As consumer interest in health, packaging labels and sustainability increases, it seems like nearly every produce company has made changes to stay on trend. With endless options to choose from, it can be difficult to distinguish the leaders from the followers.
But at Grocery Headquarters, we have done just that. Each year, we recognize the growers, packers and distributors of fresh produce that have demonstrated hard work, vision and commitment—those who are blazing the way for the produce industry.
Winners of Grocery Headquarters’ 2017 Produce Trailblazer Awards have succeeded from the farms to the shelves, through research and development, planting and harvesting practices, to packaging, shipping and marketing.
This year’s awards were distributed across five categories: Dips and Dressings; Fresh Fruits; Fresh Vegetables; Organic; and Value-added. Grocery Headquarters proudly presents the 2017 Produce Trailblazer Award winners:
DIPS AND DRESSINGS
Litehouse’s history goes back 60 years, when the Hawkins family started selling their homemade blue cheese dressing out of the family’s restaurant in Hope, Idaho. Since then, it has grown into a company of more than 900 employees.
In 2014, Litehouse owners gave back to each of those employees by selling 100 percent of its stock through an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, allowing every employee to be an owner. “At Litehouse, we have a code of strong principles that guide everything we do,” says Stacey Miller, director of business development. “Grounded in leadership, service and perseverance, these principles have been an important part of our business from day one, and they remain integral to who we are today.”
The Sandpoint, Idaho-based company offers high-quality products, like the award-winning Opadipity by Litehouse Greek yogurt-based dips and Simply Artisan Reserve Simple Seasons—the first refrigerated, shakable soft cheese line, available in Feta and Blue Cheese, say company officials. Last year, Litehouse introduced new flavors to its core dressing line, including Sriracha Lime, Mango Habanero and Avocado Ranch with Bacon.
With solar, recycling, pest management and irrigation operations, Limoneira Co. is an industry leader in sustainability and food safety. Founded in 1893, the Santa Paula, Calif.-based company has been growing citrus for 124 years.
Limoneira markets and sells its products, including lemons, oranges, grapefruits and pummelos, through its One World of Citrus model, delivering fruit from the U.S., Chile, Argentina, Mexico and South Africa. “We are excited by the opportunity to service increasing global demand with our high quality citrus supported by our vertically integrated supply chain model and our commitment to sustainability and food safety,” says John Chamberlain, director of marketing.
Limoneira has received certifications from Global Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) for its safe growing, harvesting and packing operations. And with Limoneira’s branded Citrus Misfits, the company aims to reduce food waste. “Limoneira Citrus Misfits are a playful reference to this particular type of produce having a little scarring from wind in the orchards,” says Chamberlain. “This perfectly good citrus would otherwise be discarded because of minor appearance considerations.”
Stemilt has been growing, packing and marketing fresh apples, pears, cherries and stone fruits since the early 1900s. The Wenatchee, Wash.-based company has adopted several proprietary varieties, including Piñata, a trio of heirloom apples that offer classic apple flavors with a tropical twist, as well as its Honeycrisp successor, SweeTango. The company will soon deliver its new Rave apples to the market as well.
Stemilt’s Lil Snappers kid-sized fruit packages apple varieties in the smaller size profile for children’s tiny hands and mouths, and in a convenient grab-and-go 3-pound pouch bag. The company has brands for cherries and pears, including A Half Mile Closer to the Moon cherries and Rushing Rivers pears, to market where the fruits originated.
“When it comes to Stemilt, the future is bright,” says Brianna Shales, communications manager. “Whether it is through new varieties or branded packaging, the company is constantly seeking innovative ways to inspire consumers to enjoy its fruits, and more of them.”
With a 120-year history, Sunkist Growers is one of the most widely recognized names in the citrus category, known for its family-owned farms, traditional growing practices and sustainability. The Sunkist cooperative includes thousands of citrus growers who farm citrus orchards that stretch across California and Arizona.
Sunkist Growers produces more than 40 varieties of citrus, including specialties and organics. Sunkist citrus is held to the highest standards in its farm-to-table journey, say company officials. Each piece of citrus is inspected for quality and consistency, ensuring that it complies with strict regulations for food safety, packaging and labeling.
