(Sept. 6) MISSION, Texas — Texas citrus shippers are using a new marketing tool as they prepare for the upcoming season, but grapefruit and oranges aren’t the only commodities backed by the program.

The Via Texas program encompasses more than 10 commodities from Texas and Mexico, banding them together in a year-round category management program to appeal to retailers.

Onions, melons, mangoes, mixed vegetables, greens, herbs, citrus and specialty items are included in Via Texas, said Melinda Goodman, marketing director for TexaSweet Citrus Marketing Inc. The organization’s staff, led by Goodman, conceived and implemented the Via Texas program over the past nine months, using test market research, surveys and grower-shipper outreach.

“What we’re really trying to do is create a program that helps retailers put Texas in front of their minds for all their produce needs,” Goodman said.

About 50 growers and shippers from the lower Rio Grande Valley attended a Via Texas review meeting Aug. 20 at South Padre Island, Texas. Citrus shippers are already discussing the information compiled by TexaSweet with their customers.

Many south Texas shippers use product from Mexico to extend their seasons, and Via Texas refers to items shipped by Texas companies.

“Anytime that we make people understand there’s a lot of different items that come out of Texas with mixer-load opportunities, that information is good for the receivers,” said Paula Fouchek, a marketing consultant for Texas Citrus Exchange, Edinburg. “The receivers can plan accordingly. This is a fresh look.”

The program rose from the ashes of Fresh from Texas, a marketing program for Texas-grown onions, melons, vegetables and tropical fruits that began four years ago. Last fall, Goodman introduced the new name, Via Texas, to reflect the shippers’ need to supplement Texas product with items grown in Mexico.

Also last year, shippers agreed to increase assessments for south Texas melon and onion marketing orders, reversing the program’s voluntary support. Product from Mexico, as well as items from Texas (excluding onions and melons), still falls under the voluntary assessment designation.

Via Texas uses information from Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, D.C.-area test marketing, AC Nielsen consumer research and shipper availability to get retail produce buyers to remember Texas throughout the year.

“Our first priority is not going to be with the consumer, because it takes a lot of funding to influence consumer spending,” Goodman said.

Instead, retailers will be informed about their choices from Texas shippers through Via Texas in an effort to get the product on shelves.

In recent years, retailers have implemented category management programs, but this is an innovative example of shippers establishing a program, said Craig Underhill, a former buyer for Minneapolis-based Supervalu Inc. who is on the sales desk of citrus company Mission Shippers Inc.

“It’s a fresh approach in an old industry,” Underhill said. “The whole industry on the wholesale and retail side is being pushed that way, so vendors need to look at it and try to develop their own programs.”

TexaSweet packaged the program into a comprehensive buyer’s guide, and an interactive merchandising compact disc is available for marketers and retail produce managers. Goodman said the compact disc includes training material that covers handling, temperature control and merchandising tips as well as point-of-sale and advertising materials.

“This is about new ideas and new attitudes because we recognize the industry … has changed a lot in the last three to five years,” Goodman said.