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North American Village Farms on company process & new item launch
Innovation is an inside job
“We primarily grow tomatoes,” Doug Kling, Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer with Village Farms International told FreshPlaza during a recent interview at Viva Fresh in Austin, TX. The company owns 130 acres of high-tech greenhouses located in Marfa, TX and 110 acres in BC, Canada. In addition, the company has 65 acres of exclusive greenhouse partnership in Leamington, ON as well as 50 acres in Mexico all marketed under the Village Farms Greenhouse Grown brand name.
Challenges in innovation
“The state of our industry is evolving”, says Kling. “Some of the current concerns are too much availability of product”, Kling added. Greenhouse growers will need to continue to be innovative, productive, efficient and more targeted. According to Kling innovation is a vertically integrated process involving all faucets of the business: growing expertise, seed technology, greenhouse construction, finance, marketing, sales, as well as developing products and meeting or exceeding not only customer but consumer needs. Kling goes on to say, “We try to be the best at what we do and look forward to the challenge by continuing to be create and innovate.”
Seed to Fork focus
In order to differentiate, Village Farms grows a number of unique and exclusive varieties developed through partnerships with seed companies, including Rijk Zwaan, Enza, Monsanto Gautier, and Bayer Nunhems. “We rely on our partners for the precise technical expertise on variety development and growth metrics,” Kling told. “Yet it is up to our farmers (we call them growers), to make it all happen because growing is both a science and an art”, Kling adds. Consistency in production; steady brix levels and yields are a challenge, even in the controlled environments, where quality and flavor are easier to maintain than in the field”, Kling said.
“Developing new products takes time, as much as 2-3 years, from trial phase to bringing product to market when optimum flavor and yield have been achieved,” Kling goes on to say. He also mentions, that during the trial growing phase, sales, marketing and finance are working together to determine best product scenarios for packaging, pricing, and customer targets all based on consumer research and market conditions. “How we go to market is very important in meeting or exceeding consumer needs is critical”, Kling says. He quantifies this statement by telling that once Village Farms’ determines a product meets or exceeds consumer needs and customer requirements for profitable growth, they are ready to launch.
“Promotional trialing on limited production of new items is part of our overall plan in working with our key retail partners to put new, exclusive, exciting, authentic, and flavorful Village Farms varieties on the shelf”, Kling said.
Consumers want specialties
Because of flavor, color, and shape, specialty tomatoes have grown considerably in recent years. And Kling shared that during the past two years, for example, Village Farms’ Heavenly Villagio Marzano, an authentic mini san marzano specialty tomato has been the company’s largest growth item. The company planted 0.5 acres four years ago and has planted well over 50 acres today. “It is a phenomenal item, there is nothing like it, and we were lucky enough to have a mutual understanding with the seed company on focus and intent for this variety”, Kling added. Like most of the company’s tomato varieties, Heavenly Villagio Marzano® is available in different packaging options. This particular variety comes in a 10 oz handled grab-and-go bag, 1 lb bag, 1.5 lb bag, 2 lb clam, 10 oz clam, 1.5 lb bowl and 12oz topseal tray, as well as in bulk. “It is hard to be all things to all people, but sometimes we need to expand packaging to meet a broad base of consumer needs”, Kling said. Most retailers carry one or two different packaging options depending on their channel.
Changing consumer demographics
“Today’s consumer is fortunate to be able to choose from so many amazing tomato varieties that eat well,” shared Lyra Vance, Director of Strategic Business & Sales Development for Village Farms. “And Village Farms is well positioned to meet consumer needs with its proven innovation strategy and new item launch planning with our retail partners”, Vance added. “However, it has become increasingly a challenge to develop new programs because one size does not fit all”, Vance went on to say. “Retailers are inundated with tomato varieties and it is a space challenge for them”, Vance added. Key to launch planning is targeting retail partner demographics and category mix analysis on a store by store basis all balanced by reasonable retail pricing and profit margins she told us. Vance is optimistic telling us, “The good news is this trend is not going away with increasing consumer demand for not only flavor, but health and wellness benefits tomatoes fit this niche for consumers”. Tomatoes have been in the top 10 of fruits and vegetable purchased for many years and have a broad reach from young to old consumers she added. “Today younger consumers are very engaged in how their food is grown and produced”, said Vance. “And because of this Village Farms as a whole is ripe and ready for this changing demographics desires to learn brand story”.
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