Divide And Conquer

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Divide And Conquer

In business, standing out should be a goal. For Canal Point-based Erickson Farm Inc., having a flair for the unique is what has sustained the grower/shipper of tropical specialties for nearly 100 years. Finding ways to achieve and succeed within a niche market has been the task for multiple generations of this family-run operation.

Today, led by father Dale Erickson and daughters Kim and Krista, the business is literally part of a living legacy where five generations have lived and worked. “As a Scandinavian immigrant, my grandfather planted everything tropical he could get his hands on,” says Dale, vice president and lead grower. “It became a tradition. He started it and each generation kept doing it.”

The 62-acre farm produces more than a dozen hard-to-grow, hard-to-find items including avocado, carambola (star fruit), sapodilla, longan, lychee, paan, papaya, as well as curry, mango, and banana leaf. However, mangos are Erickson’s true calling card. Forty acres alone are dedicated to growing multiple varieties of the fruit. “Compared to most producers in South Florida, we’re very small,” says Kim, president and head of strategy and marketing. “In terms of how we’re different in the way we operate, it’s very personal to us. We love mangos and love what we do.”

Competitive Edge

Certainly, the versatility and personal touch a smaller operation like Erickson Farm offers are pluses. It’s the farm’s physical location, however, that gives the business an inherent advantage. Nestled on the southeastern shore of Lake Okeechobee, the farm benefits from a unique microclimate and rich muck soil that allows for growing exotic produce. According to Kim, during last January’s cold spell, the farm didn’t suffer one freeze thanks to its proximity to the big body of water. “This is one of the things that led us to grow tropical fruit — because we can,” she says. “Because the area you can grow tropical fruit in Florida is so small geographically, that automatically limits our domestic competition. We’ve accumulated specialized knowledge that allows us to be successful in doing things we’re not supposed to be able to do.”
Stand Your Ground
According to the management team at Erickson Farm, there are a number of things small-to-medium sized growers can do to stay competitive in today’s world of rising input costs.
– Target Educated Customers: “They appreciate what they want and are willing to pay for it. That’s our customer.”
– Watch Market Trends: “They change because tastes change, transportation costs change, what can and cannot be imported changes.”
– Don’t Try To Compete With Large Growers: “Grow things that don’t work in economies of scale model (too temperamental, weird-shaped, doesn’t transport).”
– Sell More Locally And Direct
– Network With Other Small And Large Growers
– Diversify: “Experiment with various crops, work with multiple growers, try agritourism/off-farm income.”
Familiarity with the complex nature of working within a niche market has provided a comfort zone for the farm and how it operates. “For us, taste is most important,” Kim says. “We put much less emphasis on things like shelflife and transportation. The worse a product performs in terms of transportation and shelflife, the better it is for us because we have less competition, particularly internationally.”
When it comes down to it, Kim says it’s always a balancing act with supply and demand. “If you get too successful at growing, you can shoot yourself in the foot by growing the product faster than you can grow awareness and expand the market.”

Adjust Accordingly

Like most — if not all — other producers, game-changing pressures, such as the economic crunch, tightening credit, and increasing regulation and documentation, have provided ample hurdles for Erickson Farm to stay competitive, let alone profitable. “More and more, it’s challenging for us to deal with suppliers who also are trying to deal with thin margins,” says Krista, treasurer and director of operations. “Minimal order sizes go up and sometimes it’s challenging just to get product information if you’re not a big buyer.”
Monitoring expenditures and reducing payroll have become part of the number-crunching solution. Better time management, infusing best practices from other industries and experiences, scanning for new and better markets, and increasing direct sales are all components to the business action plan. “As a management team and family, we divide and conquer,” Kim says. “We have very different approaches in how we tackle things. We have to really trust each other and know everybody is going to get it done but do it in their own way.”
This kind of teamwork and trust comes in handy when unforeseen events arise. During the 2004-2005 hurricane seasons, the eyewall of hurricanes Frances, Jeanne, and Wilma rolled through Erickson Farm and took out almost a third of the grove. With those experiences behind them and lessons learned, a push to diversify and amp up additional resources have been priorities. “When you lose that much of your income for that long, you need to have something to fall back on,” Kim says. “You don’t always have the opportunity to sock money away and rely on that. You have to find ano th er creative way to do it.”

Evolution Solution

Business longevity doesn’t happen by accident. Kim says the keys to success are to be constantly changing, evolving, and improving. “With mangos, we are always in R&D and switching over to better and more unique varieties,” she says.

Pest Alert
This past summer’s Mediterranean fruit fly outbreak in Palm Beach County was a wake-up call for many fruit growers, packers, and shippers in the area. Erickson Farm’s plant health maintenance routine of nutrition, scouting, spraying, and just being many miles away from any other tropical fruit helped. “We try to keep our trees and plants as clean and healthy as possible so they’ll be less susceptible to attack or disease,” lead grower Dale Erickson says. When it comes to imported pests like the Medfly or — worse yet for avocado growers — the ambrosia beetle and laurel wilt, Kim Erickson says sometimes there’s only one thing you can do: pray. “Once it becomes established, you have to learn how to deal with it,” she says.

Keeping things fresh is an integral part of the equation. Besides tweaking its primary crop and shifting secondary crops over the years, the farm has recently released a couple of new varieties to customers and — most notably — has started to grow vegetables again. Winter veggies, including beets, broccoli, eggplant, swiss chard, and maybe some others will be added to the mix. “We haven’t done that since before they planted the groves here,” Kim adds.

In addition to widening its crop portfolio, Kim says the company plans to work on some new postharvest techniques especially for mangos, test out a community supported agriculture program this winter, and — thanks to funding through the Natural Resources Conservation Service program — experiment with high tunnels. “We’re here and still farming, but we’re not just doing the same old thing,” she says.
Click here to see a list of niche market pros and cons as listed by the Erickson Farm management team.

Future Growth

Erickson Farm continues to expand its growth and reach. This has entailed building long-term relationships with wholesale clients. “We’re careful about market exclusivity,” Krista says. “We don’t take on a lot of new wholesale customers. Before we do, we make sure they are not going to be competing with any of our existing clients.”
Customer retention is a major focus for Erickson Farm through all its outlets including but not limited to wholesale sales via its Mr. Dale’s brand, retail transactions, the onsite farmstand, hosting tasting/sample events, attending farmers markets, its website (www.EricksonFarm.com), and even selling to restaurants. By reaching out and striving to make connections, Erickson Farm’s family of clients grows. That dynamic is one the management team knows something about. “It’s in our blood,” Krista says. Sister Kim agrees with confidence in the future and says the farm has the wherewithal to still be making its mark 100 years from now. “We will go as far as our imagination can take us.”
Paul Rusnak is managing editor of Florida Grower and managing online editor for Growing Produce, a Meister Media Worldwide brand.

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