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STEP-UPP class tours variety of facilities in Georgia

stepupp6198ATLANTA — The Southeast Produce Council's 2019 STEP-UPP class hit the road the second week in April to visit a variety of farms, packinghouses and other facilities in the state of Georgia, part of the program's ongoing learning experience for class members to develop a greater understanding of the fresh produce industry.

The 11 members of the 2019 class on the informative tour were Steve Bartkowiak of U.S. Foods, Carissa Feld of Associated Wholesale Grocers, Earl Fobb Jr. of Rouses Markets, Bradley Hansman of Southeastern Grocers, Jordan Kowalski of Performance Foodservice, Haley Kuettel of Walmart, Brittany Rosen of Harps Food Stores, Jacqueline Soria of HelloFresh, James Williams of Sam's Club, Marianna Willis of Food Lion and Matt Zapczynski of Merchants Distributors LLC.

David Sherrod, the council's president and chief executive officer, also accompanied the group.

John Ballard, vice president of foodservice sales at Club Chef, with Mark Daniels, director of business development at General Produce.

The Southeast Training Education Program for Upcoming Produce Professionals is coordinated by Mike Roberts, a member of the SEPC board of directors and who is director of produce operations at Harps Food Stores; and Faye Westfall, a former chairperson of the SEPC board of directors and who is director of sales at DiMare Fresh Tampa. The 2019 class is the ninth class in this very popular program.

After gathering Tuesday evening, April 9, at the Embassy Suites Atlanta Airport as the base hotel, the tour got underway Wednesday morning, April 10, at the State Farmers Market. The first stop was Club Chef, where the group met John Ballard, vice president of foodservice sales at Club Chef, and Mark Daniels, director of business development at General Produce. Both firms are part of The Castellini Group of Companies.

The class heard about the Club Chef facility from Claudio Garcia and Joe Wyte, and learned more during a discussion in the company's conference room.

The next stop was the Nickey Gregory Co., where Andrew Scott, the firm's director of marketing and business development, told the STEP-UPP class about the company, which is a full-line produce distributor carrying more than 400 commodities in its locations in Atlanta and Miami.

During lunch at the market, the group met Jeff Howard, manager of the Atlanta State Farmers Market, which opened in 1959. The market is open seven days a week, 24 hours a day; it is closed to the public on Christmas Day.

After the market visit, the group stopped at two retail outlets: the DeKalb Market and Sprouts Farmers Market.

On Thursday, the group boarded the bus for a 90-minute drive to the first stop: Pure Flavor in Fort Valley, GA.

Chris Veillon, the company's chief marketing officer, told the group a little about the company, which is a family of greenhouse vegetable growers, headquartered in Leamington, Ontario, about 30-40 miles east of Detroit.

After donning hairnets, coats and foot coverings, the group saw cucumbers and tomatoes growing in the greenhouses. The ultra modern Georgia complex is the largest facility of its kind in the southeastern United States, according to a company factsheet.

Gustavo Vera, general manager of the facility, talked about what goes into growing cucumbers in the greenhouse to achieve optimal quality.

Back on the bus, the next stop was Genuine Georgia, which provided lunch for the STEP-UPP group while Mark Sanchez, CEO of Lane Southern Orchards, Duke Lane of Lane Southern Orchards and Genuine Georgia, and Kent Hoots of Lane Southern Orchards and Genuine Georgia told the class about the company and its primary products: pecans and peaches. (Lunch included an outstanding peach cobbler.)

After lunch, the class saw a peach packingline, and then went into a peach orchard, where Bobby Lane explained the pruning and thinning process to the class members, many of whom climbed a ladder to try their hand at pruning.

The group also saw pecan trees, and many class members had the opportunity to drive the pecan shaker.

On the final day, Friday, April 12, the class met with Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary W. Black. "Welcome to nature's favorite state," the commissioner quipped as he began his presentation.

Black, who was first elected to his current post in November 2010, spoke about agriculture in his state, telling the group, "We can help you in your businesses, and we appreciate your visit."

