Jan 17, 2012Lipman grows into largest U.S. operation
Max Lipman cultivated his first tomato fields in south Florida more than 80 years ago. He had no idea that his small operation would one day become the nation’s largest tomato farm.
After more than eight decades, Lipman Produce, based in Immokalee, Fla., has taken advantage of innovative technologies, lowered inputs and expanded acreage to include new crops, and opened growing and processing facilities in new states.
Part of that growth has been fueled by a program that offers industry representatives a glimpse of how their product is cultivated. Known as Access to the Acre, the program has gained widespread popularity within the industry as an effort to provide food production transparency.
“People want to know their farmers, so we took one of our farms in Florida and turned it into Lipman Vegetable Garden,” said Kent Shoemaker, Lipman CEO. “It’s not open to the public, but it allows us to give (production) information to our customers. We feel giving information at the farm level is a positive thing.”
Lipman’s Vegetable Garden is located in Estero, outside Ft. Myers. Spanning 5,000 acres, much of the produce cultivated at the farm is a cross-cut of Florida production, from citrus and potatoes to peppers and tomatoes. But the Estero facility also serves as a fully functioning farm, and much of the company’s seed development is researched at the facility. It gives industry representatives an intimate portrait of agricultural production, from variety development to processing and transportation.
“Lipman makes its farms accessible to customers whenever they request it, and coupled with the research and development programs, which also operate out of Estero, they can give our customers an up-to-date look at produce, from seed to delivery,” Shoemaker said.
Florida is the winter tomato leader in the United States, producing two thirds of the supply between November and April. Ruskin, south of Tampa, is the heart of Florida’s tomato country, and winter production extends far down the Gulf Coast, a region that encompasses Estero.
But Lipman has always been at home in Immokalee, in the Florida Everglades, an area heavily devoted to citrus and potatoes. It is in this area that Lipman devotes thousands of acres to tomatoes, though its staple crop has had to share increasing room with new crops including watermelons, potatoes, citrus and specialty peppers.
Immokalee and Estero are only two locations in Lipman’s network of farms and processing facilities, which stretch coast to coast to take advantage of unique climates and production calendars to provide a year-round supply of produce. Florida is home to several farms and processing facilities, but there are also farms in South Carolina, Virginia and California, as well as processing facilities in New Jersey, Tennessee, California and Oregon, with a regional office in Nogales, Ariz. Although Lipman grows much of what it processes, there is a small percentage it repacks from certified neighbors at its Tennessee, California and Oregon facilities.
“We try to be seasonally and geographically diverse, so we can provide produce to our customers 52 weeks out of the year,” Shoemaker said.
All the crops are cultivated on open land, and though the company has explored greenhouses as a production method in recent years, those greenhouses have been relegated to variety research and seedling development at the Estero farm. But greenhouses still play a vital role for Lipman, stretching beyond simple seed germination. It is in the greenhouses where Lipman personnel research new varieties for all the company’s farms. Greenhouses also play a pivotal role in Lipman Vegetable Garden.
The research at the greenhouses serves two purposes. One is to find new hybrid varieties tailored to the climate of each growing region. The second, and more important, point of the research is to create new varieties that can dramatically reduce inputs, including irrigation and fertilizer, while breeding resistance to pests.
One new tomato variety being researched is Tiamo, boasting a high flavor content that is expected to be ready for cultivation in 2012.
“We have two Ph.D.s on staff, and they are constantly working to breed better seeds to increase yields and decrease inputs, and we breed certain varieties for specific areas, depending on (growing) conditions,” Shoemaker said. “We are constantly working to improve our produce through traditional breeding projects. We don’t do any genetic modifications.”
Lipman was one of the first farms in the industry to take advantage of drip irrigation, and the technology has allowed the company to save thousands of gallons of water annually. The systems have also proven advantageous when water, fertilizer and pesticides are applied directly through the drip tape, placing all of it exactly where it is needed, Shoemaker said.
Computer technology has given the farm additional abilities to track all inputs, including water, fertilizer and pesticide, to account for where each is going.
“We are using a fraction (of the water), and we can push our inputs through the tape, so we drastically reduce the amount of fertilizer and pesticides going into the crop because we’re supplying it directly to the plant,” Shoemaker said.
All of Lipman’s processing facilities package the farm’s product, as well as produce from neighboring farms. The produce can be customized in single- and multi-layer boxes at the customer’s request. The New Jersey facility has operations that greatly differ from the other processing centers, offering value-added products to meet growing consumer demands for more convenient options.
Lipman has been processing value-added produce for 15 years, but that remains one of the smaller segments of the company. The operations consist primarily of slicing tomatoes for foodservice customers upon request. The company doesn’t supply retailers, but that may be coming in the future.
“We slice and dice a few onions, but most of our value-added is tomatoes, for now,” Shoemaker said. “Value-added is what consumers are demanding. People want consistency, and it’s all customer-driven.”
All managers and personnel are trained and certified in food safety and security standards, along with good agricultural practices and good manufacturing practices. The facilities are audited annually by NSF Agriculture, a third-party auditor that displays results online, according to Lipman.
“The biggest things we do are vertically integrated, which allows us to monitor food safety from field to the packing house,” Shoemaker said. “I don’t know anyone who isn’t passionate about food safety, we just go above and beyond to provide safe food for our customers.”