Twelve generations and still growing for the Sheppard family

Agriculture has changed considerably since four Sheppard brothers traded the conflicts in England and Ireland in 1683 for vegetable farming in South Jersey.

In Eastern Fresh Growers’ office, Erwin (left) and Tom Sheppard stand beside a photo of three earlier generations of Sheppards: their great-grandfather Timothy, grandfather Gilbert, their father David as a baby, along with their wives and several other family members.

It’s a safe bet that 200 years ago, when Timothy Sheppard farmed 40 acres in Cedarville, N.J., he never dreamed of 1,500 acres in production, 260 employees, a second air-conditioned packing facility or three rapid cooling methods.

Nor could he have envisioned food safety dictates encompassing four separate auditing systems, testing lettuce leaves for pathogens, plus the ability to determine within a few hours which packing line processed a box of cucumbers and the field from which they were harvested before being shipped halfway across the country the week before.

And there’s more to come; the produce safety regulations mandated by the Food Safety and Modernization Act last year have yet to be issued as of this writing.

The Sheppards have long specialized in leafy greens and summer vegetables, with an unrelenting focus on food safety in every phase of production, plus the skill and will to continue.

Today this 12th generation of Sheppard brothers runs Eastern Fresh Growers, Inc., Sheppard Farms, Inc. and Jersey Legacy Farms. Tom handles the packing and selling, while Erwin manages the planting, growing and harvesting. David Jr. controls a separate organic vegetable operation.

The 13th generation of the Sheppard family streamlines the businesses with their production, shipping, packing and office management skills.

Through acquisitions of other farms, Sheppard Farms’ expansion supports two seasons of lettuces on 300 acres, asparagus thriving on 320 acres and 75 acres devoted to green squash. Cucumbers lead the acreage at 350, but 200 acres of bell peppers excel in volume. Twenty wells accommodate drip irrigation. The popularity of bagged salad greens has grown so much that most of the lettuce sales are contracted months before harvest. This season their line includes escarole, endive, green and red leaf lettuces, romaine and iceberg lettuce.

Eastern Fresh Growers markets Sheppard Farms’ vegetables, plus those of several other New Jersey and North Carolina growers. It also packs the produce of a few other nearby farms. This alignment with other growers enables Eastern Fresh Growers to bring its acreage to 2,500 and to extend the seasons, along with expanding sales with several types of oriental cabbages and green beans. Produce is sold directly to chain store wholesalers, food processors and food service suppliers and is shipped north to Canada, south to Miami, east to Puerto Rico and as far west as Texas. Last year Eastern Fresh Growers’ sales exceeded 1 million packages and $12 million.

This field of green summer squash, picked in the morning, is only a few miles from the Delaware Bay. The beehives in the rear ensure pollination. At the left, this four-year asparagus yielded its spears in April.

David’s Jersey Legacy Farms concentrates on organic production of lettuces, cucumbers, summer squash, bell peppers, tomatoes and eggplant on 100 certified acres, with another 75 acres in transition to organic. Production is marketed through Eastern Fresh Growers.

New packing facility enhances operations

At the start of the packing line for green summer squash, the product is first loaded into the sani-tized water, which is monitored; then it moves along the conveyor for inspection; finally it is boxed, cooled and stored according to the shipping schedule. Temperatures in the process vary depending on the particular product to optimize food safety and freshness.

A packing line can process 50 bins, or 1,200 boxes, per hour. When the freshly harvested vegetables enter a line, a flume eliminates any sand before the rollers on the conveyor move produce along. The Oxine-treated water sanitizes, and workers spot any less-than-perfect product before it’s packed and cooled.

“I’ll do anything required for food safety,” Tom says. “It should be the same for everybody.”

Eastern Fresh Growers’ investment in cooling equipment preserves the freshness and prolongs the shelf life of each crop. Hydrocooling quickly lowers the temperature of asparagus to 36 degrees Fahrenheit. The circulating cold water is frequently changed and monitored. Pressure cooling cools bell peppers, cucumbers and green summer squash rapidly. This system creates an air pressure differential that forces air through the packed boxes to carry the heat away. Quick cooling in the tunnel retains the desired humidity level. The vacuum cooler extracts heat with an evaporation process. Despite the large surface-area-to-mass ratio of Asian cabbages, iceberg lettuce and savoy cabbage, this method cools the internal temperature of produce to ambient in 30 minutes.

