Sep 15, 2017
Grower-packer partnership works for multigenerational farm

A vertical partnership between two family operations – a tomato packer and a grower – is yielding results and more options for customers.

Tomato packer Pete Pappas & Sons, a Jessup, Maryland-based tomato packer, in March 2016 announced a partnership with Newport, Tennessee’s Fish Farms, creating a new venture called Smoky Mountain Family Farms.

More than a year later, Smoky Mountain Family Farms is celebrating a new organic certification on a small part of its property.

“We’ve improved, and we’re growing,” said Christine Fish, the farm manager (pictured above with Paul Pappas). “We’ve really improved our efficiency and our quality.”

Pete Pappas & Sons warehouse in Jessup, Maryland.

The organic certification was earned in early July 2017. Only about 10 acres are affected – Pete Pappas & Sons Vice President of Operations Paul Pappas calls it “dipping their toes” into the organics. So far, they have planted different tomato varieties there: Roma, grape and cherry tomatoes. They hope to plant some watermelon there at the end of the season.

“It’s very different from conventional farming in that your manufacturing procedures are very different, and the products you can use are very different,” Fish said.

General Manager Christine Fish carries a box of tomatoes during a harvest.

She’s found it very beneficial to focus on preplant fertilizers, because the organic model limits fertilization that may occur after planting.

“Our focus is to provide the best quality available in East Tennessee,” said Paul Pappas, who heads up operations in both Maryland and Tennessee.

“Consistency of our quality is how we’re going to differentiate ourselves. We’re not trying to be the biggest grower, but we’re trying to be a premier grower.”

Pappas said between $200,000 and $300,000 has been invested in the farm and packing equipment. A sales manager works out of a Smoky Mountain office. Most of the non-organic tomatoes are packed green at the farm into 25-pound boxes.

Like most growers, it’s an ongoing struggle to find a large supply of temporary labor.

Pappas said the farm relies predominantly on H-2A temporary agricultural workers. Fish said it’s important to carefully plan and be prepared for the amount of workers that are needed during the season – and even planning the crops around when labor will be available.

the mountains can be seen behind a field at Smoky Mountain Family Farms near Newport, Tennessee.

The partnership is working smoothly, and seems to be a good blend of the two family businesses.

A year ago, “I was looking for a partner to help with marketing and management,” Fish said. “The stars aligned and it was just meant to be.”

Pappas & Sons had heard that Fish was looking for a business partner. They were interested.

“There’s no secrets in our industry,” Paul Pappas said. “Our company, just by our nature, we’re opportunists.”

 

The two operations are both multigenerational businesses. Pete Pappas & Sons was founded in 1942, but the family traces it back even farther, a century ago, when the namesake and grandfather of current CEO Pete Pappas sold produce from a pushcart and later a retail stand. Christine Fish’s father bought what’s now Smoky Mountain Family Farms in 1978, and worked the land with his brothers and father.

The two families have much in common in the present day was well.

“They’re hard-working, dedicated people, just like we are,” Paul Pappas said.

— Stephen Kloosterman, assistant editor





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