The Greenhouse Effect
Leading Canadian greenhouse operator doubles up on automation and sustainability to ensure healthy and prosperous future
Bringing the health and nutrition benefits of fresh vegetables to Canadian consumers around the clock is all part of a good day’s work for more than 2,000 people employed at multiple greenhouse operations across Canada and the U.S. owned by Mucci Farms.
Making its home in southwestern Ontario’s traditional farming heartland on the north shore of Lake Erie in the Leamington/Kingsville region, the Kingsville-headquartered family business is in many ways a textbook example of Canadian newcomers using their Old World knowledge and expert culinary skills to live the great Canadian dream to the fullest.
Started up over 60 years ago by two Italian-born brothers who came to Canada with little more than a burning passion for growing fresh, flavorful fruits and vegetables, the 2nd generation family-owned company has naturally done many things right over the decades, including packaging, to grow into a fully vertically-integrated fresh produce powerhouse that ranks as the leading greenhouse grower in Canada, and one of the top three in North America.
Today representing over 2,000 acres of tomato, pepper, cucumber, eggplant, lettuce and strawberry greenhouses across North America, the company has supplemented their own production with a comprehensive global network of partner growers. This has allowed Mucci Farms to maintain its broad and expansive product portfolio comprising well over 50 branded retail SKUs (stock-keeping units), which is complemented by a thriving private-label business.
Having joined Mucci Farms several months ago as the senior director of business and product development, long-time produce industry professional Dan Branson says he was already a big fan of the company based on his earlier experience as produce purchasing executive with one of Canada’s leading grocers.
“I worked hand-in-hand with Mucci Farms for many years developing a number of programs that we brought into the retail environment,” Branson says, “so I had a pretty good understanding of their business.
“I always loved their vision and the way they drive their business forward,” Branson told Canadian Packaging magazine in a recent interview.
“The other big thing for me is that they excelled at focusing on being the best in what they do: from growing to packing to servicing their customers’ needs.
“From my experience, both inside the company and from my days on the retail side of the business, their product quality and consistency has always been best-in-class,” Branson extols.
While bell peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers remain the company’s biggest three cash crops, Mucci Farms is always looking for new opportunities to expand its product portfolio, Branson relates, citing recent expansion of the largest indoor strawberry farm in North America, with 72 acres of year-round production.
As Branson explains, greenhouses help companies like Mucci Farms to create the ideal growing environment for fruits and vegetables.
Unlike with traditional growing methods, greenhouse operators are able to provide their crops with the perfect temperature, sunlight and nutrients they require to produce flavorful high-quality product, while also minimizing their environmental footprint by using low-energy supplemental LED and high-pressure sodium lighting to supplement reduced hours of daylight in the winter months.
“Our farms grow fresh produce with significantly higher yields than traditional farming, and together with our carefully selected international growing partners, we are able to provide premium produce yearround,” Branson explains.
Being a vertically-integrated producer requires Mucci Farms to operate its network of dedicated crop-specific greenhouses and on-site packhouses with clockwork precision and efficiency, Branson points out.
“We ship approximately over 15 million cases a year from across our network,” Branson confides.
“We ship several hundred truckloads a week regardless of whether it’s slow season or peak season,” says Branson, adding the company also operates its own fleet of trucks to ensure on-time delivery for all of its customers.
As Branson explains, each greenhouse facility operates its own specialized on-site packhouse to package harvested crop into the appropriate packaging formats for customers in the retail, food-service, and private-label market segments.
“Each one of them oprates as a full-service packhouse capable of packaging produce in whatever format customers want us to, covering all the packaging requirements for that product.
“There’s the bulk packaging format, there’s clamshell packaging, there’s top-seal packaging, including numerous sustainable options… we always try to implement the best packaging practices through all our operations,” says Branson, adding that high-quality packaging is a critical core competence for a business that is intensely focused on promoting its own brands in the retail sector.
Comprising a broad variety of different types and varieties of peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and other produce, the company’s expansive brand portfolio is comprised of over three dozen brands, many of them branded under cleverly thought-out wordplay such as Smuccies Sweet Strawberries, drawing on the Mucci family name; Cherto, a play on Cherry-Tomato; CuteCumbers snack-sized cucumbers; Rustico sweet long peppers; Hot Shots mixed hot peppers, and so on.
For some of its most popular items, Mucci Farms provides a broad choice of packaging options including fiber trays, flexible pouch bags, PET clamshells, topseal lidding film, as well as new sustainable options such as a new series of Linerless Label packages made from 100-percent kraft paperboard.
As Branson points out, being able to offer such packaging versatility and choice of options is an important component of the company’s broader brand packaging strategy.
“Branding produce is probably the most challenging area of retail branding,” says Branson, noting that about 70 per cent of the company’s output is shipped under their national brand.
“When you think about something like a grape tomato, the consumer often does not know the brand name of the grape tomato they’re looking for: they just want a grape tomato,” he says.
Nevertheless, Branson says Mucci Farms is deeply committed to establishing its brands as trusted premium-quality product offerings retailing across both Canada and the U.S.
“When a company has its own brand, there’s a high level of pride and identification when you see it at retail level,” he states, “so we love branding our product and working through the marketing landscape to create household names out of our brands.
