Labor And Food Safety Issues Overcome By Technology

Posted by on May 14, 2014 in blog

The McClure family has farming in its blood. Going back to the early 1900s, this family operation was a pioneer tomato grower in Florida’s Manatee County.

Known today as West Coast Tomato/McClure Farms, the operation is number 18 in the Southeast on American Vegetable Grower’s list of Top 100 growers. The farm produces about 3,700 acres of fresh market tomatoes. Tomato production begins in mid October and finishes in July. All of the tomatoes are packed at the farm’s facility in Palmetto and then distributed across the U.S. and Canada.

To meet the demands of today’s marketplace, the farm opted to grow another tomato type, which involved making some changes at its packing 
facility. The tomatoes are sold under the brand names Manatee River and Primo Italiano.

While the farm has grown its Manatee River round tomatoes for 30 years, Primo Italiano, a Roma, was added just four years ago because there was demand in the market for the tomato type, explains D.C. McClure, the farm’s vice president and one of the newest members of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association board of directors.

Pack ‘Em Up

To accommodate the new tomato type, no production changes were necessary, says McClure. The need for postharvest handling machinery, however, did change. About five years ago, the farm began using some prototypes of state-of-the-art sorting equipment that was engineered in Europe.

Once all the tomatoes are harvested, they go through the packing facility and get sized and sorted, explains McClure’s brother-in-law Bob Spencer, who heads up the packing operation. The state-of-the-art, computer-driven machinery from MAF Industries is equipped with a camera that helps size and color sort tomatoes. “The unit’s camera takes a photo and provides an accurate size and color sort,” he says. “Color size and sorting used to be done by hand.”

According to McClure, the new equipment has improved the farm’s percentage of packout fruit. “It provides better color sorting than what the human eye can see,” he says. “Someday it may help us with defect grading.”

Food Safety Issues

In addition to adding new equipment in the packinghouse, the farm has added a full-time employee in charge of all food safety issues. Hired a few years ago, Fritz Stauffacher is the farm’s safety compliance and human resources officer.

In the area of food safety, McClure, stresses the importance of maintaining and updating records. “The paper trail is a critical part of this,” he explains. “We need to have the documentation stating that we are in fact meeting the criteria of all the food safety rules and regulations. We are audited by a third party and we have to meet a long checklist of requirements to prove that we are running a sanitary operation.

“All of our migrant labor harvesters are properly trained and we must document that they were properly trained,” he continues. “It is all about documentation.”

West Coast Tomato also had a history of raising cattle, but after the E. coli outbreak in fresh spinach that occurred last fall in California, the family opted to sell its herd. “We felt it would be best to get rid of the cattle because it was a risk for a potential liability,” says McClure.

Involving The Family

West Coast Tomato/McClure Farms was founded in the early 1900s, but not by a McClure. The grandfather of D.C. McClure, the present owner, went to work for his father-in-law and later took over the operation.

“Somewhere along the line, my grandfather went out on his own,” says McClure. “The farming operation originally was near the gulf where it would stay warm through the winter. There used to be lots of truck crop farming in the area. That has changed in scope to primarily tomatoes.”

Following in his father’s footsteps, D.C.’s father, Dan McClure, kept the business going for many years. Dan was a past president and director of the Florida Tomato Exchange and chairman of the Florida Tomato Committee. He also was a long-time board member of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association and a member of the state and national Farm Bureau. Dan passed away last September after a battle with cancer.

Today, D.C. is in charge of the farm’s field production. “Whatever my title is, I make sure the production of the tomatoes happens,” he says with a laugh. With D.C. in charge of production, his brother-in-law Bob Spencer heads up the packing operation. Spencer, married to McClure’s sister Mary Anne, joined the business in the late 1980s. Spencer is a director with the Florida Tomato Committee and with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange.

D.C.’s mother Connie is still somewhat involved in the farming operation, and the farm’s board of directors is made up of family members.

The risk of the tomatoes becoming contaminated, however, is substantially reduced because, in Florida, the tomatoes are grown on stakes and are held up off the ground, he explains. In addition, McClure says the soil is covered with plastic, so the tomatoes never really touch the ground. 

So what are they going to do with the land that was used by the cattle? “We will probably grow sod or hay crops,” he says. “Should the opportunity ever arise that we can have cattle not be close to tomato fields, then we may bring cattle back.” 

The Labor Situation

In addition to staying on top of food safety issues, labor also has been an ongoing dilemma. About a year ago, when the construction industry nationwide was booming, vegetable growers were in a tough competition for workers. “Now,” says McClure, “with construction being off, we are in a supply market rather than demand on labor.

“That could change if construction gets back into the groove again,” he continues. “The more pressure the government puts on the people trying to get into the country, the tighter our labor market gets.”

According to Spencer, the farm must remain concerned about the availability of legal labor. “We have to be concerned about the potential fines and criminal penalties,” he says. “It seems we are always walking through a mine field.”

West Coast Tomato employs close to a thousand workers during harvest. In the packinghouse, Spencer says there are about 150 permanent workers with a total of about 350 to 400 workers that are year-round employees.

Future Visions

Down the line, Spencer says he would like to see a stable labor base. On top of that, he’d like to see more efficient and lower-cost farming, and increased consumption of fruits and vegetables nationwide. “I think it is important that we have domestic production of vegetables,” he says. “I think it’s good for the economy as well as the health and safety of our country.”

The farm also will continue to stay on top of the latest technology. In the field, GPS and laser technology are used. “Twenty years ago we didn’t have access to the technology that is available today,” says Spencer. “Technology has improved the efficiency of our farms, including water use, fertilizers, and pesticides. There is a reason we have created such a high yield in our farming operations. It is directly related to technology.”

Technology may have increased the efficiency of the farm, but McClure says the costs involved in farming will continue to increase. “I feel that we have a very good company with a lot of good managers,” he says. “We have a strong team and if anyone can stay in the game in the face of rising costs, we will.”

What he doesn’t want to see happen, though, is subsidies become a crutch for the industry. “It sounds like a good thing on the front end, but once the government steps in and starts providing subsidies, it ruins things for many industries,” he explains. “Subsidy payments will take the swings of the free market out of the industry. The potential is there to cripple the tomato industry as subsidies have done in other areas.”

What the industry needs now, say Spencer and McClure, are growers working together for the good of all. “We are all going to have to get together with our lobbying efforts to get some common sense and workable solutions to all these problems in the areas of labor and food safety that are being legislated for us by more urban-thinking people,” concludes McClure.