Many Sunkist growers have adopted sustainable farming practices and environmentally friendly approaches, including the use of solar power and water-saving irrigation systems. “Sunkist Growers believe in the benefits that sustainable practices offer and are committed to protecting and preserving the land they farm,” says Joan Wickham, communications director of the Valencia, Calif.-based company. “Many of our growers have farmed their land for generations and intend to pass that land onto their children—making innovation in sustainability deeply personal for their families.”
Sun Pacific is the owner of the original mandarin brand, Cuties. The seedless, easy-to-peel product was first introduced in the late 1990s, when the Pasadena, Calif.-based company planted the first large-scale California-grown mandarin production in North America, according to company officials.
In 2014, Sun Pacific launched Mighties, tree-ripened kiwi that arrive in-store and ready to eat. Today, the company is the largest grower of kiwi in North America, with plans to triple production by 2025.
“Consumers want produce that provides superior quality and flavor—and they are willing to pay a premium price for it,” says Victoria Nuevo-Celest, vice president of marketing. “Sun Pacific products are carefully grown and cared for on our family farms in California and many of our brands are verified by the Non-GMO Project, an attribute that is increasingly important to consumers in their produce selections.”
Pear Bureau Northwest, owner of USA Pears, recently celebrated 85 years of collaboration with Washington and Oregon pear growers. The association today represents more than 1,000 growers and 50 handlers of fresh pears in the region, and its pear crops have averaged 20 million boxes over the last five years, according to association officials.
Portland, Ore.-based USA Pears provides 10 varieties of pears grown in Washington and Oregon, with each variety available from October to January. With increased consumer interest in protein, fiber and whole grains in their diets, the association heavily markets the benefits of fresh pears, including their high fiber, vitamins and minerals, low calories and a vast array of flavors.
“Our growers continually research, through our marketing order and state universities, the ways to maximize sustainability and pear quality,” says Kathy Stephenson, marketing communications director. “A large portion of our orchards includes trees that are more than 100 years old, managed and sustained by fourth and fifth generation orchardists. Our pear varieties are heirloom with proven sustainability.”
Well•Pict Berries has supplied premium, proprietary variety strawberries and raspberries since its founding in 1969. Based in Watsonville, Calif., the company provides both organic and conventional product lines year-round.
Well•Pict has pioneered research for eco-friendly practices that it has been using for decades. The company also uses minimal pesticides and spraying by introducing good bugs into
the fields to eat bad bugs, and it even uses a pest vacuum to suck up undesirable pests. Well•Pict growers never use GMOs, and they apply a cover crop
method to make a natural, environmentally-friendly nitrogen fertilizer.
“Thanks to years of refining growing techniques, not to mention some good old-fashioned ingenuity and hard work, Well•Pict Berries has been able to supply a superior product in a way that protects the environment,” says Dan Crowley, vice president of sales and marketing.
In addition, Well•Pict’s plastic clamshell packaging is 100-percent recyclable, made up of 70-percent recycled drinking bottles, and 50 percent of the power used in the manufacturing process comes directly from solar energy.
The Little Potato Co.’s story began 20 years ago on a little potato plot just outside of Edmonton, Alb., Canada. Jacob van der Schaaf and his daughter Angela Santiago grew their first creamer potatoes by hand—planting, weeding and harvesting the 1-acre farm themselves.
Now, The Little Potato Co. is the North American leader in breeding, growing and marketing of proprietary creamer potatoes, according to company officials, with five distribution centers throughout the U.S. and Canada and a new U.S. production facility near Madison, Wis.
“Creamer potatoes are a specialty type of premium little potato variety with thin skin, that are rich in flavor and highly nutritious,” says Santiago, CEO and co-founder. “While they are loved by chefs for their gourmet plate appeal, they are also family-friendly because they are so simple to prepare.”
The Little Potato Co. offers six varieties of creamer potatoes. Available in 1.5- and 3-pound bags, as well as microwave and oven grill value-added kits, the product comes pre-washed and requires no peeling. Creamer potatoes are nutrient-dense with potassium and fiber, packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and are naturally fat-, cholesterol- and gluten-free.
Mann Packing Co. is one of the largest suppliers of Broccolini and sugar snap peas in North America. With a variety of products like Nourish Bowls, Culinary Cuts, veggie trays and organics, the Salinas, Calif.-based company heavily invests in the ways its products go to market.
