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STEP-UPP class visits companies in Florida

step4254FORT LAUDERDALE, FL — The Southeast Produce Council's 2017 STEP-UPP class had the opportunity to tour fruit and vegetable fields as well as the facilities of some major well-known produce companies in southeastern Florida from Jan. 31 to Feb. 3. The trip was part of the program's ongoing learning experience for class members to develop a greater understanding of the fresh produce industry.

Salvador Fernandez, vice president of operations at J&C Tropicals, talked about the Picadito variety of sweet potatoes.

The 12 members of the 2017 class on the Florida tour were Wesley Doub of Lowes/Alex Lee Inc., Brent Easley of Ahold/Delhaise, Joshua Doughty of Rouses Supermarkets, Shannon Mauldin of Merchants Distributors Inc., Megha Patel of Southeastern Grocers, Alan Smith of Harps Food Stores, Heidi Raymond of Military Produce Group, Kyle Soucy of United Supermarkets, Price Mabry of Associated Wholesale Growers, Brian Benton of Save A Lot, Mishelle Ceccon of U.S. Foods and Robert Hardin of Food City.

The Southeast Training Education Program for Upcoming Produce Professionals is spearheaded by Faye Westfall, director of sales at DiMare Fresh Tampa, who serves as chairperson, and Tom Page, retired from Supervalu, who serves as vice chairperson.

The 2017 class -- the seventh class in this very popular program -- was announced at the council's Southern Innovations Symposium back in September 2016. So when class members gathered Tuesday evening, Jan. 31, at the Embassy Suites Hotel, here, for an opening dinner hosted by North Bay Produce Inc., it was their first chance to connect with one another as they prepared for the next few days.

The first stop Wednesday morning was J&C Tropicals, a vertically integrated, family-owned company headquartered in Homestead, FL. It is primarily a grower but is also a distributor of high-quality tropical items.

Salvador Fernandez, the company's vice president of operations, told the class a little about the facility, noting that it was completely rebuilt after Hurricane Andrew devastated the area in 1992. He also talked about sweet potatoes, which were the first item grown when the company was founded in 1963.

The class also had the opportunity to meet Jessie Capote, one of the owners of the company.

The next stop was the DiMare Co., where Vice President Tony DiMare showed the class around the facility in Homestead and told them a little of his family's history in the produce industry. The company is celebrating its 89th anniversary, he noted.

After lunch at Capri, which was hosted by the DiMare Co. and which featured DiMare tomato salad, the class headed to the last stop of the day, Southern Specialities in Pompano Beach, FL.

Charlie Eagle, the company's vice president of business development, gave a presentation about produce and Southern Specialities, noting that southern Florida "is a gateway to a significant amount of fruit and vegetable imports."

More than 21 million metric tons of produce are imported by the United States annually, of which 35 percent comes from Central America and South America, he pointed out.

He talked about three key factors affecting perishables: reducing time to market equals lower cost; maintaining cold chain logistics equals reduced loss; and optimizing shelf like equals increased revenue. He stated that Southern Specialties reaches 70 percent of the United States in less than 96 hours.

On the subject of what is influencing the marketplace, Eagle said that consumers expect consistent high quality, year-round availability, expanded variety, convenient solutions and multiple flavor profiles.

He concluded by noting that at Southern Specialties, a vertically integrated company founded in 1990, "We try to convey an atmosphere of innovation."

After dinner hosted by Southern Specialties, the class headed back to the hotel after a long day.

On Thursday, the first stop was the Duda Farm Fresh Foods facility in Belle Glade, FL. Duda celebrated its 90th anniversary in 2016, noted Sam Jones, the company's assistant general manager of its Eastern U.S. program.

Class members toured celery fields at this facility, which is Duda's single largest location and is the largest celery-growing operation in the world, according to Perry Yance, Duda's farm manager.

After lunch at Duda, the class traveled to its last stops of the day, Egan Fruit Packing and DNE in Fellsmere, FL.

Class members were able to see a citrus packinghouse in action, walk through some grapefruit groves and taste grapefruit plucked right off a tree. DNE hosted a barbecue dinner that evening at a beautiful outdoor setting right at its location.

On Friday morning, the class heard a presentation by Whitney Lett, marketing specialist III with the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services' Division of Marketing.

Lett noted that concerning cash receipts in 2015, Florida was number one in oranges, grapefruit, tomatoes, snap beans, cucumbers, watermelon and sugar cane, and was second in strawberries, sweet corn, tangerines, squash and Bell peppers.

She said that Canada is Florida's largest export destination, with Mexico and the Bahamas good export destinations, too.

She spoke a little about the importance of the "Fresh from Florida" brand and how the department utilizes television, print publications, digital, billboards and social media to keep that brand in front of consumers.

The class concluded the trip with a team-building event at Flummox'D Escape Rooms in Fort Lauderdale, where two teams were locked into separate rooms and then given clues by game masters to figure out how to get out of their respective rooms within a one-hour time limit.

"This was a wonderful outing and a very informative trip," Westfall said Saturday morning, Feb. 4. "All the class members did a great job. I've already spoken to some of the members of this class, and they called it an overwhelming success."

Everyone in the class "seemed to bond very quickly," she added. "They all were very interested in learning as much as they could, and they are already looking forward to the next trip," which is the Southern Exposure conference and expo March 9-11 in Orlando, FL.

She concluded by extending "a huge thanks to all the people who let us into their facilities and for their hospitality."