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Vilsack headed to Cuba, sees ag as a 'bridge' between nations

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will lead a delegation of U.S. government officials traveling to Havana Nov. 11-14, marking the first official U.S. Department of Agriculture visit to Cuba since 1961. Secretary Vilsack will be accompanied by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Reps. Terri Sewell (D-AL), Suzan DelBene (D-WA) and Kurt Schrader (D-OR).

“This trip will be an opportunity to support the administration’s commitment to normalizing relations and empowering the Cuban people through bilateral agricultural engagement,” Vilsack said. “Food and agricultural goods are the dominant U.S. exports to Cuba and agriculture can serve as a bridge to foster cooperation, understanding and the exchange of ideas. Expanding markets for American agriculture has been a priority for this administration, and relationships like the one we aim to build with Cuba are crucial to continuing the momentum we have seen over the past six years.”

The proposed schedule includes meetings with Cuban government officials in agriculture, foreign affairs and food purchasing. The delegation also plans to visit port facilities, markets and cooperatives.

Carlos Bennen named 2015 Pillar of the FPAA Award winner

TUBAC, AZ — Carlos Bennen posthumously was named the 2015 Pillar of the FPAA Award Nov. 6 at the closing dinner of the annual convention of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, here.

Matt Mandel, chairman of FPAA, made the presentation to Robert (Robbie) Bennen Sr. and Robert (Bob) Bennen Jr., who continues to operate Ta-De Distributing Co. in Nogales.Carlos-Bennen-3Marked by a red arrow is Carlos Bennen during the days when rail cars were king in shipping Mexican produce to the north.

With two Mexican grower-partners, Carlos Bennen launched Ta-De and played a leading role in Nogales’ development as the key distribution point for produce from West Mexico. Robbie and Bob Bennen are Carlos’ son and grandson, respectively.

Mandel described Carlos Bennen as “one of the early pioneers of the industry, a true Pillar of the FPAA. In fact, without his steady leadership, there is some doubt as to whether we would even be here tonight. In the early years of the West Mexico Vegetable Distributors Association, which eventually became the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, tonight’s pillar of the FPAA was the elected leader of the association not once, not twice, but three times.”

Born in 1910, Carlos Bennen got his first job in produce around 1938, when he went to work with Wells Fargo, which at that time had 100 percent of the Mexican export market through a concession, Mandel said. In those days, Wells Fargo also had an exclusive deal on farm equipment going south to Mexico.

“In the 1940s, when the Wells Fargo exclusive fell apart, entrepreneurs from southern Arizona started their own companies. Famous names like Wilson and Gotsis took hold of their own destinies, starting companies that remain with us today,” Mandel continued.Rosie-Robbie-BennenRosie and Robert (Robbie) Bennen Sr. of Ta-De Distributing Co. in Nogales, display the Pillar of the FPAA Award presented posthumously on Nov. 6 to Robbie’s father, Carlos Bennen.

Around this time, the RG James Co., a tomato grower and distributor from Tennessee, sought a salesman to grow its burgeoning Mexican deal. Bennen got that job in sales and eventually climbed up to general manager, where he stayed until the 1950s.

“As is still the case, tomatoes were the biggest item back then,” Mandel said. “In the morning, the inspectors would go across the line to check the quality of the produce. Then the boxcars would be staged in Nogales, Arizona, waiting on the tracks until they were sold.”

Mandel continued, “Over the years, Bennen had met the Tamayo brothers and Demuritis family in Mexico. He set up a distributorship in old downtown Nogales near the library. In 1957, Ta-De Distributing was born, as a three-way partnership between Bennen, the Tamayos and the Demuritis family.

Carlos Bennen retired from the day-to-day business in the mid 1970s, with Robbie taking the helm at Ta-De Distributing.  2015-11-6-2122-Bennen-familyRepresenting Carlos Bennen at his posthumous Pillar of the FPAA Award presentation were his daughter-in-law, Rosie Bennen, and his son, Robert (Robbie) Bennen Sr., with grandson Robert (Bob) Bennen Jr. and Bob’s wife, Satenik Bennen, and Bob’s daughter, Victoria Bennen. Robbie’s niece, Linda Alsigel Fain, flew to Arizona from Doha Qatar for the Pillar presentation. She is with Robbie’s sister, Sheila Bennen. In the front row of the photo are Bob’s children, Carlos R Bennen and Caroline Bennen, and Robbie’s sister, Pat Fain.

Robbie learned from his father’s integrity and tenacity. “He insisted that there were honest and open sales relationships,” Robbie said. “No lies, you had to tell it straight. And he wouldn’t back down.”

Mandel also noted that Jimmy Chamberlain, an early employee of Ta-De, said that Carlos Bennen “was a very honest person, and extremely knowledgeable about the industry.”

“He was a very good competitor, and was very loyal to his growers. He really worked on the relationships with the growers,” said Chamberlain, who eventually launched Chamberlain Distributing in Nogales.

Jimmy’s son, Jaime Chamberlain, nominated Carlos Bennen for this year’s award.

Yuma winter veg deal huge driver of Arizona ag industry

The Yuma, AZ, vegetable industry is fond of telling people that if you eat a salad in the United States during the winter months, more likely than not the lettuce was grown in this district.

