In the late 1940s, Max Lipman began a long career in the produce business by selling produce from a pushcart in New York. The company he founded is now the largest grower of field tomatoes in North America, providing fresh produce year-round through a network of research and development, farming, repacking, processing and procurement. It’s been a long and interesting journey.
With his three sons and three sons-in-law, Lipman saw opportunities in the world of produce. They graduated from the pushcart, becoming tomato brokers in the early 1950s. Then they opened a packing operation where they packed produce for farmers and marketed the products.
After a couple of rough years, when the Lipmans and their company, Six L’s, couldn’t find enough produce to run their packinghouse, they figured it was time to grow food on their own. They became growers/packers/shippers.
In the 1990s, the company started a repacking operation, and about seven years ago, it kicked off its own research and development branch, which creates proprietary varieties. Six L’s then expanded into the fresh-cut/processed area of the industry. These different operations were all run by Six L’s, but functioned under different names. As the company continued its reach, executives realized that it was time for a name change.
“Since we are a large company with a national presence, we thought it would be to our advantage if we had the same identity for all aspects of our business,” said Gerry Odell, Lipman’s chief farming officer. “We wanted to bring all of the things we do under one name in a coordinated effort to carry out our mission, which is to be the most reliable supplier of fresh tomatoes in North America.”
Lipman operates repacking operations in Florida, Oregon, California, Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, Arizona, and Mexico. Its farms are in Oregon, California, Florida, Arkansas, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and Mexico.
It recently acquired Coastal, a Portland, Ore., repack operation, and Branscomb Produce in Winston-Salem as part of its efforts to expand in the repack market. “We believe that’s a strong part of our business going forward,” said Toby Purse, Lipman’s chief financial and administrative officer.
An interactive map of Lipman’s locations is posted here.
R&D keeps Lipman a standout producer
Lipman’s in-house research and development team of scientists, led by Dr. Mark Barineau, is dedicated to the quest for the “perfect tomato” that has abundant flavor, superior nutritional value and prolonged shelf life. It’s not an easy job.
As of next year, the company will be growing about 4,500 acres of proprietary hybrids.
“We’re very pleased,” said Odell. “Dr. Barineau and his team have accomplished an enormous amount in a short period of time. We’re able to coordinate their efforts with the rest of the company and receive detailed evaluations of the new hybrids through the distribution chain. This has allowed us to get very good feedback from all levels of the company, which points us in the right direction when we’re making our selections for these hybrids.
One of the highlights of the company’s research is the Vintage Ripe, a proprietary breed that Lipman markets as an heirloom tomato with superior taste.
Providing product year-round
By maintaining growing operations across the continent, Lipman is able to provide a seamless stream of fresh produce throughout the year. At this time of the year, Lipman harvests tomatoes in the Central Florida and Wimauma areas. Around the first week of June, harvesting moves to Beaufort, S.C.
“We spend about a month in Beaufort and then we move to Virginia in early July. About that time, we also begin production in California. By August 1, we’re harvesting in California and Virginia and beginning to plant our Florida crop. We move out of Virginia by mid-October and pass through South Carolina on our way back to Florida,” said Odell.
Lipman’s Florida tomato harvest begins in LaBelle, then moves farther south to Palm Beach County and Immokalee through the winter, as well as to Mexico. Then it’s back to Central Florida in late April and the cycle repeats.
“This structure allows us to deliver fresh tomatoes 365 days a year,” Purse said.
But the company grows more than tomatoes.
“We produce watermelons, bell peppers, cucumbers, specialty peppers, hard squash and about 1,100 acres of red- and yellow-skinned potatoes in the Immokalee area,” Odell added
Staying competitive is a challenge
Competition is “very much like it’s always been, but it’s not getting any easier,” Odell said. “You have to keep the cost of production down, keep the quality and the volume up, and maintain a competitive stance in the marketplace. There’s no question that there’s a lot of competition from Mexico in the wintertime and actually year-round now. There’s a lot of Canadian product coming into the U.S. from April to November. We understand that. We can’t change what other people do, so we focus on what we do and do the most efficient job we can.”
The tomato business is almost a pure free market: “The law of supply and demand works very directly with the price of tomatoes. You navigate those waters as best you can, with good information on what others in the market are doing, watch the trends at the retail shelf and make sure you create a product that the customer really wants to eat,” Odell said
Reaching out to consumers
Lipman has recently launched a business-to-consumer effort. “We have traditionally been business-to-business, but now we’re interacting with the consumers themselves through Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and YouTube. Plus we have quite a few bloggers working with us. We’re launching our consumer website this month – www.lipmankitchen.com,” Purse said.
These new avenues for communication are an extension of Lipman’s “Access to the Acre” philosophy, which enables customers to communicate with farmers. The program targets all of Lipman’s customers, including consumers, retailers and restaurant owners.
“We want to give people access to our farming operations so they can understand how we produce the products they buy and give them a feeling about who we are,” Odell said. “A lot of customers and consumers have developed an interest in knowing where their food comes from.”
“Access to the Acre” uses an Estero farm, called the “Lipman Vegetable Garden,” which produces a wide variety of the company’s vegetables. “We invite our customers to visit so they can see what’s being produced in Florida throughout the season. We’ve had a lot of visitors this year. We’re able to acquaint them with how things are produced, where and when they’re produced – the whole rhythm of things.”
The Lipman team also tries to spread the word that being a large farming operation is not a bad thing when it comes to sustainability. “The assumption is that large growers are not ecologically aware, but small growers are. We feel that’s unfair. We recycle all our plastic mulch and tape. We use a lot of compost from yard waste. We’re converting all of our pump stations to high-efficiency/low emission engines. The vast majority of our farms are on drip irrigation, which saves water. For many years, we have used integrated pest management to reduce the use of pesticides to the absolute minimum necessary. And we have in place a program that has greatly reduced diesel consumption in the off season. We spend a lot of time trying to create these initiatives within our farming organization to save energy and keep our lands in the best possible shape,” Odell says.