“There is a real value-added, brand-specific proposition that goes into the process,” says Branson, while also acknowledging the importance of the company’s private-label customers to the company’s success.
“Our primary interest lies in meeting the needs of our customers, be they retail buyers or wholesale buyers, and making sure they have the highest-quality and best-tasting produce available.”
Says Branson: “Our Number One point of product differentiation is the passion of our growers.
“We have the best growers in the business, who pay key attention to what we do and share our standards for excellence,” Branson points out.
“All the things we do at every level of the operation—from growing and harvesting to packaging and shipping—are all about meeting the customer’s need for superior quality, great shelf-life and best-tasting produce, while addressing consumer demand and external pressures of retailers,” Branson asserts.
“The people in our facilities are a critical part of this process,” Branson continues, “because they look at every piece of produce that comes through our doors or into our facilities to make sure that it meets customer specifications and our rigorous quality standards prior to shipping.”
“It’s an intense and extensive process,” he notes, “but it starts with a passionate team striving to keep Mucci Farms at the forefront of Controlled Environment Agriculture industry.
“We are also committed to a robust research and development program that helps us locate and secure unique high-flavour varieties across our assortment to bring to market,” Branson adds, “keeping in mind that taste and quality are the primary characteristics we search for.
“So we’re constantly innovating with different varieties to provide best-in-class products throughout our distribution network and value chain, with the focus on customers always being our top priority.”
With many key customers in the retail sector starting to demand more sustainable packaging options from their vendors, Mucci Farms has been very proactive in finding new ways to reduce its packaging footprint—notably by trying to limit its use of plastic packaging materials and to offer sustainable options to its partners.
Most recently, the company has made significant investments in researching innovative packaging solutions to reduce the use of plastic.
The popular Proseal machine allows for an inline application of lidding film to be heat-sealed to produce trays, which has allowed the company to offer an alternative to traditional clamshell packaging.
Additionally, their latest innovation replaced the plastic lidding film with paper lid, creating a 100-percent recyclable package with the tray made of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) for several products.
“We have basically reduced the use of plastic by 20 to 30 per cent for some of the products that we switched to top-sealing,” says Branson, citing grape and cherry tomatoes, as well as other snack-sized produce, as products that have already gone through this conversion to top-sealing.
“We are always looking for opportunities to add more post-consumer or post-industrial content to our packaging to support the building momentum for the circular loop economic models,” Branson adds.
“Hence we’re always working with our packaging suppliers to create new and innovative solutions to alter existing packaging and/or create new offerings for our retail customers,” says Branson, pointing out that growing product in greenhouses is generally more sustainable than traditional farming because it only uses a fraction of the land and water required for outdoor farming of the same crops.
Moreover, controlled environment farming enables Mucci Farms to dramatically reduce their need for pesticides, for some crops eliminating the need altogether, by relying on its IPM (Integrated Pest Management) program.
This process effectively uses “good bugs,” like lady bugs, to fight “bad bugs.” In addition, the company employs thousands upon thousands of bees to fly around the greenhouses to pollinate plants.
Like many other companies in the fresh produce sector, Mucci Farms was severely tested by the global COVID-19 pandemic, struggling with labor shortages and significant losses of business due to prolonged lockdowns in the hospitality and food-service industries.
But being a highly automated operation has enabled the company to make it through the worst days of the pandemic crisis in fairly good shape, according to Branson.
“The silver lining for us was that the pressure unleashed by COVID-19 outbreak helped to expose some weak points in our operation that we needed to address,” Branson says.
“When you have the product moving through around the clock it is really hard to highlight some of those problems, but dealing with COVID has provided many opportunities to address a number of inefficiencies and bottlenecks that went unnoticed beforehand,” Branson states.
“Identifying those shortcomings gave us a unique opportunity to address them effectively.”
Among other wider unforeseen challenges, Branson singles out the increased unpredictability, frequency and severity of extreme weather events hampering crop production in many parts of the continent over the last few years—making greenhouses an especially important element in ensuring food security for fresh produce for millions of North American consumers.
“Unpredictable weather events have had a big impact on field production,” Branson says, “whereas greenhouse production shields us from adverse conditions so that we can supply product to the market consistently.
“There are a lot more consumers looking for good quality fruits and vegetables these days with a renewed focus on health,” he notes, “and its’s a good sign for our industry that we produce products that meet their needs for making better choices related to their health and diets.”
To meet those consumer needs consistently and affordably, Mucci Farms continually pours a lot of investment dollars into automating many of its operations, says Branson, citing recent installation of a fleet of AGVs (automatic guided vehicles) that bring incoming raw product from the shipping doors right to the processing and packaging lines, with their operations often handled by a series of pick-and-place robots with minimal human intervention.
“We’re always at the front end of trying the newest technologies to improve our capabilities to service our customers’ needs, and address industry-wide labour challenges,” says Branson, praising the company’s ownership group and management team for implementing a highly proactive capital investment strategy.
“They have a tremendous vision that puts people front and center,” he says, “and this is reinforced by a corporate culture based on reinvesting in the future of the business.
“When you are investing in a new packaging machine costing anywhere from $300,000 to over a million dollars, you want to invest strategically with a keen eye for the future to give yourself the best chance to realize a return on that investment,” Branson concludes.
“They are always thinking of where the business should be five years from now, ten years from now, how the industry is changing, and what is driving those changes.”