Technology prevails again when it comes to the produce industry.

At last year's Southern Exposure show, the Southeast Produce Council, Millen, Ga., debuted its Fresh from the Farm Field Trips during the conference's educational workshops.

The virtual farm tours via video replaced daylong bus rides to and from a single grower's Florida operation.

The videos from four grower-shippers provided the audience with virtual farm tours in slightly more than an hour's time. David Sherrod, SEPC executive director, said the council received great feedback regarding the virtual tours last year.

"We had a lot of our members want to be a part of that this year, so it will be put into our stable of educational seminars each year," he said.

"It was a way to visit four farms in just an hour-and-a-half. We feel the virtual tours maximize the time of our attendees. Plus, it gives us archives to use as a resource for our membership."

Presenter's perspective

John Shuman, president of Shuman Produce, Reidsville, Ga., said his company was honored to participate in the inaugural production of virtual tours at Southern Exposure.

"This unique opportunity gave us the chance to provide a behind-the-scenes look at our operation throughout the entire process from seed to shelf," he said.

"So many of those in the produce industry do not understand the amount of labor involved in the production of sweet onions. By showing this video and participating in the discussion that followed, Shuman Produce was able to share its story on a strong platform."

Shuman said he was pleased to educate the audience, especially members of STARS (Southeast Top Agricultural Recruits Scholarship) and STEP-UPP (Southeast Training Education Program for Upcoming Produce Professionals), who represent "the future generation of produce industry leaders in the Southeast."

This year's lineup

Four companies are scheduled to participate in this year's "Fresh from the Farm" field trips:

  • Red Sun Farms, Kingsville, Ontario;
  • Southern Valley, Norman Park, Ga.;
  • L&M Cos., Raleigh, N.C.; and
  • National Mango Board, Orlando, Fla.

Harold Paivarinta, an SEPC board of directors member and senior director of sales and business development for Red Sun Farms, said the virtual tour provides attendees with a great opportunity to take a look at the company's greenhouse production in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.

"We're able to provide a behind-the-scenes look at our greenhouses and facilities," he said.

"Obviously, it isn't practical to pick up 200 people and bring them to one of our greenhouses. So, we prepared a video segment to give a nice overview of Red Sun Farms and the greenhouse growing process."

For the National Mango Board, the virtual tours offer the opportunity to further raise mangoes' presence in the produce industry.

"To be included in one of the educational sessions … is so important because up to a few years ago, mangoes were not that popular and were a big mystery to consumers," said Angela Serna, the board's communications manager.

"Being a part of this educational workshop now means mangoes are becoming more mainstream not only to consumers but to the industry."

The mango board will present a video showing how mangoes move through the packing process, including harvest, washing and sorting, hot water treatment and the final pack for shipment.

"Most U.S. retailers will never get the chance to see this process firsthand," Serna said.

Steve Pinkston, secretary of the SEPC board and senior sourcing manager for global food sourcing for Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc., summarized the virtual tours as worthwhile for all attendees.

"We feel this is the best way to offer our members, retailers and foodservice attendees valuable information about the production process of different commodities," he said.