When you grow up on a farm, farming is in your blood. Bob Bender, President and General Manager of Tasteful Selections in Arvin, CA, is no exception.
Bender, an integral part of the Tasteful Selections team, keeps tabs on nearly 9,000 acres of specialty potatoes, carrots, and garlic, as well as a newly constructed $30 million, 200,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art processing facility that handles the operation’s specialty potato products. The potatoes are sold in 15,000 stores in all 50 states, representing 35% of the specialty potato market.
Those accomplishments alone, however, just skim the surface as to why Tasteful Selections was chosen as American Vegetable GrowerTM magazine’s the 2016 Grower Achievement Award recipient. Those at the helm of the operation searched for new markets, created an extensive variety development program, and willingly worked with experts in areas where they didn’t have the knowledge — all while maintaining a sustainable enterprise.
A graduate of the University of Nebraska, Bender originally farmed corn and soybeans. In the early ’90s, the owner of South Dakota-based CSS Farms visited his farm to ask him to grow potatoes for CSS. Bender began producing potatoes on a custom basis for CSS Farms, but as the operation progressed, CSS asked him to be a full-time producer and partner. Further expansion brought CSS to California in 2004, and Bender made the move, too.
Navigating A Niche Market
In 2007, specialty potatoes, also known as baby potatoes, became part of the crop list. By 2009, baby potatoes were being packed under the CSS Farms label. Today, potato-growing areas range from Washington and California to Nevada and Arizona to ensure year-round production.
“At the time, we could see there was potential in the baby potato market and it could be a primary business at CSS Farms,” Bender says. “When I came to California, we were looking for something other than chipping potatoes. We were looking for a niche market.”
CSS knew the value in producing baby potatoes, but they certainly were not experts in marketing and packing. To be successful, Bender says the operation had to find an organization with that kind of expertise. Enter the Wisconsin-based Wysocki Family of Companies, a vertically integrated farming operation that specializes in potatoes and onions.
“It was in 2010 that we found the Wysocki family,” Bender explains. “The Wysocki’s marketing company is called RPE. We work with RPE on all aspects of marketing Tasteful Selections products. RPE had a history of marketing large-size russet potatoes, so we drew from their experience in the packinghouse to help us design our first packing facility in 2010. It was that year we decided to partner up with Wysocki/ RPE and Plover River Farms, one of the owners of RPE.”
Tasteful Selections is comprised of three owners: CSS Farms, Wysocki Farms/RPE, and Plover River Farms, which also is based in Wisconsin. Bender says CSS Farms owns 50% of Tasteful Selections and RPE/Wysocki and Plover River own the other 50%. In an effort to simplify things, the farming operation and the brand are both called Tasteful Selections, Bender explains. “We are totally integrated from tissue culture to growing mini tubers to using our own farms that propagate seed.”
Baby Potato Production
To produce high-quality specialty potatoes, the company hired a consultant from the Cambridge University Research Farm in Europe. When you grow large-size potatoes, Bender says they will mature at a certain point so they will be crisp and solid. If you try to kill that potato at a young age to have a small potato, the tubers will get soft because they are not mature.
With the help of the consultant, Bender says they figured out how to produce small, mature potatoes as well as increase the number of tubers.
Tasteful Selections trials about 100 varieties each year and has an extensive variety development program complete with a full-time person who works with potato breeders in the U.S. and Europe, looking for the next great potato.
The potato plantlets are started from tissue cultures in the company’s Nutrient Film Technology (NFT) greenhouse in Colorado. The mini tubers from the greenhouse are then produced on Tasteful Selections’ seed farms, which are located in California, Arizona, Washington, and Nevada. Varieties are chosen based on tuber count, taste, color, and shape.
State-Of-The Art Packing
As the farming operation grew, Bender says a larger packing facility became necessary. The new structure, located in Arvin, CA, is about four times larger than the one they had been renting.
The packing facility opened in March 2015 and was designed to expand to 13 packing lines that can each handle two baggers, which will more than double the capacity, Bender says. In addition to providing room to expand, the new structure is very “green.”
“When you build a facility in California, you have to go above and beyond, exceeding the green material standard. We chose to design our facility to meet all of the California Green Building Standards and be green-certified in California. That entails thicker insulation, recycling water, and using LED lights — just to name a few of the requirements,” Bender adds.
The company’s efforts did not go unnoticed. In 2015, Tasteful Selections received a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition for the 2015 Kern Green Awards: Green Building Material and Design Award.
The operation also received a Certificate of Recognition from the Kern County Board of Supervisors as the recipient of the Green Building Material and Design Award from Kern Green for contributions to the community for a green environment and for exemplary public service and civic contributions.
In addition to ensuring the building is environmentally friendly, its original design incorporated room for two more expansions.
“We can take our packing facility and add two more packing facilities the same size contiguous with what we are doing. And with our cold storage, we can put on two more expansions of the same size we have already built,” he says.
In fact, the facility’s cold storage is undergoing an expansion as Tasteful Selections has already outgrown the original construction. Bender says this expansion comes with a $10 million price tag.
Today, Bender’s son Nathan is a critical component in the packing facility side of the operation, serving as vice president of operations.
“After Nathan graduated from college with an agribusiness degree, he worked for a couple of years outside of agriculture,” he says. “In 2007, I offered him an opportunity to pursue a career in the potato business.”
Bender also says he is looking forward to additional expansions and packing products other than ones for the Tasteful Selections line.
“Within the next 10 years, it is my hope that we will use off-grade potatoes for instant mashed potatoes or even potato vodka. I’m just looking at other options that will take this company forward,” he says. “The sky’s the limit.”