Setting aside the farm’s rich history, TKM Bengard Farms in Belle Glade, FL, is an industry leader because the folks at the helm figured out how to adapt to market changes and deliver a high-quality product.
That’s just part of the reason the operation is the recipient of the 2011 Grower Achievement Award. TKM Bengard Farms also strives for excellence in food safety, maintains efficiencies by employing the latest technology, is constantly seeking out new markets for its products, and is integrally involved in the industry, making sure the voice of agriculture is heard — among other things.
A Farm Is Born
As the farm sign says, TKM is a grower of quality lettuce, supplying processors. When bagged salads first hit the marketplace, however, they were mostly produced on the West Coast. As demand increased, processors built salad plants east of the Mississippi to serve areas along the East Coast.
In 1996, three of the Basore brothers — Toby, Kevin, and Michael — started TKM Farms with the intention of supplying processors with lettuce. Their father, Tom Sr., helped his sons find a partner: Bengard Ranch in Salinas, CA.
Today, all six of the Basore brothers are involved in the business. According to Brian, one of the six, each brother — which includes Toby, Kevin, Michael, Stephen, and Tom Jr. — handles a specific component of the business (to find out more about the duties of each Basore brother, see “A Band Of Brothers” sidebar).
Once the partnership between the Basore and Bengard families was established, the next step was to find the right lettuce varieties to grow for processing. They turned to university researchers and seed breeders to develop varieties of iceberg and Romaine lettuce that were on par with varieties grown in the West.
“The game-changing moment occurred when the lettuce variety Gator was developed,” says Toby, who manages production and crop inputs. “That was the variety that put us on the map. Gator was a variety that had no internal problems and a short core for processing.
“We learned how to slot like they do on the West Coast for the fall, winter, or spring months with different varieties,” Toby continues. “Our program got tighter and we had a consistent supply of quality lettuce all season. Our business was small at first. We were trialing new varieties and going in to visit customers. Florida had a bad name for lettuce for processing, but a few customers tried our lettuce and they realized ours was comparable to what was produced on the West Coast.”
“Anyone involved in a family business knows that it is much different from a corporate structure,” says Brian Basore, who is in charge of marketing at TKM Bengard Farms, LLC, in Belle Glade, FL. More specifically, Brian manages contracts and looks for new opportunities for fresh market produce.
Today, all six of the Basore brothers — Toby, Kevin, Michael, Brian, Stephen, and Tom Jr. — work in tandem with the Bengard family toward the continued success of TKM Bengard Farms, LLC.
Toby’s area is on the farming end and includes most aspects of production. In addition, Toby has been on the board of directors of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association for more than 15 years and on the executive board of directors for four years.
“I took a role in sitting on the board so we could have a voice in the industry,” Toby explains. “Without having a voice, you are just one grower, but there is strength in associations.”
Planting, irrigating, and ground prep are handled by Kevin. He takes care of everything from installing GPS autosteer on the tractors and laser land leveling to equipment design and development.
Michael, who is in charge of harvesting and forecasting, also oversees the sourcing of harvest materials and helps coordinate the transportation of refrigerated trailers filled with lettuce from the field to the pre-cooler.
Younger brother Stephen came in 2000 and was given the big task of handling food safety responsibilities both on the farm and at the pre-cooler.
Tom Jr. returned to work on the farm in 2007. His responsibilities include overseeing the farm’s risk management and workman’s compensation programs.
Roots That Run Deep
Before processing or fresh market lettuce deals, the Basore family’s farming operation had roots in the muck soils of Michigan and Wisconsin. As far back as the 1920s, they were growing onions and other vegetables in the Northeast. In 1969 they started farming in Florida. Fast forward to 1994, and after several bad seasons — one that included a severe drought — the operations in Michigan and other areas in the north were drying up. Around the same time, Florida-based South Bay Growers, a large company the Basores had supplied with lettuce, closed the door on its vegetable operation.
Losing South Bay was a tremendous blow to the Basores’ farming operation. “It was a time when everyone was trying to figure out how to survive,” recalls Brian. “We had a lifeline thrown to us when the processed lettuce industry started to take hold.”
Food Safety And Traceability
Armed with a superior product, the Basores set another goal of surpassing the produce industry’s expectations in the area of food safety and traceability. In 2003, they constructed a 70,000-square-foot packing facility called Cypress Cooling.
“We were able to construct our vision for what we wanted from a pre-cooler and plan ahead for the future to make sure we could meet and exceed all industry expectations,” explains Stephen, who is in charge of food safety. He is quick to point out that food safety starts in the field. “We try to treat the field as if we are in a production facility, as we do a lot of pre-process harvesting in the field.”
To make sure they are meeting customers’ food safety requirements as well as what will be mandated in the new Food Safety Modernization Act, the operation employs the latest technology to streamline operations. For example, to simplify traceability efforts and have access to information in real time, the farm upgraded from using Palm Pilots to iPads and iPod Touches.
“iPads are flowing information to people working in the shipping office to farm managers out in the field,” explains Toby. In addition, paperwork and training material are in English and Spanish, so all workers are on the same page and able to follow protocols.
Adapting To The Market
Now that the growth of the processing market has slowed, TKM Bengard is adapting its operations to capitalize on the locally grown movement, providing products for the fresh market industry — primarily with wrap iceberg lettuce.
To be successful with their wrap iceberg lettuce offerings, the farm concentrated on the quality and constistency of the pack. As the Bengards have a long history of putting together a premium pack for their customers, they were looked to for advice on wrap lettuce packs.
Looking to diversify even more, the farm recently began developing fresh market Romaine hearts. Variety selection will determine how well the venture prospers.
“There are a lot of challenges with growing lettuce. It is a tough commodity to handle, but a big key to our success is that our father just happened to have six sons,” Stephen says with a laugh. “We’ve been able to grow this farm to the size that it is and everyone pulled together to make that happen.”