Aug 15, 2018Live Oak Farms expands packing, starts growing jalapenos
Live Oak Farms is known primarily as a grower and shipper of tomatoes, but the company this year added a jalapeño crop, and more complex packing equipment. Those changes are reducing the amount of labor at the farm while providing a greater range of products to its customers.
“Several years ago, the company started growing more and more bell peppers,” said Live Oak Farms’ Chief Operating Officer Ed Beckman. “And our customer base that had come to know that Live Oak stands for quality in tomatoes very much were sampling the peppers. The challenge that we had was that the equipment was somewhat outdated. We were, in fact, limited by what we could do because of the facility we had.”
Customers were asking the farm to do more with peppers, and at the same time, labor costs were becoming more of a concern.
“We came to the conclusion that for the long term the best investment was to put in place a new line that would allow us to do much more in our pepper program,” Beckman said.
The new packing line has cameras that focus on the color and size of the vegetables for sorting and allow for increased automation and robotics. It also is more flexible, allowing Live Oak to pack a wider variety of different-size containers.
“It’s a big step up, but the reality is that most of us in California, if we are going to continue in business, are needing to incorporate higher levels of automation into our operations in order to go ahead and become cost competitive with those who are producing in other regions that are not strapped with such high minimum wages.”
The equipment has led to a significant reduction in labor costs. And customers appreciate the jalapenos.
“It’s a fast-growing pepper for supermarkets,” Beckman said. “While there are some pretty good supplies of jalapenos coming out of Mexico, in the winter there aren’t as many as in the summer. Furthermore, the California retailers were saying, we’d really like to have a California-grown product because of our buy local campaigns.”
Adding the products allow retailers to load up both the jalapenos, tomatoes and bell peppers at one location – a sort of one-stop shop for shipping. That’s an option that the retailers like because, really, consumption of peppers is up.
“The pepper category as a whole, whether it be sweet peppers or hot peppers, has just really been on fire,” Beckman said. “Consumption is up. There’s a lot more snacking of red bell peppers and the hot peppers. There’s a fascination with hot peppers right now.”
All in the Family
Owner Marino Giampaoli is the third generation to work on the farm. His great-grandfather Bob Giampaoli, an Italian immigrant, founded the farm in 1929. The farm got its name from a lone tree that stood in one of the fields.
Today, it’s a large operation with several thousand acres dedicated to producing mostly tomatoes and bell peppers, along with the added acres for jalapenos and some almond trees. Solar panels help power irrigation pumps at the farm. Many of Bob’s family members, including his sisters, son and daughter, and more than a dozen cousins are also involved in the farm.
“It’s quite the family affair at Live Oak Farms,” Beckman said.