Grasso Farms makes the move

Grasso Farms in Mullica Hill, N.J., has been an all-in-the-family operation since 1924, when two Italian immigrants met, married and purchased 52 acres not far from Philadelphia. The Grassos, Alfio and Maria, grew an array of vegetables and transported them via wagon to wholesale markets in Camden, as well as across the Delaware River to the City of Brotherly Love. Five children, numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren later, and Grasso Farms still remains a family operation, with a primary focus on the wholesale market.


Workers during the pepper harvest.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF GRASSO FARMS.

Today, two of the grandsons, Fred and Hoss Grasso, jointly own the wholesale farm operation, which has grown to include 98 acres of owned land and another 350 acres that are leased. Many members of the family, including mom Lucy and sister Mary, as well as assorted daughters, sons, nieces, nephews and neighbors, have played vital roles in packing the produce for market. Recently, however, there have been some unexpected changes, taking the family out of the packinghouse and depositing them in the realm of direct retail sales.

Yet the farm remains a primarily wholesale operation: About 90 percent of its produce is destined for wholesale outlets. Of that, 70 percent is sold at the Vineland Produce Auction. The auction, a nonprofit cooperative owned and operated by farmers, is one of the largest East Coast auctions. The rest is sold directly to independent distributors or via the Philadelphia Produce Terminal.

Diversity

Grasso Farms has always been a diverse operation. With 25 acres of tree fruit and 150 acres devoted to a myriad of vegetables, the farm grows a wide array of products. Tree fruit includes many standard yellow peach varieties, as well as white peaches, white and yellow nectarines and donut peaches. Sugar plums, cherries and apples round out the orchard fruit, while the vegetable crops include several varieties each of cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, summer squash, winter squash, watermelon, eggplant and asparagus.


The original farm market-the cart.

Specific production practices aimed at individual crops, as well as farm-wide best practices, keep the soil fertile and disease pressures down. Practices include staking the tomatoes and eggplants, which assists not only with disease control, but helps with uniform growing, reduces sun damage and allows for quicker harvesting. Drip irrigation is utilized for watering and fertilization needs.

“Before we even plant a field, my brothers use good crop rotation,” Mary Grasso said. “If a vine crop is planted, a grain crop was in its place a year before. Corn is planted in the field the year before peppers are planted. This helps to kill Phytophthora, a root disease that kills pepper plants when heat and moisture are present.”

The Grassos try to balance the need to bring a quality crop to harvest with a desire to use as few chemical inputs as possible. “We realize not spraying at all would result in lower yield, poor quality and no shelf life of the product,” Grasso said.

Wholesale concerns

“The biggest issue in wholesale is one every farmer faces in every state. That is the issue of supply and demand. Agriculture is one of the last true market economies left,” Grasso said. “If there is too much of one product, it brings the price of that product down.”

The Vineland auction runs for eight months each year, coinciding with the duration of the growing season in South Jersey, and is in operation six days per week. The auction sells in boxes, bushels and crates, not just in pallets, leveling the playing field for smaller buyers, not just the big guys, and allowing the farm more potential sales outlets.

Still, the farmer selling commodities at auction is at the mercy of the day’s buyers.

“Sometimes that price is lower than the cost to produce it,” Grasso said. “Our general concern this year is that our costs will escalate because of the rising petroleum costs. Farmers can’t pass on their costs to the buyers.”

It takes about 18 workers, in-season, to harvest and pack for the wholesale operation. The farm complies with a third-party audit system, and sells under its “F&R Grasso” label. The infrastructure needed to pack the produce on a large scale is present on the farm, and is basically an assembly line type of operation. About 50,000 boxes of peppers will pass through the packinghouse each season, Grasso said.

Produce is picked, typically in bins, and placed onto a conveyor belt, where it moves through brushes and rollers, and any substandard produce is culled. Many of the items are then sorted and packed by size. Packed items are stored in a 1,500-square-foot cooler until they are shipped to market.

Retail marketing

Meanwhile, a roadside farm market that began on a whim in 2002 has rapidly become an important and growing revenue source for his large-scale, commercial farming operation. The young “Grasso Girls” – Mary’s two daughters and five nieces – set up a little cart in front of the farm, mostly to keep them occupied while the adults tended to the packing operation.


Bunches of Jersey Fresh asparagus for the wholesale markets.

“Initially, when we first started the stand, it was to give the kids something to do and a little spending money. As we got busier, we were surprised at the demand, but knew there was a great interest in supporting local farmers,” Grasso said.

Today, what was once that little cart now accounts for 10 percent of the farm’s produce sales. By 2006, the small cart by the side of the road grew into a full-fledged farm market building, packed with all of their seasonal produce, and then some. And the family isn’t in the packinghouse much anymore. They hired packinghouse workers, and Mary, along with other family members, began to expand the retail sales market.

While the retail market sells the same produce from the same fields as the wholesale operation, it also has resulted in new crops being planted specifically for retail sales.

“Our strawberry crop is primarily for the farm market,” Grasso said. “We also plant five varieties of eggplant and some specialty tomato and peach varieties, which our customers have come to expect each year. We do believe that you need to grow some different varieties of products for the retail operation. We do have one young orchard specifically for the farm market.”

These special varieties allow the farm to offer choices not found at the grocery store. Grasso also retails items that cannot be grown in New Jersey, such as bananas and citrus fruits, at the farm market. These are obtained from the Philadelphia Produce Terminal, where she can select the best quality products directly, and does so at least three times each week.

Despite their diversity of crops, and the demand for certain items at the retail level, Grasso Farms opts not to grow some popular items, such as blueberries or sweet corn, but purchases them from other local farms. “Our corn and blueberry suppliers concentrate solely on those items, so we know we are getting the highest quality and freshest produce possible on a daily basis,” Grasso explained.

Another popular retail item is honey, with 40 percent of it coming straight from their own fields. Their Dutch clover honey is popular, and bedding plants and baskets round out the market sales. One unique item the farm is proud to offer is Wagonhouse Wines, from a neighboring vineyard. Grasso Girls Farm Market offers daily wine tasting sessions as well as retail bottle sales. Of course, the peach wine is made with Grasso Farms’ peaches.

Future farming

The wholesale side of Grasso Farms is still growing. Since having some of the family devote its energies to the Grasso Girls Farm Market, the wholesale operation has had to change, and it has expanded as well.

“As the farm started growing, and our stand started becoming busier, we had to delegate more work to our farm laborers. Today, we have more than doubled our wholesale production of fresh market produce and rely primarily on farm laborers to harvest and pack the wholesale products,” Grasso said.

The retail marketplace also provides some opportunities for agritourism. Hay wagon rides to the pumpkin patch each fall, as well as the wine tasting sessions, attract a wide array of customers to the farm and have given the farm’s name recognition a local boost.

Plans for market expansion are ongoing, and while the wholesale operation is still the heart of Grasso Farms, the ability to recognize the potential of retail sales, and to adapt to the current emphasis on buying local foods, has allowed this family farm to flourish.

The author is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.