Lipman’s Kent Shoemaker: Sustainability Is More Than Conservation

Lipman’s Kent Shoemaker: Sustainability Is More Than Conservation

Lipman Family Farms recently partnered with Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast to create “Beyond School Walls” a mentorship program for local high school students in Collier County. Pictured: “Beyond School Walls” program students.

Nearly seven years ago, not long after being hired by the Lipman family, my wife and I attended an event where 12 recent graduates of Immokalee (FL) High School spoke about their career aspirations.

Each one of the young people were spectacular in their own right … but one presenter, a young man by the name of Jesus Abarca, really stood out. When the event was over, I introduced myself and handed him a business card.

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“Call me,” I said, “and let’s meet in Immokalee to talk about your future.”

A couple of days later, our receptionist called to say that there was a Jesus here to see me. I was pleasantly surprised, and our conversation left me thoroughly impressed.

So I gave Jesus a Jim Collins book and told him to contact me after reading it. Three days later, he did just that. Suffice to say, it wasn’t long before Jesus had a spot in our summer internship program. He went on to graduate from Florida State University with no debt, thanks to the generosity of some community organizations Lipman supports, and earned a spot in our management training program.

This week, Jesus was promoted to operations manager at Lipman Colorado. For the past two years, he has worked in California and Arizona. We are very proud of how well he has done. He’s the personification of how, with the right guidance and a little spark, young people can capitalize on life-changing opportunities provided by our industry.

The Human Element

In farm circles, we talk about sustainability mostly in terms of conservation initiatives. And while that’s certainly important (and something I’ll return to shortly), it’s only one part of the crucial “triple bottom line” framework that gauges our financial, social, and environmental performance.

Jesus’ story shows how good corporate citizenship doesn’t just help the communities where we operate, it often produces a mutually beneficial return on investment that grows over time. Indeed, for any company to be truly sustainable — defined as “able to be maintained at a certain rate” — it starts on the social (or human) level. The financial and environmental aspects are natural byproducts of a commitment to doing the right thing by our employees, customers, and neighbors.

At Lipman, our social sustainability takes many forms, from community-based scholarships and internships to free transportation and housing for farmworkers. Operating in 12 states, we’ve donated millions of dollars to organizations like the Redlands Christian Migrant Association, The Immokalee Foundation, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and Harry Chapin Food Bank. Our giving program, which centers primarily on children, education and hunger relief, supports organizations and programs that offer long-term solutions to real social issues.

On the national level, for instance, we partner with Brighter Bites, a nonprofit that delivers fresh fruits and vegetables directly into families’ hands, teaching them how to use and choose a different kind of fast food. And on the local level, our annual Backpack Giveaway brings together the Immokalee community – where more than 90% of children are classified as economically needy – to provide free school supplies, bikes, groceries, haircuts and a day of fun activities.

The community, just like the Earth, has been good to us … and we work to return the favor.

Eco-Friendliness

As for environmental sustainability, that’s a concept exploding in popularity the past few years. At Lipman, though, we like to say we’ve been environmentally sustainable for decades — even before anyone started using the phrase.

When you own tens of thousands of acres, you have to think holistically, over the long term. Anything you can do to maximize the use of natural resources while leaving less of a carbon footprint is not just good for the earth, it’s good for business.

Practicing precision agriculture requires consistently investing in the most up-to-date tools and technology. For us, automation is key – whether it’s computerized weather stations, packinghouse machinery and equipment, input/output tracking, or solar-powered irrigation systems individualized at the plant level. Complementing the process, our in-house R&D team is constantly seeking ways to improve breeding quality and flavor, while emphasizing yield improvement, disease resistance and enhanced shelf life. This, in turn, cuts down significantly on the use of chemicals and pesticides.

“Doing more with less” means that every seed, every drop of water is accounted for (and ultimately used) to its fullest extent. In Florida, this has led to a 70% reduction in water consumption, a savings of 66 million gallons annually from the state’s precious aquifer. Similar smart-farming techniques have also helped us decrease companywide fuel consumption per acre by 23.3% for diesel and 11.2% for gasoline since 2005.

In keeping with our “nothing wasteful” approach, each year Lipman repurposes roughly 100 million pounds of unused produce as livestock feed, donates nearly 50,000 pounds to food banks, and recycles 1,200-plus tons of plastic mulch. In partnership with local engineering firms and universities, we’re also exploring programs that will process off-grade tomatoes and convert them through anaerobic digestion into biogas and effluent.

Finally, Lipman is environmentally sustainable through its geographic diversity. With more than 30 locations to farm, pack, and ship produce throughout North America, we’re able to grow year-round in optimal conditions that allow for the highest yield per plant. As a bonus, being geographically diverse helps support local sourcing programs across the country and reduces miles driven, cutting both transportation costs and environmental effects.

At the heart of it, we’re basically just earth-conscious family farmers, tomato experts and freshness freaks with a passion to deliver the very best of nature.

Through the Generations

Thinking of sustainability in the broadest sense reminds me of the long arc of our company’s multigenerational history.

Founder Max Lipman planted his first tomato more than 60 years ago with the modest goal of simply providing for his family. Times have changed a lot since then, but our core values remain: passion for farming, respect for the land and a commitment to community. Following the same fundamental practices has defined Lipman’s success for decades since.

Whether on the financial, social or environmental side, sustainability should be viewed as an integrated, value-added component of the business. And as Lipman continues to grow, we’re proud to be in a position where we can further strengthen all three areas.