Trend helps Sunizona Family Farms sell national

Byron and Janice Smith started Sunizona Family Farms in 1997. They grew hothouse cucumbers hydroponically in their new 1.5-acre greenhouse. A combination of quality, a greatly expanded product line and the increasing interest in buying local has helped them grow to the extent that they now count Whole Foods Market as one of their many customers.

Sunizona Family Farms has 25 acres of growing fields and has added potatoes, sweet potatoes, cabbage, corn, cucumbers, green beans and raspberries to the mix.
Photos courtesy of Sunizona Family Farms.

The beginning

The Smiths moved from northern British Columbia to Willcox, Ariz., in 1996 and purchased 300 acres of land about 25 miles southeast of the town of about 4,000 in the southeast corner of the state. Byron had been raised on a homestead in northern British Columbia and growing was his passion. Part of their responsibilities at a private vocational school up there included running a hydroponic greenhouse growing cucumbers for local sales. The short growing season provided the desire to move to a climate better suited to his goals. The area around Willcox is becoming a very popular spot for growing a variety of fruits, nuts and vegetables. The warm days and cool nights, coupled with the availability of irrigation water, provides excellent growing conditions for quality produce.

Aimee Smith with some of the greenhouse-grown tomatoes.

The business was formed as Sunizona Greenhouses, Inc. by Byron, his brother and dad. The operation is primarily managed by Byron and his family. Since his entire family is involved, they operate it as Sunizona Family Farms. Byron is the chief grower, inventor and visionary. Janice manages the day-to-day operations. Daughter Janna and her husband Andy work part-time in sales and field crops respectively. Daughter Kymbrelee and her husband Immian, who reside in British Columbia, serve on the farm advisory committee, and Kymbrelee works part-time on Web design and management (www.sunizonafamilyfarms.com), as well as creating graphics for packaging and advertising pieces. Son Charles takes care of field crops and daughter Aimee handles the accounting.

Its first hothouse cucumbers and, later, tomatoes were picked, packed and shipped on pallets to brokers and distributors. The business operated fairly successfully that way for the next seven years. In 2004, some chefs in the area started looking for local sources for their resorts and restaurants and tasted the fruit of Sunizona’s labors. They liked what they had but asked if Sunizona also could produce some specialty products for them. They were especially interested in heirloom tomatoes, salad crops, greens and micro-greens. Besides creating new opportunities, new challenges surfaced. By 2005, Sunizona was selling and shipping almost all its crops direct and sending practically nothing through brokers or distributors. It saved on broker fees, and they could charge more per box for specialty items, but other costs increased. Growing and harvesting many more crops required more training for employees.

Sunizona sells in all seven of the Arizona Whole Foods stores.

Growing the business

Greenhouse growing is labor-intensive; adding new varieties and crops adds further challenges. Janice says, “Training employees to care for and harvest a very limited number of varieties is pretty straightforward. The more varieties you add, the more complicated the instructions.” She notes, “The learning curve starts with us and must be communicated throughout. When you bring more colors and other crops into the mix you must recognize and train employees on all the variables involved.”

The types of tomatoes grown include red, yellow and orange clusters; red beefs; red Romas; cocktails; grapes; mixed heirloom cherries; and several other heirloom varieties. Even the cluster tomatoes are not all handled the same. For retail sales, they are packed either as clusters in 11-pound cases or snipped apart and packaged four each in clear clamshell containers. For some of the resorts and restaurants, the tomatoes are clipped off the cluster and packed individually. Janice states, “Nothing is cookie cutter in our operation.”

A .25-acre greenhouse was built in 2004 for the production of salad crops, greens and micro-greens that are highly desired in upscale restaurants. The micro-greens include celery, broccoli, arugula, tatsoy, purple kohlrabi, red and yellow chard, garnet amaranth, purple radish, basil, etc.—over 50 varieties. They are seeded and then harvested about seven to 25 days later, depending on the seed (for example, broccoli takes seven days and celery takes 25), when they reach a height of 2 inches.

Customers started asking for other crops, so Sunizona started utilizing the outdoor space for growing. It began with 5 acres last year, growing hard winter squash, summer squash and melons. This year, it has 25 acres of growing fields and has added potatoes, sweet potatoes, cabbage, corn, cucumbers, green beans and raspberries to the mix.

