Jun 24, 2017
Florida family farm innovates to stay competitive

Family involvement has helped McClure Farms and West Coast Tomato, one of Florida’s longest-running tomato growing and packing operations, remain competitive and survive tumultuous tomato markets for nearly a century, said owner and partner D.C. McClure.

The Palmetto, Florida-based operation markets to retail, foodservice, re-packers and other wholesale customers. The company, which has members in the fifth generation directing operations, grows and ships mature green tomatoes and roma tomatoes from central and south Florida from mid-October to mid-June.

In the mid-1920s, John McClure moved from Virginia to Florida to work as an Extension agent. He soon met and married Versenoia Thomas. His father-in-law, Lewis Peyton Thomas, a Manatee County native, grew tomatoes. John worked with him and later began growing his own tomatoes. After World War II, John’s youngest son, Dan Peyton McClure, graduated from the University of Florida and started farming with his father. In 1948, Dan married Corrine Anderson, who also worked on the tomato farm. The couple would construct a packinghouse.

In 1976, their youngest son, Daniel Carr (D.C.) McClure, joined the family farming operation as full-time manager and head of production after graduating from the university with an animal science degree. He also studied plant science and considered enrolling in veterinary school as well as attending law school. But halfway through college, McClure realized he didn’t want to sit at a desk for most of his life when he could be working outdoors on the farm. Ironically, as a farming administrator, he still spends many hours at a desk signing endless streams of paperwork.

Todd McClure, field policy manager and D.C. McClure’s nephew, works with farm production manager Tony Jennison and food safety director John Darling. Bob Spencer, West Coast Tomato’s vice president and sales manager and the elder Dan McClure’s son-in-law, joined in 1989. Dewayne Duryea is comptroller. The combination of Spencer’s legal and business knowledge, Duryea’s financial skills and D.C.’s field expertise brings different perspectives and ideas that help the company solve problems, Spencer said.

“Through all the ups and downs of this kind of industry, it is an accomplishment for any business to maintain itself as a viable place for young family members who may want to have a career in agriculture,” D.C. McClure said. “One of the reasons we are successful is that we are a family business, not a corporation.”

Another key is diversifying growing regions and commodities. In the late 1980s, McClure Farms began growing tomatoes in Immokalee, Florida, in the southwest part of the state, during the winter months between central Florida’s fall and spring production. For decades, the company grew mature green tomatoes. In 2000, it started Roma tomatoes, which account for about a third of production. Because Romas possess longer shelf life and are a little more user-friendly, McClure Farms consistently increases their production. Romas are 33 percent of McClure Farms’ production, up from 25 percent in the past.

McClure Farms grows about 3,000 acres in two Florida counties. In the past, it experimented with double-cropping cucumbers and watermelons behind the tomato plastic but didn’t warrant it profitable for production, McClure said. For a decade, it also grew tomatoes during summer in California and northern Florida and south Georgia during early fall and late spring, before and after central Florida harvests. The glut of summer tomatoes produced cheap markets that discouraged financial investment, however, McClure said.

One of the biggest threats to Florida tomato production remains Mexico, which has gained U.S. market share. During the winter, Mexican tomatoes account for about half of U.S. tomato movement. As Florida is the main domestic producer during that time, the state’s growers find it difficult to compete.

“We in Florida are fortunate that we are located closer to the Northeast, which has the big population centers,” McClure said. “Those reduced transportation costs help offset the cheaper growing costs of the Mexican product.

If that wasn’t the case, we couldn’t compete. I am also optimistic that our government will be wise enough to not allow a foreign country, because of its lower standard wages, to completely shut down our agricultural industry.”

D.C. McClure, left, and Gary Reeder, farm manager, in a field of mature green tomatoes.

Since 2011, a number of Florida tomato growing and packing operations have closed. McClure said he’s optimistic company closings have stabilized and that the existing players possess deep enough pockets to financially weather low markets.

McClure laments how numerous requirements bar individuals from beginning farming operations. Two decades ago, it was possible for someone who grew up in a family farming operation to be successful by starting a small farm. Because growers need to satisfy numerous government regulations, including food safety, it’s financially prohibitive for most to enter the industry unless they want to only sell to local farmers’ markets.

“Government regulations are burdening the entire agricultural industry,” McClure said. “There’s always something new and more from the government which is absolutely ridiculous. The rules often have nothing to do with anything productive whatsoever.”

In March, Gary Reeder, McClure Farms No. 4 farm manager, and McClure Farms/West Coast Tomato, were honored for their environmental stewardship by winning the 2017 4R Advocate Award from The Nature Conservancy and the Washington, D.C.-based The Fertilizer Institute. The award recognizes growers for their efforts with the four Rs: the right source, right rate, right time and right place in nutrient conservation practices.

The keys for becoming a successful tomato grower include being already established in the marketplace, growing quality products consumers want and producing those crops as economically, efficiently and inexpensively as possible, McClure said.

“You need to constantly look for ways to improve what you’re doing,” McClure said. “You can never sit on your laurels.”

— Doug Ohlemeier, VGN correspondent





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