Steven Ceccarelli is the owner of Farm Fresh Produce in North Carolina, USA. Eighteen months ago, he approached Pablo Fitskie. Would Pablo be interested in running the company's European sales office? Now, Farm Fresh Produce CC has its own premises. That is in the Netherlands and it has machinery and logistics. The team has expanded too. "Having a sales location means we can seamlessly link cultivation and commerce. That's also what our retail customers expect," begins Pablo.
Farm Fresh Produce was officially launched in May 2020. "We were in mid-lockdown back then. Retail sales were at a significantly higher level. That's since normalized considerably. Last summer, there was much more movement. But you have to add 25% import duties. We had to pay huge amounts of these fees every week. There was also unfair competition between the American product and competing producers."
Harvest on hold
The playing field has now leveled. And the new North American season is about to begin. "The crop looks good in all respects. But the market is currently poor. So, other producers and we are putting harvesting on hold. Prices have been very moderate. That's why we're filling the fixed programs and taking it easy. Supply will start up slowly. High sea freight prices will again affect the season. It doesn't look like the logistics will be any cheaper this year either," Pablo continues.
Farm Fresh Produce has invested in, among other things, a new weighing and packaging line. They have also ordered the new Aweta optical sorter. "While searching for a new building, I wanted one we could fully equip for sweet potatoes. We found that here at ABC Westland in Poeldijk. I'm not saying we won't ever buy other products."
"However, the focus will always be on sweet potatoes. Product specialization is also what retail clients expect. Our team works with sweet potatoes every day. So, they know all the ins and outs. I no longer believe in an assortment list of 500 products. Buyers want what you do to be done well," says Pablo.
Farm Fresh Produce mostly supplies the European market from the Netherlands. In the US, it supplies the local market, the Middle East, and the UK directly. "We export to many different countries. Germany is a big market for us, as are France and Scandinavia. We exported a lot to Spain and Italy, too, this summer." Sweet potato sales have skyrocketed in Europe in recent years. Pablo says they will, however, stabilize. "Conventional product sales will increase slightly, at best. But there's still growth in the processing industry."
"They've begun farming sweet potatoes in many countries. We also source from South Africa, Spain, and Egypt. Egypt greatly expanded planting last season. But they've gained nothing with this year's low prices." There are Dutch initiatives to get cultivation off the ground. However, according to Pablo, the climate is still hampering that.
"Sweet potatoes thrive in stable, warm weather. In North Carolina, it's between 30 and 40°C in the summer. So, it's actually always good. Here in Northern Europe, the weather can play along. But it remains risky. This past summer's weather was far from ideal for growing sweet potatoes."
Farm Fresh Produce wants to expand its range this year. For example, the European sales office is now selling organic sweet potatoes. And they are adding purple sweet potatoes and the Murasaki variety to their range. "We're also going to market our Dolce Vita brand professionally this year," reveals Pablo. The company sells most of its sweet potatoes loose. "Experience shows that those sell better in stores than packaged ones. It's the cheapest option too."
Pablo is confident about the company's future. "Consider what we've achieved in just 18 months. Then, we can only be satisfied. We want to continue on this path. Possibly with some broadening in the countries of origin. And additional sales to the processing industry. There will always be competition. But customers prefer to buy directly from the source."
"Farm Fresh Produce is on top of things in the United States. That's in terms of cultivation and processing facilities. They have all the necessary certificates. And even their own greenhouses nursery for sweet potato plants. So, we in the Netherlands can focus on sales," he concludes.