He noted that food safety is a key part of the Georgia Department of Agriculture. "It's an ongoing process to stay in the forefront of food safety," he stated. "We hope this [visit] is a step toward earning your trust."

He also spoke about the "Georgia Grown" brand, saying, "It's been fun developing this brand over the last eight years. People do want to know where their food comes from."

The presentation by Commissioner Black concluded the trip, and a few days later, class members shared their comments on the entire event with The Produce News via email.

Williams of Sam's Club said, "For me the highlight of these trips are the dialogues between suppliers and STEP-UPP's group of buyers. It's interesting to hear what's on other retailers' minds and understand how their priorities differ from ours. This creates a more dynamic discussion for all of us."

Feld of Associated Wholesale Grocers said that her favorite part was the peach and pecan farm at Genuine Georgia. "I love seeing the trees and the baby peaches. It was so interesting seeing how farming has been done for centuries," she said. "I also adored the hothouse. The amount of technology and engineering that is now going [into] feeding the world is astonishing. I'm enjoying the entire experience and am so grateful to have been one of the few chosen to do this. I couldn't have asked for a better group of people to experience this with."

Willis of Food Lion said, "All of the tours were interesting. My favorite was the Pure Flavor tour. It was enlightening to tour the facility and learn about the technology and all the thought that is put into their operations. It seems that they have everything figured out: the exact amount of water, sunlight and fertilizer the plants need. All of these conditions yield a tasty tomato in the end. It was also good to learn about Genuine Georgia. The educational session with Commissioner Gary Black was enjoyable. I like what they're doing with the Georgia Grown program and getting Georgia-grown produce into the schools. The [STEP-UPP] program has been so beneficial to me both in the educational aspect and the relationship-building opportunities. I've enjoyed getting to know people from different walks of the produce industry: vendors, foodservice providers, other retailers [and] SEPC board members."

Zapczynski of Merchants Distributors said, "Pure Flavor was absolutely amazing. Genuine Georgia was a great destination to take the whole family. You could wander the shop, get a bite to eat, pick some fresh strawberries or just sit on the porch in the rocking chairs and let the day pass you by. I could not have imagined a better group of people to share this adventure with. With our varying backgrounds, it was nice to see how we all looked at things differently and learned from each other."

Kowalski of Performance Foodservice said, "I personally learn better by getting my hands dirty -- by doing something myself instead of just reading about it or being told about it. Learning about how much goes into building Georgia's largest greenhouses and what it takes to get the perfect tomato or cucumber is astonishing. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to visit Lane Southern Orchards and learn about the struggles of modern-day peach and pecan farming and how they overcome them. Without the STEP-UPP program, I would have never been able to see and learn all that I did on this trip."

Rosen of Harps said, "My favorite parts of the trip were the visits to Pure Flavor and Lane peach farm. Personally, I took away very useful information that I can use to help educate my customers and fellow employees. Having more of a story to tell about the items we handle in stores makes them much more interesting to learn about."

Soria of HelloFresh said, "One of my key takeaways from the STEP-UPP Georgia trip was something Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said -- that as buyers for our organizations, we need to transform our produce sections into farmers markets. Data shows that consumers are increasingly shopping for their produce at farmers markets over other channels. However, produce sourced for our organization is from fantastic farms such as those that are part of the Georgia Grown association. I left Georgia thinking about how I can better communicate to my customers where their produce is from and who grew it."

Bartkowiak of U.S. Foods said, "Over all, the trip was personally amazing for me. The value-added side of General Produce was very impressive with seeing the different machines and what they produce. The industry, whether it be retail or foodservice, is seeing fast growth in this segment. Pure Flavor was my favorite part of the trip. Pure was my first visit to a hothouse, and the technology behind it was a site to see. Lane Orchards and Genuine Georgia were also interesting, seeing the old farming techniques. When it comes to harvesting peaches, I now have a new level of respect [for] the artistic work the farmers go through to harvest peaches."