“The continuing success of Mann’s portfolio reflects the company’s commitment to creating innovative new products that give cost-effective, fresh and delicious choices to consumers,” says Gina Nucci, director of corporate marketing. “Mann’s is always interested in guiding consumers to healthy choices and alternatives through its mission of ‘Fresh Vegetables Made Easy.’”
H.W. Mann started the business in 1939 with his fresh carrot packing operation and quickly made his way in the fresh vegetable industry. In 1976, Bill Ramsey and Don Nucci joined as partners, and their families continue to lead the company, which now spans three generations.
Though the company was founded by one Mann, it is a majority women-owned and operated business today. Mann’s holds the Women’s Owned Business Certification from the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council—generally considered the most widely recognized certification in the U.S. for women’s business enterprises.
What began in 1990 as Desert Glory, with only cherry tomatoes, NatureSweet Tomatoes has vastly grown its operations and offerings. The company, based in San Antonio, now operates nearly 1,400 acres of greenhouses, including two facilities in Arizona.
NatureSweet Tomatoes’ offerings include Cherubs, Sunbursts, Glorys (cherry tomatoes), Jubilees, Eclipses and Constellations. The brand’s products are the only tomatoes grown to a specification 365 days a year, according to company officials—ensuring the same flavor, color, size and firmness year-round.
The company’s new “Tomatoes Raised Right” campaign provides consumers with a look into its growing practices from start to finish. NatureSweet growers control every step of the growing process, starting with the seeds that are nurtured throughout the greenhouse-grown process, to the associates who handpick the tomatoes off the vine at their peak of freshness.
“Most of life’s sweetest moments come from a lot of hard work,” says Lori Castillo, marketing director. “Raising something right doesn’t happen in a day, so the campaign shares what it means to be 100-percent vertically integrated, controlling everything from seed to shelf.”
Ready Pac Foods’ products and innovations have set many standards in the produce industry. About 40 years ago, the company’s founder was faced with a challenge: to provide all of its foodservice customers’ restaurants with pre-cut salads in just three days. With a cutting board, a few sharp knives and a bathtub, Ready Pac Foods began providing pre-cut salads to other foodservice customers and eventually expanded its business to retailers.
Today, pre-cut salads are a produce staple, and that is not the only example Ready Pac Foods has set. “In 1990, we were
the first to introduce European lettuce blends to the U.S. market and also developed the ‘pillow pack’ to keep them as fresh as possible,” says Tristan Simpson, CMO. “In 2001, we invented the Triple Wash System for all of our greens, which is now the industry standard.”
The Irwindale, Calif.-based company has also expanded its organic offerings with its Organic Chopped Salad Kits, which launched in June 2016, its elevĀte salad line, featuring organic, superfood varieties and its branded organic salad blend clamshells.
With a mission to grow and promote true greenhouse vegetables, Red Sun Farms offers varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and eggplants. By growing indoors in full climate-controlled environments within protective barriers, the company produces fruits and vegetables from seeds that are genetically intact.
Red Sun Farms’ offerings include tomatoes that are high in nutritional value with an array of natural nutrients. Its bell peppers line is available in red, orange and yellow, and is picked and processed with the stem still attached, allowing the pepper to continue to absorb moisture and ripen for several days.
As a vertically-integrated company, the Kingsville, Ont., Canada-based Red Sun Farms maintains control over every aspect of the supply chain from seed selection, propagation and cultivation, to harvesting, packaging and shipping to partners across North America. The company operates seven distribution centers and three state-of-the-art growing facilities in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
“We pride ourselves on our unparalleled group of like-minded owners, growers and service professionals who have a true passion for growing innovative and flavorful greenhouse vegetables,” says Carlos Visconti, COO.
The Shuman family began growing and shipping Vidalia onions in the 1980s. Shuman Produce’s feature product, the RealSweet Vidalia onion, is prized as the superior domestic sweet onion, according to company officials.
“By growing up and living in the Vidalia onion region of Georgia, agriculture has always been a part of my life and family roots,” says John Shuman, president of the Reidsville, Ga.-based company.