In 2008, the operation started transitioning to organic certification, which it achieved in 2009. Their original greenhouse is now a certified organic facility. In addition, the Smiths grow veganically, which means they use no animal byproducts in their growing. Rather than growing the plants hydroponically in this house, they are grown in raised beds in a soil mix made on-site from composting local plant products such as waste pecan shells, alfalfa, etc. The plants are fertilized with plant-based materials, also made on-site. They pelletize locally grown alfalfa, the waste tomato leaves and other local products such as beans and peanuts. They also make compost from local alfalfa, rye and other grains, leaves and the waste from the tomatoes and other crops. The plants in the small greenhouse are still grown hydroponically. The field crops are grown veganically. They have developed a crop rotation plan along with overwintering green manures to continually refresh the soil.

The Sunizona family: (Standing, left to right) Immian Wolfe, Byron Smith, Charles Smith; (seated, left to right) Aimee Smith, Kymbrelee Wolfe, Andy Britton, Janna Britton and Janice Smith.

Employees the key

With the extra training needed to manage a variety of crops, retaining employees is a key factor toward profitability. The longer an employee stays, the more they learn, and the more they can do. The time saved from training can be better used to increase quality.

Sunizona’s primary employee incentive is practicing the Golden Rule. Janice says, “We treat our 20 employees the same as the five family members. That is with respect, and we expect them to treat each other that way. We appreciate our employees and are not stingy with pats on the back, a friendly handshake, a sincere smile and a genuinely caring attitude that really helps the whole atmosphere.” In addition, a good, fair wage is important. Cross-training also helps best utilize the staff. Janice reports that employees like being able to do a variety of tasks. They might start the cool morning weeding and then spend some of the heat of the day in the cooler packing and shipping area.

Heating an issue

Many people are surprised to learn that the greenhouses in southeast Arizona usually require heat 10 months of the year. At 4,500 feet in elevation, the nights can get quite cool. While the days can become blazingly hot, tender crops need supplemental heat at night. Waste pecan shells from the area pecan orchards are a great heat source. Sunizona has added to its bottom line by starting a pelletizing business that not only satisfies its own needs but also provides a product to sell to consumers in the area. Always seeking veganic alternatives and ways to use any waste created, the ash from the burned pellets becomes an excellent source of nutrients for crops.

The other key: customer service

As the word got around that Sunizona produced good, quality produce favored by the upscale restaurants and resorts, a few of the local grocery stores started featuring its wares. Bashas’, a local Arizona-based, family-owned operation with 130 stores under the Bashas’, Food City and AJ’s Fine Foods banners, started carrying Sunizona vegetables. AJ’s Fine Foods’ mission is to bring an upscale gourmet market experience to the area. They have 13 stores in the Phoenix/Tucson area. A buyer for Wild Oats saw, purchased and liked some of the Sunizona produce in his neighborhood AJ’s. He contacted the Smiths and helped them work through all the necessary steps to sell to Wild Oats. When Whole Foods Market purchased Wild Oats, Sunizona was grandfathered into the system. After the farm became certified organic in 2009, it was Whole Foods that urged the growing of the melons and squash.

The Whole Foods produce managers for each of the seven Arizona stores place their orders on the company system early every Monday and Thursday morning. The order is approved and forwarded to Sunizona for picking, packing and delivery. Monday morning orders are delivered fresh to the individual stores on Tuesday morning, and Thursday orders are delivered Friday morning. The central office is invoiced for all orders, and it pays promptly according to its terms. Because of the relationship with the local stores, if Sunizona has an oversupply of any crop, it can usually arrange to ship the produce to Whole Foods California warehouse to minimize any loss. Sunizona contracts with a local company for all deliveries.

Janice says, “Our goal is not to become a factory farm. Our goal is to stay small enough to give top-quality service to present customers, and grow because of that.” She adds, “There is a fast-growing demand for locally grown produce, and we want to excel at growing the types of vegetables and fruits that grow well in this climate and be able to offer a well-rounded variety of produce to the stores to support that interest in locally grown food.”

The author is a longtime contributor to Moose River Media and Growing.