COMMERCE, Calif. — Enrique Aramburo is good at growing organic mangoes and other items with his father, Javier, at Rancho Todo Natural in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. But he wasn’t very familiar with the steps the fruit goes through from the time it leaves the packinghouse until it ends up on supermarket shelves.
He is now.
At the suggestion of his father, Aramburo joined a group of about two dozen members of Santa Cruz-based California Certified Organic Farmers on a half-day tour April 11 of the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market and a nearby organic packer and distributor, Heath & Lejeune.
“I had never been in this side of the business,” he said.
Andy Difani, who handles purchasing and sales for Better Life Produce Inc., Los Angeles, led the visitors on an hourlong tour of the market.
He spoke about the development of the organic market within the context of the Los Angeles produce wholesale history and gave participants a detailed look at how the market functions.
Then the group traveled a few miles down the freeway to Heath & Lejeune, where head buyer David Weinstein and others took guests through the company’s repacking, shipping and sales operations.
Weinstein talked about the firm’s traceback program and described how a wholesaler can help growers market products.
Harland Heath, a company founder, talked about the firm’s history and how he spent 25 years in retail before he became a broker.
Rick Lejeune, chief executive officer, talked about the global growth of the category and the impact a recent decision by Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to offer packaged and processed organic items might have on the fresh side.
As the group strolled through the warehouse, Weinstein emphasized the importance of barcodes in locating boxes, listing their contents and providing a wealth of additional information important to the traceback process.
“This kind of information is going to become more and more common and ultimately will become industry standard,” he said.
It’s important for grower-shippers to find out what label information is required for the product they sell, he added.
“One of the many services that your wholesale partner will happily provide for you is this type of information,” he said.
What to grow
In response to a question from a visiting grower, Weinstein said there are a number of factors to consider when deciding what products to grow.
Take into account the local environment, soil and weather, he said.
“Find the thing that you can do the best at, do the very best you can and then find the best trading partner you can to work with you.”
He advised growers not to decide what to grow based on the current market.
“The market will love you one year, and the market will not love you the next year,” Weinstein said, “and it won’t be because you’re wonderful one year, and it won’t be because you’re terrible the next year.”
“You’re not going to be smarter than the market,” he said.
Lejeune said that while California is the largest producer of organic produce, other regions, including the Pacific Northwest, South America and Canada, also have a lot of organic production.
“You would be amazed to know how fast the movement has grown globally,” he said.
Addressing Wal-Mart’s decision to add Wild Oats branded organic items to its product line, Lejeune wondered if the company knows where it’s going to source additional organic produce, and he expressed concern about the company’s plan to offer discount pricing on organics.
“I hope they don’t intend for growers to accept cheaper prices than they want,” he said.
But he added, “One way or another, this is going to drive production up, because there is demand, and growers who are looking for a new income stream are going to think about growing more product.”