Life is never boring at FFVA producer member Big Red Tomato Packers. In addition to growing and packing tomatoes and peppers, the family team is involved in research into new types of tomatoes, lending a hand to the hungry, helping young people find their way to success and rewarding war heroes.
The family’s Florida farming history got its start when Roy L. Neill left the tobacco fields of North Carolina for the challenge of farming in Homestead. In 1944, after a few years of serving as a farm manager, Roy moved the family north to Fort Pierce, where he started farming on his own.
In 1980, Roy and sons Kenneth, Richard and David partnered with another family, the Carusos, to form Big Red Tomato Packers. The Caruso family, or Blue Bird Citrus, was already established in agriculture as the largest single-strength grapefruit processor in Florida. The family-owned, sustainable farming and packing operation continues to thrive today, growing and packing round, Roma and yellow tomatoes as well as bell peppers for retail and wholesale markets.
A third generation is now active in the operation, including David’s daughter Erin Neill Cox and sons Rowan and Michael. Erin works in the packinghouse part of the operation and her brothers work on the farms.
Part of Erin’s job is food safety. “It’s something you really have to stay on top of and understand all the requirements,” she said. “I attend workshops and seminars regularly, including those FFVA offers, and make sure we’re on the leading edge.” The farms in Stuart and Fort Pierce are regularly inspected and audited for food and employee safety. Farming operations adhere to regulations set forth by the Florida Department of Agriculture and the University of Florida’s Tomato Good Agricultural Practices and Tomato Best Management Practices.
Managers on the farm and in the packinghouse have been trained and certified on all food safety policies. The packinghouse has been audited annually since 1998. The packinghouse and farms’ 2015-2016 audits produced a “superior” food safety rating according to Primus GFS. In addition to Primus GFS, Big Red’s facility and farms are audited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Harmonized Produce GAP audit.
As far as participation in product development research, the company works with Dr. Sam Hutton from the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences on the viability of producing a type of tomato that would lend itself to machine harvesting. “It’s a compact-growth tomato. It’s grown on a smaller vine and bush, resulting in a tomato that could be the key to being able to harvest mechanically,” Erin said.
And as if that’s not enough to keep a family busy, the Neills go out of their way to assist young people, the hungry and veterans.
Erin serves as a member of the board of directors of the Treasure Coast Food Bank. “It serves Indian River, Martin, St. Lucie and Okeechobee counties,” she said. “We are a Feeding America Food Bank. I’ve been on the board for about four or five years. We donate product and money, some of which goes to mobile food pantries that go to a food desert and give out food to families.”
Other community involvement includes support for a program called “Take Stock in Children,” a scholarship program for at-risk youth, run by Indian River State College. It offers a four-year college scholarship in exchange for good grades and behavior. Through mentoring from responsible adults, the Take Stock program ensures success in high school and beyond for students that would potentially have dropped out of school.
“We also donate to Southeast Florida Honor Flight. Honor Flights take World War II and Korean War veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorials built in their honor,” Erin said. “They take about 80 veterans and 80 guardians per flight. We donate money and I have been on four flights as a guardian. It’s a great program. Honor Flight shows the men and women who gave so much to our country that Americans are grateful for their service and sacrifice,” she said.
Learn more about Big Red Tomato Packers’ products and people on the company’s website.