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November 12, 2012

County farm fills East Coast's broccoli niche

photo/James McCarthy
photo/James McCarthy
Lance Smith oversees a conveyor space where broccoli bunches are wrapped.
photo/Courtesy Smithís Farm
Lance Smith and his cousin Greg Smith represent the fifth generation of their family to farm in Aroostook County
photo/James McCarthy
Lance Smith shows a shrink-wrapped broccoli thatís preferred in Southern supermarkets.
photo/James McCarthy
Workers oversee boxes of broccoli that are ready to be shipped to East Coast markets.
photo/Courtesy Smith’s Farm
Smith’s Farm employs upward of 250 migrant workers to harvest its broccoli crop in Aroostook County

Smith's Farm Inc./H. Smith Packing Corp.

Address: 99 Fort Road, Presque Isle

Founded: 1859

Co-owners: Lance Smith, Greg Smith, Emily Smith, Zachary Smith, Tara Smith Vighetti

Employees: 25 year round; 250 seasonal workers

Acres in production: 4,000 broccoli; 3,000 in potatoes, grains

Annual revenue: $25 million gross

Contact: 800-393-9898 www.smithsfarm.com

If you go into a supermarket anywhere east of the Mississippi River, odds are high the broccoli displayed in the fresh produce section came from Smith's Farm's fields in Aroostook County … or its fields in northeast Florida.

Of the three retail broccoli growers in Maine selling beyond local markets, two are located in Aroostook County. And of those two, Smith's Farm, by far, is the largest, with a distribution range extending to the Mississippi River. But you won't see the Smith name on that broccoli bunch, only a stag on the rubber band holding the stalks together.

Make no mistake, though, this sixth-generation farming family based in Presque Isle is proud of its broccoli, potatoes and grains. The Stag brand has been the farm's premium label for more than 50 years — initially for potatoes but increasingly over the last 25 years for broccoli as well. What it brands, according to the company's website, is quality, freshness and the integrity of the Smith family's farming practices.

How then does the Stag brand help Smith Farms, if consumers have no way of connecting the label to the family name?

"That's a good question," replies Tara Smith Vighetti, a sixth-generation family member who serves as Smith's Farm's director of marketing. "What we've found based on research is that our 'customer' isn't necessarily the buyer at the grocery store: It's the people who make the buying decisions at the retail level. Our retail buyers along the East Coast know our story, our legacy, our name and brand. We do a lot to let them know who we are."

A September visit to the Smith's Farm's processing and distribution center in Westfield — operated by the family's sister company H. Smith Packing Corp. — drives home the point that potatoes aren't the only crop grown in Aroostook County, although 90% more acreage is devoted to potatoes there than broccoli, according to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

"We're lucky we found a niche for a product that people wanted," says Lance Smith, who with his cousin, Greg, represents the fifth-generation of Smiths farming in The County. "People can have good confidence of our broccoli's freshness and quality. The air is clean, the water is clean and it's harvested so close to the markets it's in the grocery store only a day or two after it's harvested. We've spoiled the buyers in New England. The broccoli order that came in at 11 a.m. was harvested this morning. We'll ship it out by truck at 4 p.m. It will be in Boston at 3 a.m. and in the store that very day."

To which Greg Smith adds: "The 'impossible' is done immediately. Miracles take a little longer."

An Asian flair

At the Westfield distribution center, trucks line up at mid-morning waiting to be loaded with iced boxes of broccoli cut that morning. Inside the facility, a front loader deposits ice into a pulverizer, which transforms it into a watery slush that's funneled into a box of broccoli waiting below. The slush pours in for a few seconds, then the box moves mechanically onto a conveyor, replaced by a new box that will get the same treatment. As water drains from the doused box, the remaining slush forms an icy armor around the broccoli.

It's fast, efficient and locks in the fresh flavor that consumers along the East Coast take for granted when they select a bunch of broccoli from the produce bin at their local supermarket. Other truckloads will ship broccoli that's shrink-wrapped and iceless, the preference of buyers in Southern supermarkets. Broccoli will ship out in 14- and 18-count bunches, as crowns, Asian crowns and florets — the various cuts catering to consumer preferences.

Lance Smith points to a stack of boxes to be loaded into the trailer of a waiting truck. Inside are broccoli crowns, the preferred cut for Smith Farm's growing Asian market in the Chinese communities of Boston, New York City and Philadelphia. The label is written in Chinese. He acknowledges the company hired a translator for that specialty job.

"There's a huge market for broccoli crowns," Smith says. "We do a lot of business in New York City. We've got two or three tractor trailers delivering broccoli into [Chinatown] each day."

Each carton heading out of the H. Smith Packing Corp.'s distribution center has a bar code conveying specific information about the broccoli packed inside: the field where it came from, crew that did the harvesting, date and time. That way, if there's ever a problem, it can be pinpointed back to the particular shipment and source quickly. It facilitates the quality-control review that will follow. Smith's Farm is all about freshness and consistency, says Lance, and holding everyone accountable for quality — from the field workers to packers to the truckers delivering the produce to the market — is how the Stag brand keeps its standing in the market.