Shuman Produce has expanded its growing regions to Peru, Mexico, Texas, Nevada and New Mexico in order to offer a year-round sweet onion program. The company is also diversifying with the addition of two products: sweet potatoes, grown in North Carolina and Mississippi; and Georgia-grown broccoli, which will be harvested in April. “We are exited about this diversification and look forward to the opportunities these new products will bring to grow our business,” says Shuman.
When it comes to sweet onions, consumers often think of the Vidalia onion. The product has become a consumer staple, leading total category sales at 35 percent, according to officials at the Vidalia Onion Committee.
Because Vidalia onions are such a well-known brand, the start of the season has become a springtime event for the produce department. The Vidalia Onion Committee plans to launch a range of marketing promotions throughout the year, focusing on the timeframe when Vidalia onions are in season. The organization is currently preparing for its April 12 launch of this year’s crop, as well as a new campaign celebrating the origin of the Vidalia onion.
“We’re looking at creative ways to reach consumers through social media and digital marketing to show the Vidalia onion is the sweet onion category leader,” says Susan Waters, executive director of the Vidalia, Ga.-based company. “Vidalia onions provide retailers an advantage in that they are incredibly versatile and add flavor to a wide variety of chef-inspired dishes from salads to side items, dressings, dips and even desserts.”
Braga Fresh is a third-generation farming family with more than 25 varieties of fresh vegetables including cauliflower, broccoli, celery, collards, kale, beets, cilantro and more.
In 2016, the company introduced two organic chopped salad kits, with organic dressings and toppings included, to its Josie’s Organics line. The product’s six varieties—Baby Arugula, Baby Kale, Baby Spinach, Spring Mix, Half & Half and Power Greens—are available in 5-ounce clamshells, while the Baby Spinach and Spring Mix varieties are also available in 16-ounce clamshells.
“Being a grower-owned company with a large organic land base and state-of-the-art processing facility, Braga Fresh is able to continually develop innovative items to meet the increasing consumer demand for organics,” says Alisa Teglia, director of marketing and brand strategy for the Soledad, Calif.-based company. “Braga Fresh is continually developing additional new organic and conventional products and product line extensions.”
Despite the major trend toward organics, scan data has shown that many retail organizations fail to capture these sales. Not CMI Orchards. The Wenatchee, Wash.-based company’s Daisy Girl Organics label is one of the strongest in the industry, with its Daisy Girl 2-pound organic Gala selling as the No. 1 branded organic apple package in the U.S.
CMI’s owners and growers have made huge investments in new orchards to produce products that customers and consumers demand. Over the last few years, CMI has converted its orchards to Certified Organic, and has removed many orchards with older products to replant with the optimal genetics of the most popular apple strains, including Gala, Honeycrisp and Fuji.
“CMI’s president, Bob Mast, spent more than 20 years as a produce merchandiser with a national supermarket chain. I spent 13 years at Nielsen focused on retail performance,” says Steve Lutz, vice president of marketing. “We have several people on our sales staff that came directly from the retail procurement side. So we like to think as an organization, we appreciate the demands of the retail environment and work extra hard to make success in the apple category easier for our customers.”
Jim Dole founded Dole Food Co. with the pledge of “quality, quality, quality.” In 1933, the Dole brand was introduced, and it is now one of the most recognized brands in the world. The company continues to fulfill its pledge for quality through its research, food safety and sustainability practices.
The Westlake Village, Calif.-based company’s first Corporate Sustainability and Responsibility program began in 1924, and today includes water management, carbon footprint, soil conservation and packaging. In addition, Dole began its organic program 20 years ago, and is now the largest grower and distributor of fresh organic pineapples. Dole also launched its Organic Salad line in 2016, featuring six organic salad mixes, including three new varieties and two new organic salad kits.
“Industry stats prove that organic is no longer just a trend—it’s a lifestyle,” says William Goldfield, director of corporate communications. “The organic consumer is looking for authenticity in their food choices. Dole shares information on how and why we believe in organic farming.”
Grimmway Farms has been family-owned and operated since its founding in 1968. Known for its carrot production and innovation, the Bakersfield, Calif.-based company has become an industry leader in organic and sustainable farming.
The Cal-Organic division at Grimmway offers more than 65 different organic fruit and vegetable items year-round. “We control and manage 100 percent of the organic acreage we farm, giving us a strong, diversified land base to support the shifting consumer demand,” says Jennifer Hayslett, brand manager, Grimmway Farms and Cal-Organic
Farms. “We are continuously looking for new ways to advance the technology of organic agriculture to provide our consumers with the finest quality organic produce.”
