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.”
Irrigation: From Flood To Linear
EXPANDING its acreage two years ago, Arvin, CA-based Tasteful Selections converted about 1,500 acres of flood-irrigated land into fields of potatoes, garlic, watermelons, carrots, and other row crops grown under linear sprinkler irrigation systems.
Securing the additional acreage, however, went hand in hand with the construction of a new packing facility.
“When we were deciding to build the new facility and I had to go to the board and owners for $30 million, the direction I was given was to secure long-term land. So I went and found 1,500 acres,” says Bob Bender, President and General Manager of Tasteful Selections.
The land he secured was ideal for vegetables. It was planted with 40-year-old grapevines, however, so they had to remove not only the grapevines and roots, but also posts and wire on all 1,500 acres.
Labor-Saving Irrigation System
The next step was implementing an efficient irrigation system. Bender opted for a linear irrigation system that uses computerized controls to deliver water through a main central pipeline to concrete ditches. The ditches, in turn, supply water to a system designed to irrigate square and rectangular fields — essentially hitting every corner of the fields.
“Coming from the Midwest, for me, I wanted automation. I used to run center pivot irrigation everywhere, and in California that is not very popular,” Bender says. “One of the drawbacks to center pivot is that it goes in a circle, so the corners aren’t irrigated. Because land is so expensive in California, we can’t waste those corners.”
Bender worked with Nebraska-based Valmont Industries, a supplier of linear systems. Essentially, he says the system covers all the acres by traveling the entire length and width of the field.
Supplying the irrigation water are wells tied together via a central 2½-mile-long distribution pipeline. The system is automated, complete with variable speed drives on the wells to keep the ditches at certain levels, so when the water in one ditch goes down a level, it will turn on another well, Bender explains. The result is it irrigates about 98% of the field and doesn’t leave out corners.
The farm uses nine linear systems on the 1,500 acres, requiring just two to three people to operate the systems, which saves on labor. If he used conventional irrigation practices, Bender says it would take 10 people to do the job.
Currently, the farm is in the process of converting an additional 800 acres of flood irrigated land to linear irrigation systems.
5 Qualities in an Awarding Winning Processing Facility
Bob Bender, President and General Manager of Tasteful Selections in Arvin, CA, offers five reasons why the company’s start-of- the-art- facility produces exceptional packages of potatoes.
- Everything is stainless steel, which Bender says adds cost but ensures a quality product and makes it easier to meet food safety standards. In fact, he says the operation got 100% on its recent Primus GFS audit.
- Total automation: Everything in the facility is run by computers, from bringing the potatoes into the packing line to washing, etc.
- No shears, tools to direct potatoes to another conveyor, are used. “We think shears damage our potatoes, so we don’t use them,” Bender says. “All belts are terminated to another belt.”
- A reduction in water usage: The facility uses less water than any other potato facility of its size, thanks to recycling water.
- A vision grading system: The system takes pictures of the potatoes as they are moving, sorting out the ones with defects.
Packages to Suit All Lifestyles
The potatoes that make up Tasteful Selections ready-to- eat packages include varieties of different colors: yellow, red, purple, and white – two varieties for each of those colors. The operation also grows colored varieties of fingerling potatoes.
“All of those varieties over time will change, but we do have our own proprietary variety, Honey Gold, and are working on getting exclusive rights to a couple of others, too,” says Bob Bender, President and General Manager of Tasteful Selections.
He sums up what distinguishes Tasteful Selections’ potatoes from the competition in one word: sizing.
“We size our potatoes in 5 millimeter (mm) increments. When you get a bag of potatoes, they are within a 5 mm tolerance, so they are uniform in shape and size and will cook at the same time and rate,” he says. “Our potato sizes are anywhere from 15 mm to 50 mm.”
The small sizes are convenient and cook quickly. Bender says that is what has attracted consumers to the potato products: convenience, size, and some packages are microwavable. Products are available in three, poly package sizes denoted as 1-bite (24-ounces), 2-bites (28-ounces), and 3-bite (40-ounces) as well as 24-ounce and 28-ounce mesh bag sizes.
When talking about convenience, Bender mentions the company’s springtime launch of a 5-ounce cup of potatoes called Take & Shake that comes with a seasoning packet. A snack product, Take & Shake cooks in three minutes and is shelf stable for 21 days.
This summer, the operation introduced a microwavable tray that has potatoes complete with seasoning. “It is a larger portion than the cup, with 16 oz., perfect for a family!”
Tasteful Selections also has an organic line. Currently, Bender says the organic business encompasses about 10% of the acreage. “That number, though, is growing every year,” he says. “I’m constantly working with landowners to convert land to organic.”
An organization that believes in giving back to the communities in which it lives and works, Tasteful Selections makes donations to the Yolo County Food Bank, the Golden Valley Gleaners and is involved in Katie’s Krops, California CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), Kern County Farm Bureau and Young Farmers and Ranchers, California Future Farmers of America (FFA), and the local Boys and Girls Club.Tasteful Selections donates to CASA and Katie’s Krops, which are organizations that create community gardens located across the U.S. that are maintained by local kids.“We have just started working with the Boys and Girls Club,” Bob Bender, President and General Manager of Tasteful Selections, adds. “We are presently working on a Farm to Table fundraiser with them.”
A MESSAGE FROM THE SPONSOR
AGROLIQUID is pleased to support the Grower Achievement Award. Recipients of this honor are proven leaders in agriculture; demonstrating innovative management and marketing practices, involvement in the industry, as well as being good stewards of the land.
AgroLiquid’s goal is to prosper the farmer while safeguarding the environment. Our core principles of product development are: conduct extensive research, emphasize solid agronomics, and create sustainability for growers and consumers alike. These principles are reflected in the recipients of the Grower Achievement Award.
AgroLiquid appreciates the efforts of all Grower Achievement Award recipients. Thank you for allowing us to be a part of saluting the achievements and contributions of these innovative vegetable growers displaying excellence in the industry.
ABOUT THE AWARD
THE 15th annual Grower Achievement Award is slated to be presented to Tasteful Selections on Sept. 13 during United Fresh’s Washington Conference in Washington, DC.
American Vegetable Grower’s® Grower Achievement AwardSM honors growers who represent the spirit of excellence in the industry — from production technology to marketing to sustainability.