Mar 7, 2019Sykes launches organic brand for squash
The Sykes Co. of Rio Rico, Arizona, in November announced a new brand, Palo Alto Organics, for hard squashes grown by its grower-partners in Mexico.
Spaghetti and butternut squashes will be among the first of its product offerings.
The Sykes Co. had earlier made recommendations to its grower-partners about investing in organics.
“We collectively view engagement in the organic sector as a way to embrace environmentally responsible practices, invest in the future of our companies, and align with market demands,” said Lesley Sykes, executive vice president. The group moved into organic only after counting the costs.
“We needed to consider how organic practices and certification will affect their bottom line,” she said. “When growers decide to invest in organic production, they are taking a risk and face a steep learning curve, potentially lower yields at least initially, and strict policies about the use of inputs. This all highlights the need for healthy price premiums that help growers weather the transition.”
She visited the farms earlier in November. The company’s grower-partners include La Perlet, a family farm run by Agustin Baranzini with his sons Agustin Jr. and Gustavo.
Sykes said La Perlet has been able to boost soil health by applying specific cocktails of microorganisms and using biologically-based soil amendments. “Fortunately, we have less plant disease compared to more temperate climate areas, but that’s not to say we don’t have our own pest and disease challenges. The key is careful monitoring for early detection.”
Pests and diseases have been managed with plant nutrition, good sanitation practices, efficient drip irrigation, hand-weeding and the use of natural pesticides.
La Perlet is located in the Sonoran Desert, which provides favorable conditions for growing watermelon and hard squash. Characteristics include sandy soils, lots of sun, mild winters and seasonal monsoons.
Watermelons are harvested and shipped twice, from April to May and October to November. Squash is available from November through May – so far, La Perlet is farming a portion of its area organically.
The Baranzini family of growers – originally from Northern Italy – immigrated to Mexico in the 1920s, and have been growing for Sykes for 38 years.
Going organic involves an investment of time and money. Without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, farming is risky, and a formidable amount of paperwork is required for annual inspections. Hard squash is a key ingredient in the vegetable-centric movement that has taken hold among food enthusiasts.
“Consumers are purchasing more hard squash in general,” Lesley Sykes said. “Just look at any of the leading food and cooking publications and squash is written all over the place.
Hard squash is ideal for health-conscious home cooks given its nutrition profile, versatility, and pleasant flavor.”
But it’s not just a media trend – consumers are buying, increasing demand.
“We have been feeling this trend from the demand side over the last few years out of Nogales (Arizona), especially for butternut and spaghetti,” Sykes said. “Another squash to keep an eye on is Delicata. Delicata is well-positioned for success – it’s tasty, healthy, and easy to prepare given its small size and the fact that you can eat the skin.”
The Sykes Co. looks to increase its organic offerings. Lesley Sykes notes that U.S. organic food sales were worth over $45 billion in 2017, according to the Organic Trade Association. Fresh fruits and vegetables – the largest organic food category – accounted for roughly 33 percent of those sales.
“Experience across multiple seasons will translate to an institutional knowledge that we can apply to other areas of our businesses,” she said. “Seedless watermelon presents a unique opportunity because organic watermelon supply is tighter and demand continues to grow.”
Above: An organic hard squash field in Mexico. Photos: The Sykes Co.