Florida Legislature created the Florida Agricultural Promotional Campaign back in 1990 to increase consumer awareness and expand the market for Florida agricultural products.

He also noted that Florida agriculture accounted for over $8.4 billion in cash value for 2015.

He showed a slide listing the Sunshine State's leading fruits and vegetable: oranges, tomatoes, strawberries, Bell peppers, sweet corn, grapefruit, peanuts, potatoes, watermelons and blueberries. Another slide listed the state's top five ports: Tampa, Miami, Everglades, Canaveral and Jacksonville.

This presentation concluded the trip, but class members already had very positive comments on their first outing, which they shared a few days later via email.

Aluotto of Blue Apron wrote, "For our first set of farm tours, I can say the tours have expanded my personal industry knowledge and network at an accelerated pace, and I feel a measure of pride to be involved in such a unique experience. Each farmer/owner we met were honest and motivational about how to move the industry forward. I left feeling empowered to influence change at my job and in my industry."

Riggs of Harps wrote, "One of the things that stood out to me was Wish Farms growing organic blueberries in pots under tunnels. I found it very innovative to grow commercially in pots and was pleasantly surprised that they are having great success because of the process. I really enjoy the STEP-UPP experience so far. There have been some great relationships being built amongst our group. [I] really enjoy Faye and all that has come of the program thus far -- can't wait until the next trip."

Osmack of Schnucks wrote, "This is a great opportunity provided by the SEPC to gain a deeper understanding of the produce industry. It was a great trip learning about Florida produce and a great chance to make some new friends and build some work relationships."

Mills of Freshfields wrote, "The Wish organic blueberry farm trip was interesting and very informative. I wasn't aware that growing blueberries in pots was even possible. It was great to see a grower think outside the box to deal with a particular problem." He added, "The C.H. Robinson meeting was a great learning experience for me. My knowledge of the transportation side of produce is very limited. They did a great job breaking the process down and helping me understand what the industry will be up against in the coming years."

Horning of FreshPoint wrote, "My favorite part of the STEP-UPP trip was chatting with the Florida Classic Growers team and learning about the steps they're taking to combat citrus greening disease. The blend of science, technology and agriculture is vital for the future of citrus in Florida. My final takeaway is the strength of the connections we've made through the STEP-UPP program, as well as the intelligence and ambition in our STEP-UPP group. When we go to dinner, ride on a bus or hang out at the end of the day, our conversations revolved around produce, new ideas and issues we see. After our field trips, we continue to talk constantly. The other STEP-UPP members are not only good colleagues, but they're now good friends, and I'm so honored to be connected with them."

The next event for this STEP-UPP class will be a tour to Virginia and North Carolina in mid-June.