When Jeff Miller launched Willie Greens Organic Farm Inc. 25 years ago, he personally peddled his spinach, salad greens and dozens of other items, making deliveries twice a week to local restaurants. But as his Monroe, Wash., acreage expanded, Miller felt he could better spend his time focusing on growing, and he outsourced the marketing function.

Today, he relies on large outside brokers as well as a small local company to handle marketing chores for the up to 6,000 pounds of salad mix alone that he harvests weekly from 55 acres.

“For us to do that ourselves, it would take a huge effort,” he says.

Growers who lack the time or expertise to market their product, or who just prefer to spend their time in the field rather than behind a desk, have found that turning over marketing to someone else can take a load off their minds. And in many cases, it provides better returns.

Finding someone to market your product doesn’t have to be difficult, but it does require some homework.

Dealing with Duda

Knight Management Inc., a Belle Glade, Fla., farming company, turned to Salinas, Calif.-based Duda Farm Fresh Foods Inc., a subsidiary of Oviedo, Fla.-based A. Duda & Sons Inc., to market the company’s sweet corn 17 years ago.

“We were trying to . . . find an organization capable of moving the quantities we were capable of producing at a profit,” says president Steve Williams.

Knight Management found Duda to have similar production standards and good communication skills, which Williams considers a must.

“Duda does a masterful job of letting the buying end know what’s available well in advance to set up [promotions],” he says.

The grower, which provides up to 1.8 million 48-count cartons of sweet corn every spring, chose Duda as a marketer because of its sterling reputation, strong customer base and desire to build a sweet corn program, Williams says.

It’s not feasible for Knight Management, which also markets green beans through Five Bros. Produce Inc. of Homestead, Fla., to set up its own marketing department, he says.

“I grow a lot of volume,” Williams says, “but it’s too cyclical to support a staff that would be needed for the peak periods.”

Williams looks for marketers that are in business year-round–not just seasonally–that have access to major chains and that are trustworthy.

“If you don’t have confidence in your marketer, you need to find another one,” he says.

Selling celery

Steve Gill, partner in Rio Farms LLC in Oxnard, Calif., also partners with Duda as well as Monterey, Calif.-based Dole Fresh Vegetables Inc. and Salinas, Calif.-based Tanimura & Antle Inc. to sell his company’s 1.4 million cartons of celery each year.

“It’s a matter of spreading our risks with the different companies,” he says.

The outside firms also provide the crews to pack the product. They take out a packing charge and split the growing costs and profits.

Rio Farms uses the outside companies because the marketers are in the business year-round and because their customers have come to rely on them as consistent suppliers.

Shippers typically consider working with all sizes of growers, Gill says, but they’ve been downsizing with the sagging economy. And it’s become more difficult to partner with them unless you grow a specialty crop they need.

Sammy Duda, vice president of western operations for Duda Farm Fresh Foods, says a grower’s location, the commodities he produces and his reputation are among the factors the company considers when looking for a grower partner.

“There’s a level of trust that you’re looking for,” he says, and there must be a philosophical fit, as well.

The company uses 30 growers on the West Coast alone, and those relationships tend to be long-term.

“We tend to be very loyal and to have long-standing relationships with growers,” he says.

Providing access

With the current trend toward buyer consolidation and electronic ordering, “You almost have to have a central clearing point to access the large chain stores,” says Roy Bell, general manager at Cal Citrus Packing Co. in Lindsay, Calif. “[Retailers] aren’t going to negotiate with 30 people like they used to.”

That’s why Cal Citrus signed on with Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Sunkist Growers Inc. in 2008.

In joining Sunkist, Cal Citrus combined its oranges with the collective volume of all the other Sunkist growers, Bell says, and “all of a sudden we could be part of a 40-car load.”

Other major shippers approached Cal Citrus, but the company chose Sunkist because the other firms did not have the 116-year history Sunkist does and “have not grown with the changes in the industry.”

“There’s no doubt that Sunkist is the gold standard,” he says.

In selecting a marketer, Bell first asks how many customers the company has, who its customers are, and whether the marketer does business with major grocery chains and foodservice providers.

He also wants to know how long the management team has been in place, and what their training and experience is.

Bell doesn’t claim that Cal Citrus is more profitable as a result of joining Sunkist, but he does say that grower returns are better.

“I think the business is better run, more informed and more compliant with market changes and trends,” he says.

Expansive family

Sunkist draws on 5,000 growers representing 3,500 farms, says Mike Wooten, senior vice president.

“We want first and foremost a grower who is willing to invest in his property,” he says, “and do the kind of things necessary on a cultural basis to produce the highest-possible quality fruit.”

Growers also must allow Sunkist to pace their harvesting schedule and regulate the movement of their fruit “in ways that complement the demands of the marketplace,” Wooten says.

Sunkist added 5,000 acres last year, mostly from growers who had worked with competing marketers, he says.

The company takes 47.5 cents out of the sale of each carton to cover marketing and advertising, he says, and returns any profits to the growers.

Miller of Willie Greens’ doesn’t choose a potential marketer by asking a lot of questions, he says.

He often talks with other growers to help determine whether they’re reliable and pay their bills on time, then he talks with his potential partners.

“You sit down one-on-one, you look into somebody’s eye and you have a conversation,” Miller says. “You’re going to walk away having a general feeling whether or not it’s a good match.”

Contact Citrus + Vegetable at vlboyd@att.net or (209) 571-0414.