While many in the tomato industry are pulling back, Lipman has kicked its growth plans into a higher gear in the past year. With a number of acquisitions under its belt, the company is confident about success in the U.S. fresh produce sector.
According to Kent Shoemaker, CEO of Lipman, recent moves and growth are aimed at providing customers a consistent and reliable product supply year-round. “We are investing in strong farming operations that are geographically diverse,” he says. “We are a vertically integrated business and have a strong research and development program to breed high-yielding, quality produce.”
Lipman is the largest open-field tomato producer in North America, but the company also produces peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, hard squash, green beans, and sweet corn. While the majority of acres are based in Florida, other farms are located in South Carolina, Virginia, and California. The company also has deals with associated growers in Tennessee and North Carolina.
“We know from our customers that their big thing is dependability,” says Shoemaker. “Dependability means flavor, quality, seasonality, and food safety.”
Access To The Acre
As society becomes more and more wired through technology, consumers are seeking more information about who grows their food and where it comes from. While this concept takes some getting used to for some growers, Lipman has embraced a new transparency enabled by social media and other forms of outreach.
“People more than ever want to know their farmer,” says Gerry Odell, chief farming officer for Lipman. “Our ‘Access to the Acre’ program is an extension of the field-to-fork philosophy, which gives customers access to our farms and growers.
“As part of this program, the Lipman Vegetable Garden was developed. We’ve dedicated 5,000 acres of our Estero farm to showcasing all the vegetables we grow. Customers are encouraged to visit this location to see our produce being grown and to interact with those that grow it.”
Lipman is using social media to engage consumers on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and YouTube. In 2012, the company launched a consumer-friendly website (LipmanKitchen.com). The site provides basic tomato facts, nutrition information, and recipes provided by some of the nation’s top food bloggers.
“It used to be that Mr. and Mrs. Johnson went to the grocery store and visited the produce section and bought a tomato,” says Shoemaker. “Today, they want to know more about that tomato and how it was grown. In the past, we’ve focused more on the business-to-business side, but that is changing based upon what our retail customers and consumers are asking for. The whole social media area feeds back into the idea that we have a good story we are proud to tell between our R&D program and our product, how we are working with employees, and our farming practices.”
A Matter Of Taste
In recent years, U.S. field-grown tomatoes have gotten a bad rap for a lack of flavor. Lipman has sought to fight this perception, especially given the influx of imported tomatoes into the market.
“We have seen more buyer pressure in terms of taste,” says Odell. “People are concerned with the flavor of the vegetables they eat. Taste is a major part of our breeding program.”
he company’s research and development program is extensive and led by
Dr. Mark Barineau. He is on a quest for what he calls the “perfect tomato” — one that has abundant flavor, superior nutritional value, and prolonged shelflife.
The breeding program has already scored hits with branded varieties like the Vintage Ripe heirloom tomato. “The Vintage Ripe is a high shoulder variety that we’ve been increasing acres over the past few years,” says Odell. “It does well in Florida and on our farms in South Carolina and Virginia.”
Last year, Lipman encouraged consumers to take the “True Tomato Taste” challenge, which was promoted by a website and an accompanying public relations effort.
“There had been a lot of talk about how today’s tomatoes were flavorless,” says Shoemaker. “So, we decided to set the record straight by offering consumers free samples of the Vintage Ripe through our taste challenge.”
Other proprietary tomatoes under the Lipman label include Silk, Cherry Berries, Prima Roma, and Garden Jewel.
Shoemaker is quick to note the Lipman team is proud of its round tomato offerings as well. “I am going to brag about Gerry and his production team,” he says. “We are growing better quality tomatoes than we were 10 years ago, even three years ago. This goes back to our R&D program and us becoming better growers every year. Regardless of what the reputation is out there on mature-green tomatoes, we are growing a great-looking and great-tasting product.”