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Florida has played crucial role in success of Smith’s Farm

By
John Groh

Smith’s Farm made its name growing broccoli and potatoes in Maine, but Florida has played an important role for the company in building the strategy that continues to fuel its growth today.

Florida was crucial to the development of Smith’s go-to-market strategy of supply integration with other partners in the East and the West to stabilize what would otherwise be a risky, inconsistent program, according to Tara Smith Vighetti, president of Smith’s Farm Sales.

broccoli“We started growing broccoli in Florida in 1999, with a lot of trial and error,” she said, adding that the climate in Florida is much different than Maine and requires specialized growing practices and different varieties. The Florida production eventually caught on and even proliferated, in part due to the company’s experience and reputation as a quality grower.

Initially, Florida broccoli was an in-and-out, up-and-down offering at the mercy of the open market competition from the West Coast and Mexico as well as wild weather patterns that include planting during hurricane season and harvesting during a “winter” that could include 80 degrees or 30 degrees in the same week.

“The saving grace at the beginning was that broccoli was still a novel thing in the East and the concept of ‘local’ was making a splash,” said Smith Vighetti. “As a result, we made new inroads with retail customers in the South, who were willing to take our product when it was available and they could work it in. But the inconsistency of availability due to weather took its toll, and for 10 years Florida really was a roller coaster.”

When Smith Vighetti joined Smith’s Farm in 2004, her role was controller for the still-young Florida production company. “I joined the company during the beginning of the shift toward more consolidation in the retail landscape,” she said.

Smith’s Farm saw that sales options for Florida would become more risky. With fewer, but larger, retail accounts, the company would have a harder time surviving on the whims of the market as buyers had fewer options to sneak in a regional program to an otherwise robust formalized annual contract commitment.

“Those retail accounts wanted year-round supply, so we had to shift our business strategy,” she said. “We have a nice 16-week broccoli program in Florida, running from early December through early April. But even with that, it was tough to give year-round commitments because one cold week and a big gap going behind, and we were out.”

To hedge against those potential losses, Smith Vighetti said that her father, Smith’s fifth-generation leader Lance Smith, started integrating partnerships with growers in the West to have planned acreage to stabilize Florida’s program. The small but regular integration of planned western production infused into the transition gaps and amped up when field managers saw a gap coming completely changed the bottom line for Smith’s Farm in Florida.

“This new strategy gave us confidence to make commitments knowing we wouldn’t fall down, or worse, have to cover big gaps at unplanned market coverage from the West,” said Smith Vighetti.

Smith Vighetti said the topic of sustainability usually revolves around farming and good agricultural practices, but with an accounting background she has come to value sustainability on the financial side of the business, too. The new strategy worked, and Smith’s Farm Florida became a stable force with predictable contracts for its season. And even more importantly, Smith had discovered a strategy that would support growth into multiple eastern states and a new array of commodity offerings.

By 2012, Smith Vighetti had transitioned from the accounting and finance side of the business to sales and business development, learning from her father Lance and relying on the growing expertise of her sister, Emily, and cousin, Zach. 

“At Smith’s Farm, we are all about providing the best customer service, and the last thing we want to do is disappoint our customers by not fulfilling a commitments,” Smith Vighetti said.

She added that the long-time relationships with her clients means that there is a level of trust and transparency that benefits both parties.

“I try to be as transparent as possible with our clients,” she said. “If I know there will be a supply gap in Florida, we are communicating that to let them know we see it and are out ahead of it. In turn, they trust us to know the business and our commodity strengths. They now have access to all the benefit of the locally available program without the insanity of the risky fluctuations in weather and volumes.” 

Smith Vighetti continued, “The collection of short seasons and transitions up and down the East Coast that it takes to put together year-round veg offerings makes my West Coast contemporaries’ heads spin. But Smith’s transition from seasonal summer East Coast grower to the transition-ready, on-the-move, follow-the-sun, 52 weeks of East Coast produce is evidence that it works, and Florida is where we learned how to do it.”

Photo: Tara Smith Vighetti, president of Smith’s Farm Sales, with her father, Lance Smith, a member of the company’s fifth generation, who guides Smith’s Farm with his leadership and insight.

John Groh

John Groh

About John Groh  |  email

John Groh graduated from the University of San Diego in 1989 with a bachelors of arts degree in English. Following a brief stint as a sportswriter covering the New York Giants football team, he joined The Produce News in 1995 as an assistant editor and worked his way up the ranks, becoming publisher in 2006. He and his wife, Mary Anne, live in northern New Jersey in the suburbs of New York City.

 

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