Apr 7, 2020
Five Crowns Marketing expands year-round marketing

Crops production spanning the calendar year is a great marketing capability – that’s why California’s Five Crowns Marketing has evolved into a shipping-packing operation that sources produce from several countries in both the American continents.

The owners – brothers Joe and Bill Colace (pictured above) – with their sons are an Italian family that has been growing in southeastern California’s Imperial Valley for three generations. They’re very attached to their neighbors and the land – a low, desert valley with sand and clay soils, irrigated by the Colorado River. They farm 3,500 acres, producing sweet corn and cantaloupe melons and growing forage for crop rotation.

But while tilling its home valley, and from its headquarters in Brawley, California, the operation has been open to working with growers at home and abroad. The company in January announced plans to expand – doubling its asparagus business, sourcing berries from a larger area and adding new wet vegetables like cabbage, cilantro and Brussel sprouts to sell alongside their asparagus.

Five Crowns sells asparagus from Mexico and Peru; blueberries from British Columbia; and melons and sweet corn from its neighbors in the valley.

Generations of growth

The family tradition of growing crops goes back to Europe. Joseph Colace Sr. grew grapes and olives in Naples, Italy, before immigrating to America with his wife and three sons. The family in 1952 moved from Philadelphia to El Centro, California; the three brothers started a packing and shipping company there, called Colace Brothers, that dealt mainly in iceberg lettuce and cantaloupe melons.

Colace Brothers closed in 1985, but the next generation remained in the picture. Two brothers, Joseph III and Bill, started Five Crowns marketing soon afterward, and in 1987, they again got directly involved in agriculture, starting a division called Crown Farming.

The area can face sustained winds exceeding 40 mph in the spring. And although summer temperatures range from 20-120˚ F, the area boasts exceptional weather conditions for growing fruits and vegetables during the winter. Growers also often grow forage crops – alfalfa, sudangrass and Bermuda grass.

“I would say probably about 60% of the ground supports produce, whether it’s vegetables or your vine crops, or onions, tomatoes, things of that nature,” Joe Colace said.

Irrigation water is diverted from the Colorado River at Yuma – gravity-fed to the area by the All-American Canal, an 80-mile structure built in the 1930s. Almost all of the irrigated acres are underlaid 4-5 feet down, with perforated, circular thick tiles. The tiles catch the agricultural water as it percolates through the soil, into a drainage system, Joe Colace said. The valley’s agricultural runoff drains into the Salton Sea.

Today, there are six family members in the company. Joe’s son Tyler works in sales, and his son-in-law Kelly is the vice president of operations. Bill’s sons are also involved: Bill Jr., oversees the food safety program at Crown Cooling, and Daniel works in sales.

In January, the company added outside leadership to direct business in a newly-established Los Angeles office. They hired Gary Meadows – a produce professional with 38 years of experience including runs as a vice president of sales at Progressive in Los Angeles and director of purchasing for Ralphs Grocery – who will now serve as vice president of Five Crowns’ Los Angeles office. Cruz Carrera, who will direct the company’s asparagus division, has 16 years of experience, including managing sales at Mission Produce.

“We are optimistic about the new facilities and our asparagus program, and adding Gary and Cruz to the Five Crowns family to help build both areas of the business,” said co-owner Bill Colace.

Meeting demands

Behind those hires are plans for continued growth. To double its volume and year-round supply of asparagus, Five Crowns is now buying from Washington, central Mexico, Peru and new regions in Mexico.

The backstory to that business move is that the Imperial Valley itself once grew spears. Starting in the late 1980s and continuing for about a dozen years, the group grew, packed and sold local asparagus before yielding to imports, Joe Colace said.

“The competition out of northern Mexico – they were able to not so much grow cheaper than what we grow, but certainly harvest and pack much cheaper with their labor availability and the cost of labor,” he said. “I don’t believe there’s more than a couple hundred acres of asparagus grown in the Imperial Valley right now. It might all just be for seed. And at one point there were six to eight thousand acres grown here.

“The produce industry has really witnessed a consolidation of resources over the last dozen to 15 years,” Joe Colace said. Five Crowns has also changed as a company. “We’re trying to offer our respective commodities almost on a twelve-month basis if possible, if we can align ourselves with growers who have a similar business model and approach to the quality of growing and packaging, cooling. We’ve really worked hard to expand our borders, even going into some parts of west Canada on blueberries.”

Five Crowns’ berry production will expand beyond its current growing locations in Canada, Washington and California, to also include Mexico and Peru. And it also will add wet vegetable items to the asparagus mix.

While the company is based in Brawley, it plans to open a new facility in Tracy, California, to expand its husked-and packaged sweet corn program with GloriAnn Farms. Tracy will receive packaged, “value-added” produce and become a regional shipping point for watermelons, berries, asparagus, Joe Colace said.

Scheduled to open in January 2021, the facility would have 200,000 square feet of packing, cold room and refrigerated storage near the intersection of I-5 and state highway 33. The facility is planned to increase the company’s value-added capacity 2.5 times the current volume.

“This whole expansion is really about positioning us for the future in a very challenging environment in California, between labor and logistics,” said Daren Van Dyke, director of marketing at Five Crowns.

Going home

Joe Colace said the family has longstanding values of showing integrity in all of its business dealings. He and Will learned that from their father and uncles at Five Crowns’ predecessor, Colace Brothers, and now they’re teaching their children the same lessons of showing integrity to everyone.

“We have that same mindset not just towards the grower base, but with our harvest crews, and the cooler (facility) employees,” Joe Colace said. “And that translated even into our relationship with the retailers.”

The company has reached out to key individuals at top purchasers and has established long-term relationships, he said. At the same time, Five Crowns remains close to its grower neighbors.

Shelvie Crittendon, a grower with 1,800 acres in the valley, has known Joe for at least 25 years – maybe 30, he said. He grows cantaloupes and sweet corn that Five Crowns harvests and markets.

Crittendon said he’s grateful his longtime business partner and friend continues to invest in cold storage and logistics, while marketing produce.

In the current market, “you have to do business with people who market year-round,” he said. He works with other marketers on his other crops: broccoli, romaine lettuce and carrots. “We have to have these people in order to do business.”

The Colaces are trustworthy, Crittendon added: “probably the most honest people you’d ever want to meet.”

And Crittendon said he’d rather focus on the farm rather than get involved with marketing.

“I’m just glad I’m not involved in sales,” he said. “I’ll take care of the growing.”

Stephen Kloosterman, managing editor

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