He says Smith's Farm's proximity to the large metropolitan markets of the East Coast gives it an edge over its California competitors whose produce might take four or five days to arrive. But that competitive edge is never taken for granted.

"When we say 'It ships today,' we have to know we can fulfill that promise," Lance says, noting that his daughter Emily is the one who coordinates that aspect of the family business. "When we say 'yes' we mean 'yes.'"

East Coast markets within overnight delivery range extends to mid-state New York and eastern Pennsylvania and south to coastal Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. Second-day delivery extends through western Michigan and Ohio down through Kentucky, Tennessee and South Carolina. By day three, Smith's Farm broccoli has been delivered all the way to the Mississippi River.

Walter Whitcomb, commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, says there's no question Smith Farms enhances Maine's reputation as a "place to grow a good product."

"They're a significant broccoli grower east of the Mississippi — if not the most significant," he says. "They understand marketing. They've worked hard on finding varieties that suit Maine's climate and soils and meet the market's needs. They think 'big' and have made the investments they needed to make. They certainly are among the best. They take a lot of pride in what they do."

New crop for The County

Greg Smith says his family originally got into the broccoli business in the 1980s because it's a good rotation crop with potatoes. When it became obvious that broccoli was valuable in its own right as an agricultural crop, the company expanded the acreage devoted to it. There are now roughly 4,000 acres devoted to broccoli — out of 7,000 farm acres — with a crop rotation cycle ranging from three to seven years that alternates broccoli, potatoes, barley, wheat and soybeans.

Additional acreage is leased from neighboring potato farms (which, in turn, lease land from Smith's Farm for their crop rotation needs), rounding out the 16,000 acres Smith Farms requires to maintain a 4,000-acre broccoli rotation.

Each rotational crop adds nutrients to the soil needed by the next crop in the cycle — thereby reducing fertilizer costs. It also helps to control erosion by providing ground cover when broccoli or potatoes aren't planted.

Barley also happens to be a good cash crop for Smith's Farm. Much of it is sold to the Canada Malting Co., which uses it to produces malt for the brewing, distilling and food markets. Grain not used by the brewing market can be sold to Pineland Farms Natural Meats and Aroostook cattle farmers as feed.

The farm uses a mix of old and new techniques. Global-positioning systems guide tractors when plowing and planting broccoli, ensuring that the rows are perfectly straight for optimum crop maintenance and harvesting. The resulting efficiency lowers overall costs and improves erosion control in the acreage devoted to broccoli each season.

Harvesting is another story: There's no technology invented yet that can do better than an experienced harvester with a razor-sharp knife cutting the broccoli one stalk at a time.

"You still need eyes to tell if the broccoli is ready," says Lance.

For that work, Smith's Farm flies in between 150 to 250 migrant workers from California to do its broccoli harvesting in The County. The migrant workers, some of whom have been harvesting broccoli for Smith's Farm for 20 years, are highly skilled specialists who work six days a week, making $10 to $12 an hour, with housing and transportation provided. Cutters cut, packers pack, boxers box: That's what the workers prefer, Lance Smith says, expressing surprise that no one switches jobs to break the monotony.

"They like working in Maine, they can make more money here," he says, noting that in California the workers have to pay their own transportation and housing costs.

Farming as a future

The Smith family isn't hung up on formal job titles. Lance and his daughters Emily and Tara, his cousin Greg and Greg's son Zachary are identified simply as the "farm team."

Even so, Lance acknowledges each family member brings particular strengths to the team and they've naturally gravitated to the assignments best suited to them. He credits the up-and-coming generation with helping Smith's Farm keep pace with the complex challenges of following sustainable farming practices while also keeping a close eye on costs, quality control and marketing.

"They are a lot better versed in the science of agriculture than we are," he says. "You've got to be able to look at the numbers, look at the cash flow. There's a huge investment out there."

The weather, not surprisingly, is a critical variable that can suddenly put the brakes on a season that had been going well, or turn those blue-green broccoli fields into a bumper crop. And Smith's Farm is additionally challenged in sustaining operations in Maine — where the harvest typically runs from July through early November — and its farm in Florida, where broccoli is grown December through April.

In 2001 Smith's Farm started growing broccoli in northeastern Florida to close what had been a seventh-month opening for its California competitors to sell broccoli in Eastern grocery stories. Now Smith's Farm broccoli is out of the market only during April, May and June. Lance Smith says the Florida operation carries its own set of weather-related challenges.

"It can be 80 degrees today, 25 degrees tomorrow and two days later back up to 85 degrees," he says.

On Oct. 29, as the remnants of Hurricane Sandy bore down on Maine, Smith's Farm completed its broccoli harvest in Aroostook County. The final accounting hasn't been completed, but Tara Smith Vighetti says it looks like it was an "average year" for broccoli.

Standing at the edge of a 140-acre field of broccoli being harvested in early September, her father gestures across the field and notes his father's potato farm was about that size. His gaze takes in that blue-green field of broccoli and The County's wide-open vistas and gently rolling hills that surround it.

"My father would be just flabbergasted to see the acreage we have now," he says.

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