'Lipman Local' program assists small growers
Lipman Produce, the largest open field tomato grower in North America, has begun a formal initiative to support small local producers. Dubbed "Lipman Local," the program announced in May is designed to help small farmers become more productive and enhance their marketing capabilities. The ultimate objective of the program is to find new contract producers for Lipman, said Scott Rush, director of Lipman Local and a Florida farm manager for the company. "We announced a formal program in May, but the activity of supporting small local farmers is something Lipman has been doing for many, many years," Rush said.Until fairly recently, Lipman produced 100 percent of its crops on its own farms across the U.S. Today, however, the company has 25 small grower partners around the rest of the country and almost all of them are now participating in the Lipman Local program. The company is looking to add well-matched Florida growers to their production mix. Since June, Rush has been receiving calls from growers around the state. "I am meeting with growers as we speak to see if there are good matches with these growers," he said. "But Lipman Local is an open program and any grower can contact us to become part of it. And if it turns out to be a good partnership, then that grower can become a producer for us." Rush said he expects to sign on one or more Florida growers in the foreseeable future. And what is good for contracted small growers, in terms of improve productivity or business management skills, is obviously good for Lipman in an ever more competitive agricultural industry. "We have a self-interest in the process," Rush said. "But we also care about the agriculture industry. And a lot of small growers would not be able to survive without help." The Lipman Local program assists small growers in a number of ways, Rush said. Among the most important, he said, is enhancing the marketability of the grower and his or her products. "The size of our company gives us access to employee experience and groups of people that are very good at doing specific things," Rush said. "Small growers are renowned for having to wear a lot of different hats. And Lipman is big enough that we have people who specialize in the different areas of the business, such as marketing. And we can then pass those capabilities along to the small growers we work with." Other benefits include a major branding opportunity and distribution infrastructure. Yet another is technology, including innovative and highly effective seed technology. "And the third key benefit is a reduction in operating costs," Rush said. "And that is a result of Lipman's buying power. For example, if you're growing 10 acres of tomatoes, that's what your prices are based on. If you work with us, we have a dedicated department that makes sure our growers get everything they need at the best possible price because of our huge buying power." The most recent example of a benefit is Lipman's ability, again based on its size, to deal with the new food safety regulations passed by Congress in 2011. The labor and costs involved in meeting those requirements can be daunting for small growers, Rush said. Partnering with Lipman helps small operators manage that process more effectively and keep costs to a minimum. Doug Wilson, co-owner of family-owned DL&B Farms in Clinton, N.C., has worked with Lipman for 40 years. As a result, he is an enthusiastic supporter of the Lipman Local program. "When we began our partnership, I knew they would be able to help my farm, but I honestly didn't know exactly what to expect," Wilson said. "But now, many years later, I can say that working with them has allowed me to farm more efficiently and bring better produce to market than I had ever imagined." The most important benefits DL&B Farms has received are marketing support and technology, Wilson said. "They've given me seed varieties that I would not have access to otherwise," he said. "And I'm also able to confer with their experts, who know which seeds will grow best in my region. This has allowed me to grow the best possible crop." In addition to seeds, Lipman has also helped Wilson in the actual growing process, he said. "I've incorporated their plastic culture, drip irrigation and computerization methods, which help monitor the condition of the crops. As a small grower, these are elements that would have been very costly to implement on my own. But they are also technologies that are vital to my success." For more information or to contact Rush, visit LipmanProduce.com.