Fresh Farms powers ahead after dramatic changes

by Tad Thompson | February 14, 2020

RIO RICO, AZ— The past year has brought deep sorrow and tremendous progress for Fresh Farms LLC.

The sad news, of course, was the untimely passing of Jerry Havel on July 17, 2019.

Havel was Fresh Farms’ director of sales and marketing. He was universally liked for his good humor, positive attitude and warm kindness to others. He was also appreciated and respected for his long produce industry experience. Months before he died, Havel suffered a recurrence of a cancer that he’d survived 30 years earlier. Surgery at the St. Louis University Medical School was a success. But as the weakened Havel recovered and planned to return to Fresh Farms, he caught pneumonia and was unable to fight it off.

Fresh-Farms-Juan-Pablo-MolinaJuan Pablo MolinaA simultaneous but independent event for Fresh Farms was the April 2019 merger of Fresh Farms and its sister produce marketing company, Visalia Produce, which is in Kingsburg, CA.

These operations are owned by Grupo Molina, based in Hermosillo, Sonora, which is one of Mexico’s largest fresh grape growers and a major Mexican grower and shipper of fresh vegetables. Headed by Marco Molina Sr., Grupo Molina’s farm operations are expanding into California.

Juan Pablo Molina is Fresh Farms’ general manager, working from the Rio Rico headquarters.

“The merger had been planned for a long time,” Juan Pablo Molina told The Produce News in January. “Of course, Jerry’s death was unexpected.” But despite his grave illness at the time “we went ahead” with the plans to make Fresh Farms and Visalia Produce one company.

Molina said this Mexican shipping season “is our first real test,” with the new working arrangements. There are efficiencies because, before the merger, “there were things we did twice. This is more effective.”

The Oct. 10 appointment of Scott Rossi as the new director of sales and marketing for Fresh Farms “was a great hire,” Molina said. “We were not replacing Jerry, but Scott brings new stuff to the table. He coordinates both offices and takes care of our major retail customers. He is not so involved in day-to-day sales, but programing and planning for the whole season. We are on the right track with that.”

On the production side of the business, Molina expected west Mexican vegetable production to be back on track by late February, with shipping starting from Hermosillo. “By Easter, on April 11, volume should be good.” Fresh Farms will have promotable volumes of watermelons until July 4.

In the grape business, Fresh Farms’ volume this year will be 33 percent greater than it was three years ago. Expected to exceed 4 million packages in 2020, Fresh Farms’ grape volume includes shipping from a new, early-producing Jalisco vineyard by the first week of April. “The way things are shaping up in the Southern Hemisphere, we should have a very nice window” to enter the table grape business.

“We will have a lot bigger volume that last year.” From Jalisco, Fresh Farms will be shipping Ivory, Sweet Globe, Great Green, Sugar Crisp and Cotton Candy specialty varieties. For the first time, this year Fresh Farms will also be shipping the red Sweet Celebrations, which “looks very promising.”

Fresh Farms will resume its traditional large-volume Sonoran grape shipping in May and the firm will be involved in California’s Coachella deal as it begins in June.

In its Sonora plantings around Hermosillo, “we are changing to new varieties — more specialty varieties. These include the black Sweet Bond, red Candy Snaps, as well as Sweet Sapphire and the red Candy Heart.

In Jalisco, Fresh Farms enjoys a brand new packinghouse. All Jalisco-produced grapes will be packed indoors. The company is moving that direction at its long-established Hermosillo farms. One Sonora packinghouse is under construction and the other is moving to packing all grapes in the facility. This enables removing field heat, which improves quality and shelf life. Soon, no Fresh Farms grapes will be packed in the field.

The firm is changing its grape boxes to also improve fruit quality.

The 2019 Mexican grape deal didn’t go well for many shippers. Molina said, “We had a lot of promotions and ads set before the season, so that helped us get through the season. As an industry, we need to plan to do the same. We need people eating grapes at the beginning of the summer.”

Molina is unconcerned about an overproduction of Mexican table grapes.

“We have good varieties, high quality and a strong customer list.”