Jul 18, 2017
Sales outlets help Florida farm survive shifts in produce market

Florida grower Tom O’Brien has found ways to sell his produce through multiple venues.

O’Brien is president of C&D Fruit & Vegetable based in Bradenton, Florida. His growing and shipping operation trucks strawberries, watermelons, squash, heirloom tomatoes and other vegetables to retailers, wholesalers, processors, brokers and others. O’Brien also grows and sells vegetables directly to consumers.

The company grows 400 acres of strawberries, which has been consistent in recent years. It grows around 200 acres of watermelons in the spring and harvests 125 acres of squash in spring and fall. In a hydroponic operation, O’Brien grows heirloom tomatoes that are a little larger than golf balls. Volume has increased to where they can pack them in the same clamshells used for strawberries. C&D has narrowed the selection to eight varieties, which include names such as Pineapple, Tiger Stripe and Green Zebra.

Because of disappointing market prices for cucumbers and bell peppers, C&D has shied away from growing those vegetables in recent years. However, O’Brien is always experimenting with different items including cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, a variety of lettuces including red, green and kale, and blueberries, which he mostly sells to consumers through O’Brien Family Farms, his farm market adjacent to his packinghouse and cooling operation. He also plans to make another push with peaches.

School groups frequently tour O’Brien Family Farms’ farm stand operation, which includes hydroponic-grown strawberries and heirloom tomatoes. Photo: Tom O’Brien

In the late 1980s, O’Brien developed resealable packaging for snow peas and sugar snap beans and reusable grocery bags. Because few marketed produce in bags at the time, the proposition died from lack of interest, as did a bagging company O’Brien started to produce recyclable bags for grocery stores. Decades later, those items are big in today’s retail marketplace.

“Like with farming, timing is so important,” O’Brien said. “One guy 10 miles away from you can be very successful one year because he timed things right. You can’t give up. You have to always keep trying new items. All of my life is doing this.”

Certain items, such as broccoli, require more chill hours to properly grow. Brussels sprouts and tomatoes are grown in hydroponic pots. The vegetables allow O’Brien Family Farms to sell a popular locally grown BLT sandwich that includes lettuce and tomatoes.

O’Brien was raised in the retail and produce industries. At 12, he was stocking shelves for the A&P retail chain. After high school, he worked in the company’s Jersey City, New Jersey, warehouse, where he repacked potatoes and tomatoes and unloaded rail cars. He worked in the warehouse for several years before joining food broker Pezrow in Bloomfield, New Jersey.

O’Brien’s late father, Marty O’Brien, grew potatoes on Long Island, New York. After serving in the U.S. Army in World War II, his father worked as a buyer in A&P’s produce division. In 1968, he was transferred to Florida. In 1978, the younger O’Brien also relocated to Florida, where he started C&D.

As with many others, O’Brien worked as a “fruit gypsy.” He would travel to East Coast growing regions where he purchased and brokered product as well as loaded trucks. In the early 1980s, O’Brien started representing growers. He and his brothers Steve O’Brien and David O’Brien, C&D’s vice presidents, joined Tom’s business. David O’Brien died in late 2015. In 1986, C&D began growing its own crops, which included cucumbers, bell peppers and eggplant.

Since 2011, O’Brien Family Farms has sold produce to consumers November through May, before excessive heat prevents Florida from growing most items.

This year, the company hosted 35 school field trips. Members of civic clubs purchase fresh produce, some of which is procured from other area growers. The farm market includes an indoor beehive observation area, which also attracts high interest.

Some customers will drive up to 75 miles to purchase from the farm market.

“The snowbirds, they’re great,” O’Brien said. “It’s amazing how you see people walking out with bags of fruits and vegetables.”

Running a farm market is something other growers should consider, particularly if the operation has children coming into the business, he said.

Issues pressuring Florida growers include labor and lower-priced Mexican production.

“You can put those in either order, as both are the top serious issues we face,” O’Brien said.

High Mexican winter volume used to affect prices and demand for primarily Florida tomatoes and vegetables. Today, it’s lowering prices for strawberries and other items.

“On strawberries, we could have hit a grand slam this year because California pretty much stayed out of the deal until March, but Mexico made up the difference,” O’Brien said.

This past year, prices for bell peppers, squash and tomatoes were low. Normally, a grower might struggle a couple of weeks with prices lower than the cost of production. Eventually, the markets would begin to rise. That didn’t happen during the 2016-17 season. O’Brien places much of the blame on heavy Mexican volume, which depresses prices.

During the 2000s and 2010s, O’Brien was active on the board of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association. He believes it’s important for growers to become involved in their industry organizations.

“It’s very difficult to survive on your own in our industry,” O’Brien said. “You have to have backing from other growers and industry leaders. Everyone that’s being affected by cheap goods coming across the border needs to be involved.”

— Doug Ohlemeier, VGN correspondent

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