“The faster you get the heat out, the better,” says Tom. Fran Hancock, their food safety director, echoes that observation.

This portable vacuum cooler lowers the internal temperature of seven pallets, or 210 boxes, of leafy greens and cabbages to just above freezing in only half an hour.

The Sheppards’ enhanced cooling systems serve to keep food safe and extend shelf life. After cooling, the temperature of romaine lettuce awaiting shipment to Ready Pac, for example, is kept at 35 degrees Fahrenheit. The refrigerated areas receive close monitoring.

Boxes must withstand the rigors of each cooling process. One machine forms the boxes and another employs a hot melt adhesive for strength. The process is located on the mezzanine for quick access. The company accommodates the few customers who prefer recyclable plastic cartons (RPCs), which are sanitized.

Food safety paramount

To prevent contamination, Eastern Fresh Growers controls access of personnel and visitors. Upon entering the facility, anyone can grasp the seriousness of the food safety efforts. Beside the sign-in log, a notice states, “Long hair, short hair, curly hair, straight hair, real hair, fake hair, bald – no hair hair. We don’t care. PUT on a hairnet.” The workers are well trained in sanitary work habits and proper protective clothing and devices.

>Although food safety permeates every stage of the operation, it begins with extensive preharvest field testing. Weekly tissue sampling of the leafy greens, collected according to the testing lab specifications, has been routine for years. In addition, the contracted bell peppers are now tested. An independent lab, IEH, analyzes the samples for E. coli and salmonella.

A plethora of details and procedures goes into a careful food safety program. Eastern Fresh Growers verifies the suitability of their transport carriers prior to loading. During harvest, conveyors keep the packing containers from touching the soil. Monthly testing of all 20 wells ensures water quality compliance, plus five tests are performed prior to harvesting. Most importantly, written documentation accompanies all procedures. Tom says, “If not written out, you didn’t do it.” Each of the grower farms implements Sheppards’ food safety manual.

Ignacio Le²n Almanza and Carlos Valadez show off the boxes they just assembled.

Training of the 260 peak season employees ranks high. Along with basic food sanitation for both field work and the packing operation, their instruction encompasses food defense to address bioterrorism, plus procedures for body fluids, first aid and foreign objects. Since these workers are mostly Mexican, Spanish is featured as well. The new employee break room incorporates measures such as hand washing equipment and single-use towel dispensers designed to eliminate contamination.

Eastern Fresh Growers implemented traceability several years ago. A simple coded system, with a sticker placed on each box of produce, can identify from which field and when the produce was harvested, the conveyor line on which it was processed, which pallet was used and who it was shipped to. The system also links to inventory control. In the event of a recall, the company can trace the product within four hours. In fact, they perform mock recalls regularly with full documentation.

Eastern Fresh Growers is audited by the USDA, customer food safety personnel, independent customer auditors and, for certain produce, Primus Labs. The staff adheres strictly to good agricultural practices (GAPs) for crop production as well as good handling practices (GHPs) for harvesting, field packing, packinghouse, storage and traceback.

The produce industry has efforts underway to harmonize audits to alleviate the cost and inefficiency of multiple standards replete with duplication. Eastern Fresh Growers supports harmonization. Hancock observes that everybody needs to get together and agree on proper procedures that are science-based. “There’s a lot of audit fatigue,” he says.

The company just completed construction of two new housing units for migrant workers to supplement other housing. Each has beds for 24 people and two completely outfitted kitchens, bathrooms and space for personal items.

Although the changes in agriculture have presented challenges and opportunities, one thing hasn’t changed for the Sheppard family: their zeal to produce and market the freshest, safest vegetables.

Tom expresses what he likes about the business: “It keeps changing. I always liked sales and talk to people all over the country. It will be lettuce this week and something else another week.” Erwin adds, “We have a great team.”

The author is a writer/researcher specializing in agriculture. She currently resides in central Pennsylvania.