With more than 90,000 acres of land, and an annual contribution of $2.5 billion to the Yuma economy, agriculture plays a huge role in southwest Arizona during the winter months. The Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association quantifies its produce volume in an interesting way that truly indicates its importance: “For all counties in the United States, Yuma County ranks in the top: 0.1 percent in sales of vegetable and melons; 0.1 percent in vegetable crop acreage; 0.2 percent in lettuce crop acreage; (and) 0.7 percent in sales of agricultural products.”YUMA-ARIZONAThe winter desert deal is under way as growers anticipate the effects of changing weather patterns and farm labor issues on the current and future seasons.

While the area produces a plethora of crops, vegetables are predominant. “In fact, Yuma farmers produce enough Iceberg lettuce each year for every person in the United States, Canada and Mexico to have their very own head of lettuce — with enough lettuce left for every person in the United Kingdom to have one too,” touts the YFVA website.

Bruce Gwynn, executive director of the association, said that the 2015-16 season appears to be shaping up as a normal one, in terms of overall acreage and production. However, he did note that a freak storm in early September dropped as much as six inches of rain on some ranches in the area. That storm wiped out many fields that had already been planted. Because it was early in the planting season, virtually all that acreage was replanted but it has meant a bit of a supply gap at the early end of the deal.

Steve Alameda, the president of YFVA who farms as Top Flavor Farms in Yuma, explained that the early rain has created a bit less acreage early in the season. “But the bigger problem was the heat in September and October,” he said.

Those two months, which was when the lettuce and other crops were in prime growing mode, were historically much warmer than usual. Alameda said quality has been affected, and the plants are producing small heads, which has led to far fewer pounds per acre. With so much of the Iceberg and mixed lettuces harvested for value-added products, poundage is extremely important. Consequently a hot market has greeted the beginning of the winter vegetable deal. In early November, the spot market on Iceberg lettuce was well into the $20s.

“I think it will be at least three to four weeks until we work through these issues,” said Alameda, who wasn’t scheduled to harvest his first fields until the week of Nov. 9.

The longtime Yuma area grower said the product mix is shifting a bit. He estimated that for the first time ever in 2014-15, total acreage of all the mixed lettuces surpassed iceberg lettuce. As an individual crop, he said Iceberg lettuce is still king but its acreage is going down a bit each year as growers replace it with romaine, red leaf, green leaf and other mixed lettuce items. “Throw in spinach [acreage]and it far surpasses Iceberg.”

As the season moves into a heavier harvesting period, Alameda said many people are focused on a potential labor shortage. “We are very worried about that. We don’t know who is going to harvest the crops.”

He said at the height of the season, it takes 30,000 to 40,000 workers per day to harvest and pack the winter vegetable deal. “Right now we have a terrible labor shortage. We don’t know where the workers are going to come from” as the need increases.

As far as the predicted El Nino that is expected to hit the West this year, Alameda said he has done everything he can to prepare for it. Because the brunt of those storms are supposed to hit later in the season, he made strategic planting decisions with regard to his land most susceptible to heavy rain. He also bedded up a lot of his acreage to be prepared for early rain. But for the most part, Alameda said that growers just have to wait and see what happens and how it affects them. “There’s not a lot you can do.”

The El Nino is sure to be a topic of discussion during YFVA’s Southwest Ag Summit, which will be held in late February on the campus of Arizona Western College in Yuma. Gwynn said the association is in the heavy planning stages of this annual event, which has become the premier agricultural event for this area. Last year, it attracted more than 825 people, including 80 vendors. Gwynn said that Roberta Cook of the University of California-Davis will be the keynote speaker of this produce-centric two-day show and seminar. He noted that water is always a major topic along with many other concepts including marketing, pest management and sustainability. More information is available on YFVA’s website,

Chelan Fresh unveils new value-added packaging

With apple season here, Chelan Fresh's new packaging — hitting store shelves by the end of the year — will help consumers pick the perfect fruit for their recipes.DSC 0014-GALA-BAG

The company's new packaging has more clear space, which helps consumers see more of the actual fruit. There are also new taste meters and taste profiles of apples and pears that help consumers select the fruit that fits their taste preference. It's also handy to help decide which variety of apple will best pair with different types of cheese, or which type might be best in an apple pie recipe.

This new value-forward packaging complements the company’s existing line of Go Fruit Convenience Packs, which includes Cup O’ Cherries, Cherry Pouch Bags, and Rockit Apples. Go Fruit Convenience Packs were created to offer nutritious snack options for people of all ages on the go.

When consumers find themselves running out for last minute purchases, there's a section on the pear packaging that gives tips on how to perfectly ripen pears for just the right texture. There are also seasonal recipes like Grandma’s Famous Apple Pie or Grandma Mimi’s Famous Pear Cake. Tote bags also include a QR code that will lead to even more inspiration in the kitchen.


Meijer's new SVP comes with fresh background

Meijer has named Tod Pepin as the retailer’s senior vice president of foods. Over the past 30 years Pepin has held a variety of retail leadership roles, including vice president of fresh foods merchandising at Hanneford Bros. Supermarkets. He will join Meijer Nov. 30. Tod-Pepin

“We are extremely pleased to have a leader like Tod join our organization,” Peter Whitsett, executive vice president of merchandising for Meijer, said in a press release. “His successful career within a family-owned business will make him a great cultural fit at Meijer, while his years of experience in key categories such as grocery and fresh will allow him to make a positive impact very quickly within our organization.”

Pepin most recently served as Delhaize America's senior vice president of merchandising governance, private brands and business planning.

Prior to Delhaize, Pepin spent nearly 30 years at family-owned Hanneford Bros. Supermarkets. He began his career at Hanneford as a store team member and held a variety of roles in store operations, supply chain, and merchandising, culminating with his role as senior vice president of merchandising.