Mucci Farms, a Kingsville, Ontario-headquartered greenhouse vegetable operation, has been growing a variety of fruits and vegetables for more than 60 years. But if you want to know when the company truly became an industry leader, you can trace it back to the late 1990s, when the second generation of the Mucci family, brothers Bert and Danny, along with their cousin Gianni and close family friend Joe Spano, took over the company.
The group immediately launched a sales and marketing division at Mucci Farms, effectively transitioning the company into a vertically integrated organization that offered retailers end-to-end services from seed to retail. This turned out to be just the start of an aggressive expansion plan over the next 20 years, which has seen the company grow from fewer than 40 acres of greenhouses in Canada to nearly 250 in both Canada and the U.S., with several acres of land available for further expansion.
This time frame also saw the company go from roughly 40 employees to more than 1,400 in both countries. Initially growing tomatoes and cucumbers, Mucci has added several new varieties and crops, including bell peppers, lettuce, and strawberries, to its lineup.
This rapid growth has included significant investments in automation and robotics to improve efficiencies across the supply chain, including proprietary technology that was built specifically for the company’s needs. It also allowed Mucci Farms, which had seen its export share growing rapidly, to expand into the U.S., specifically into Huron, OH, for what was at first a 60-acre project that has since increased to 75 acres.
Perhaps most importantly, this expansion offers a lesson on the importance of always keeping an eye on the future, and knowing when emerging trends can mean opportunities to grow your business through innovation.
According to Owner Bert Mucci, all three phases of the Huron facilities will be identical 25-acre greenhouses equipped with high-pressure sodium lighting (Mucci is currently using LEDs for lettuce production and trialing them for several other crops, but so far, high-pressure sodium has proven to be far better for production purposes, he says). Mucci also says that the intention is to exclusively grow tomatoes (tomatoes on the vine and some snacking varieties) in Huron, although “market demands may create a need to grow a different commodity in the future.”
While there are several reasons Mucci Farms chose Huron for its U.S. location, the most important, Mucci says, is that a majority of what the company currently grows is exported to the U.S. Proximity to market and avoiding an international border crossing provided value and attraction for the company and its retail partners.
“Consumers everywhere prefer local and regionally grown products, so it made sense for us to offer that to our American customers, as well,” Mucci says. “The state of Ohio offered a very competitive environment in terms of the cost of doing business, in particular the cost of hydro.”
Mucci says Huron specifically was a great geographic location because it sits directly across from the company’s Kingsville, Ontario, headquarters on the opposite side of Lake Erie, so the weather conditions are nearly identical.
How Innovation Drives Success
Production expansion only works if you can also stay innovative. This is a philosophy that the management team at Mucci Farms takes to heart. For example, the company has invested heavily in automation, including electronic greenhouse tow trucks from Belgium-based Bogaerts Greenhouse Logistics that can transport up to six carts of harvested tomatoes to the packinghouse without a driver. Each cart can hold 500 to 700 pounds of tomatoes, and they improve efficiency by keeping workers focused on harvesting rather than stacking pallets in the greenhouses and transporting them to the packing area.
While growing indoors dramatically lowers pest pressure issues, Mucci Farms is still committed to a strong integrated pest management (IPM) program to deal with challenging pests such as spider mites. The company recently hired an IPM manager whose main focus is fighting bugs.
“He examines the crop on a daily basis, creates a report, and works with Koppert Biological Systems to bring in the appropriate beneficial insects,” says Dave Loewen, General Manager of Mucci Farms Ohio.
In addition, like just about every other grower, finding enough labor is a major challenge.
“We rely on the local labor force, and bring in migrant workers in both Canada and the U.S. only when necessary to compensate for labor shortages,” Loewen says. “We incentivize employees with numerous performance incentives, internal employee engagement, a strong corporate culture, and most of all, the opportunity to grow and advance in the industry.”
Mucci Farms has also turned to a system from Priva to improve efficiency and tracking among its labor crew.
“The Priva F5 system helps improve efficiency, yield, and crop quality as well as helping us analyze and understand labor-related data,” Loewen says. “As team members are required to scan their tags at each row, we are able to track their production. This allows us to not only identify the best workers, but also identify workers that need further assistance and/or training. It helps us forecast how much and how quickly we can harvest and pack product. It keeps employees accountable, and we have also been able to use it to create incentive programs for our top performers.”
Additionally, the Priva system also improves food safety and traceability, as its tagging system allows Mucci Farms to trace any product to the exact row it was harvested in.
An Eye on the Consumer
Mucci Farms commits to delivering a quality product to the end consumer, which means picking the right varieties to produce.
“We work with breeding companies that regularly offer us new seeds they are developing, [and we often enter those into] our trial program to develop and study,” says Danny Mucci, President of Mucci Farms. “We have also partnered with retailers and flown with them around the world to taste different products and identify new flavorful varieties to launch in the North American market.”
So which characteristics does the company look for when deciding which varieties are the best fit?
“Flavor is our top priority, followed by yield and cost of production,” Danny Mucci says. “We also take a good look at trends and marketability, as we obviously need to be able to forecast consumer interest. At the moment, our research shows that snack foods are on the rise, so we have emphasized finding and introducing more snack-sized options to the market.”
Finally, while food safety isn’t a topic that greenhouse ornamental growers need to focus on, it’s a critical part of the process at Mucci Farms.
“Accountability is the key to food safety, so we are always monitoring our team to make sure we are following the correct procedures at all times,” Loewen says. “We also have regular food safety meetings and emphasize cleanliness in and around the facility. It starts at the top, and our leadership teams lead by example.”
Future Expansion Plans
In May 2018, Mucci Farms announced that harvesting out of the first 25-acre phase of its Huron, OH, facility had begun. Today, construction of phase 2 is underway, with an expectation to be harvesting from it in the Spring of 2020. The target for the final phase is to harvest in the Spring of 2021.
The company may not be done, however. Bert Mucci says Mucci Farms is actively pursuing growth opportunities in the U.S. to expand the markets it can service.
“There is plenty of opportunity to build more greenhouses, as sustainability has quickly risen to the forefront of topics in the food industry,” he says. “Greenhouse farming is far more sustainable than traditional farming as there is a significantly longer farming season, in addition to being able to use supplemental lighting to produce year-round. There is significant opportunity across the continent to increase the market share for greenhouse-grown produce.”
The Importance of Communication and Education
While Mucci Farms’ expansion into the U.S. has been largely successful, there was at least one challenge the company had to overcome.
“If we were going to do something differently, we likely would have created a greater degree of emphasis on educating the community on greenhouse farming, and what to expect with our arrival,” says Bert Mucci. “Coming from a community [in Ontario] where most people don’t remember a time before greenhouses in the region, we didn’t anticipate some of the legitimate concerns that were brought forth by members of the Huron community.”
Mucci says a handful of local residents were unhappy about the high-pressure sodium lights lighting up the night sky during the winter.
“We addressed the issue in a couple of different ways,” he says. “We trial-and-errored our way through opening our shade curtains at certain times and testing different percentages of light emittance to get the ideal solution that accommodates our production goals, while being considerate of our neighbors. We also worked hand-in-hand with local authorities and the city council to communicate our efforts and work with the town on solutions.”
Before the start of the winter season this year, Mucci Farms plans to host tours for local residents so they can see how greenhouse farming works, how the lights are beneficial for local production, and to allow them to can ask questions.
“We’re hoping that visiting the facility and getting an understanding of how everything works will make it easier for them to understand and hopefully make them supporters of the greenhouse industry,” Mucci says. “Educating the community is the main priority to address this.”