Producer profile – Duda Farm Fresh Foods

— The innovations keep on coming —

From left: Perry Yance, Jesse Garza, William Mergott, Stephen Lee.

FFVA had a chance to sit down with five key players from Duda Farm Fresh Foods and catch up with a company that boasts a history of forward thinking and innovation.

At the table were Jesse Garza, general manager, who has been with the company for 29 years, starting in quality control and working his way into managerial positions by way of the harvesting end of the business, and Mike Robinson, a 39-year Duda veteran whose father also worked for the company for 40 years. Robinson is vice president of Eastern Vegetable Operations.

Also at the table was William Mergott, who started his Duda career in packaging, moved into the shipping area and is now the complex manager; Stephen Lee, operations farm manager who alsoserves in research and development. Lee started as a crop scout 26 years ago. And finally, Perry Yance, who began as a scout in 1984 and moved into production, eventually becoming farm manager for vegetables.

Duda Farm Fresh Foods is a division of DUDA, a diversified land company engaged in a variety of agricultural and real estate operations, now in its fifth generation of family ownership. One of the world’s largest celery producers, Duda Farm Fresh Foods Inc. is a full-service grower, packer, shipper, marketer, importer and exporter of fresh fruits and vegetables and fresh-cut vegetables.

In addition to celery, Duda Farm Fresh Foods is a major provider of citrus, sweet corn, lettuce and leafy vegetables, radishes and broccoli. Many of its products are sold under the Dandy® name.

FFVA: Tell us a little about your program that addresses the Produce Traceability Initiative. You were a pioneer in that area, weren’t you? (PTI is designed to help the industry maximize the effectiveness of current trace-back procedures, while developing a standardized industry approach to enhance the speed and efficiency of traceability systems for the future. Learn more here.)

Mergott: We were the leaders and now most of the grower/shippers in this area are developing programs.

Robinson: When we heard that the customer was going to want this, we got started right away.

FFVA: How does your PTI program work? What happens in the field, the packinghouse, etc.?

Mergott: You start with the harvest ticket – the grower, the ranch and the plot are on it. That information is entered into a computer – what we call harvest control records — and then when it comes in here we produce a harvest ticket. Those two records have to align.

The ticket uses codes to identify the grower, ranch and plot. The plot is your actual block and unit. The code will tell you the actual piece of ground where a plant was grown. All records for spraying, discing, planting and sowing are in the system.

Robinson: That tag will tell you everything. It traces the product back to its origin — the grower and the plot.

FFVA: What are the latest challenges with PTI?

Celery harvesting in Belle Glade. Photo credit: Michelle Ranville, EPA

Mergott: The latest challenge is to create a hybrid tag or what some retailers call the license plate. That’s where you consolidate a pallet. You need to have the bar codes of each traceability lot of each commodity. So, you’ve got to produce a hybrid tag or license plate for that consolidated pallet.

Garza: You might get something from a different lot or field or whatever is on that same pallet, and buyers need to know that when they break it down. Even if it’s the same commodity. Say its corn. They need to know where to separate that. It may be coming from two different fields. They need to have that hybrid tag to show it’s from different areas.

Mergott: With a license plate, all cases on a pallet can be identified by scanning the codes on that label without breaking down the pallet and scanning the labels on every case.

Garza: Another challenge is training people to use the technology. You need to train people who have never used anything but a pad and pencil to use a tablet so that the right information goes into the system.

FFVA: Another area you’re developing is food safety. Would you explain how that’s going?

Garza: It’s all about continuous training – day in and day out. We have to train our employees, see that our contractors’ workers are also trained, and deal with all of the many parts that go into the food safety program. It starts from analyzing your critical control points (HACCP or Hazard analysis and critical control points information available here) to worker health and hygiene.

Mergott: We have our own food safety team on site. We have a food safety manager and food safety technicians who monitor our operation and train our employees and our contractors. And we hire third-party auditors who come in and assess the situation. In addition, some customers have their own auditors who come in and do their own particular audit. So we have third-party auditing, customer audits and our own auditing.

Lee: Audits require very detailed documentation. If you’re doing something, you must have documentation that you’ve done it.

Yance: As an example, one food safety rule is you have to wash your hands before work. First you have the standard operating procedure to wash, then you have to train workers that they have to wash their hands, and then you have to document that training. And then you have to provide what they need to wash – soap, towels, etc. Then you have to monitor that and have written corrective actions. You have to train the supervisor that he has to watch and if someone doesn’t wash his hands, he has to tell that person to wash and then document that he did that. You’ve got to show all those things to the auditor.

Lee: The audits change every year, too. They get tighter and tighter.

Yance: We’d like to see a sharing of the responsibilities on delivering a safe food supply. There’s a lot on the farmer’s shoulders. We want to see the grocery store and the restaurant share responsibility that the food is handled and prepared correctly because anything can happen after food leaves the farm.

FFVA: We’ve heard that you’re doing some drip irrigation trials. What is that program all about? Why are you doing that?

Duda Farm Fresh Foods uses drip irrigation to increase production during drought conditions.

Robinson: We had a very severe drought a few years ago where the water supply got very low. We ended up not planting a part of our crop because of it. So we decided to look into another irrigation alternative.

Yance: Drip irrigation has been around for a while, but it’s usually used on sand soils. We normally use seep irrigation from canals and the lateral ditch system. When there’s plenty of water in the canals and ditches, it works well. But because we didn’t want to repeat what happened as a result of that drought, we’ve been trying drip on muck – mostly on celery. We’ve been trialing it for about six years in varying size experiments, and we’re getting results. Probably half of the trials we’ve done we’ve seen an increase in yields that we feel have helped us recoup the cost. It’s very dependent on water available. If you have intermittent rainfall and have plenty of water, you’re not going to see that difference. But when it’s dry, we definitely do see the difference.

Robinson: We’ve learned a lot and we have it on reserve, so that if we ever do have a drought we can go in there on a pretty large scale and be able to use it.

FFVA: Finally, what’s new in breeding? Are we going to see some cool new products from you in the near future?

Radish MiniSticks are matchstick-like salad toppers from Duda Farm Fresh Foods.

Lee: The company is committed to breeding radishes and celery. Not too many companies do that. We have two PhDs on staff – one for celery, one for radishes. We’re always looking to improve flavor, disease resistance, color, yields. We have some radish varieties in R&D now that are round pinks, round purples, round whites and an elongated red that has a really nice red starburst configuration. The goal in radishes is to develop a large size with solid inside, a nice white flesh and good exterior red color. One of our products that we’re starting to produce is the mini-stick where we take an oversize radish and cut it into what looks like matchsticks. It’s red on each end and great for topping salads.

FFVA: What else is Duda Farm Fresh Foods doing these days that you’d like people to know about?

Yance: There are two things. First of all, we have a commitment to conservation. We try to do the best we can to keep the soil here, keep the fertilizer here and keep Florida’s water clean. In the Glades, farmers have been making an effort for many years to hold water on the farm as long as possible and monitor it for phosphorus. We have Best Management Practices in place to keep the phosphorus out of the water supply.

We also do a lot of public education into what it takes to grow our crops. We do a lot of tours for buyers, regulators – in fact we were just a part of the FFVA Spring Regulatory Tour. We make an effort to tell our story as best as we can and educate people about where their food is coming from and how safe it is. There are so many misconceptions.

Garza: Our number one priority is to provide a safe, quality product to our customers. And those customers include our own families. We take our responsibilities very seriously.

Learn more about Duda Farm Fresh Foods here.  You’ll find product details, recipes as well as lots of interesting information, inspiration and money-saving tips.

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