Grimmway’s sustainability practices are ongoing and evolving, but currently include: integrated pest management; innovative irrigation methods to minimize water usage; a 4.25-megawatt fleet of solar panels to power production facilities; optimized energy efficiency; and its Green Waste Initiative. In 2014, Grimmway introduced TRUE Organic juice with the release of six fruit and vegetable flavors that utilized vegetables from the Cal-Organic operation that did not meet fresh market standards.
The roots of Wholesum Family Farms date back to the 1930s, when Miguel Crisantes Gazionis migrated from Greece to Mexico and began farming in the state of Sinaloa. Today, the Nogales, Ariz.-based company is led by the family’s third-generation, propelling Wholesum Harvest as a major brand for organic produce.
“Our mission is clear,” says Kristina Luna, national sales representative. “We seek to provide high-quality, healthy products for a family’s well-being. We are committed to the people who eat our products and to the ones who help us grow it.”
According to Luna, Wholesum Harvest was the first U.S. farm to be Fair Trade certified and aims to position itself with a full Fair Trade Certified product line. The brand’s offerings include tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, squash and bell peppers—all with year-round availabilty.
Founded by five celery growers in 1979, Apio is one of the largest shippers of fresh-cut vegetables in the U.S. and Canada. In 1996, the Guadalupe, Calif.-based company launched Eat Smart, a brand of fresh-cut vegetables created to satisfy consumers’ desire for healthy, convenient foods. The line first appeared in vegetable mixes for open display in grocery stores.
Today, the Eat Smart label features five lines: Gourmet Vegetable Salad Kits; Superfood Salad Blend; Vegetable Bags; Vegetable Trays; and Slaw Salad Kits. The label is free of chemicals, artificial flavors, preservatives and sweeteners, and features recognizable ingredients that are easy to pronounce, which company officials say consumers can feel good about putting into their bodies. Officials add that the Eat Smart brand will be 100-percent clean label by the end of 2018.
“Our company has long been focused on providing the best products possible to consumers by using our proprietary harvesting techniques as well as sophisticated packaging formats to preserve product freshness naturally,” says Anne Byerly, vice president of marketing. “At Eat Smart, our mission is to shorten the distance from farm to table and ensure you and your family can enjoy nutritious, great-tasting and easy-to-prepare products.”
Leo and Suzette Overgaag moved to California’s Coachella Valley to grow European cucumbers, but when they noticed that cut herbs from the grocery store often wilted within a day or two they decided to take action. In the mid-1990s, the couple delivered a full line of living herbs that last up to three times longer than their fresh-cut counterparts, according to company officials. They now have more than 10 acres of hydroponically grown greenhouse space, operating under two brands: North Shore Living Herbs and North Shore Organic Living.
“Our company believes that sustainable and earth-friendly practices truly matter,” says Suzette Overgaag, CFO and vice president of the Thermal, Calif.-based company. “We love working with and for nature, to provide the freshest ingredients to consumers.”
North Shore utilizes geothermal heat and solar energy, and is Sustainably Grown Certified. The company’s recent solar project was it’s largest yet—an installation of 200 solar panels that allow the company to produce the majority of energy required for its operations, saving up to 70 percent on energy usage.
With a mission to inspire healthy, natural choices, The Wonderful Co. is a leading provider of fresh fruit, juices and nuts. The company invests heavily in brand recognition and has become the second-largest produce-based company and one of the fastest growing, with double-digit sales increases, according to company officials.
A 2016 Nielsen Harris Poll EquiTrend study of 2,500 brands that examined shopping habits of Millennials, Generation X and Baby Boomers revealed that The Wonderful Co. brands were in the top 10 of each category. The Los Angeles-based company had the most top 10 brands of any company, dominating across all generations.
“As farmers, we believe that what you put into your body matters. The most nutritious and best-tasting foods are those that come from nature,” says Adam Cooper, vice president of marketing and insight. “And, because we control the land and oversee the entire process—from planting to picking, from tree to shelf—we provide consumers with consistent, fresh, and ‘wonderful’ fruits and nuts.”