FLORIDAGRICULTURE — June 2007
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New Palm Beach Packinghouse
G. B. Crawford

New packinghouse opens for business, fulfills dream
N AN ERA when many people seem to hold diminished expectations for their future, Rick Roth is a counter-example.

He has proof at hand.

In April Roth and his business partner, Buddy McKinstry, opened a stateof- the-art vegetable packinghouse in Belle Glade. The 85,000 square-foot facility, known as Ray’s Heritage LLC, is a milestone in a long-term effort to develop the family business.

Roth’s late father, Ray, first established the Palm Beach County enterprise in 1949 by leasing 100 acres for winter vegetable production. Originally from Ohio, the elder Roth relocated to Belle Glade permanently in 1951. He later founded Roth Farms, a primary venture associated with Ray’s Heritage.

“The packinghouse is a continuation of his dream,” Rick Roth said. “Building this packinghouse is on the same magnitude of his moving to Florida. He was obviously making a bold move. This is the next step for independent growers like Buddy and me. We believe this will secure our future in the fresh vegetable industry.” A vegetable, sugar cane, turfgrass, rice and tree producer, Roth explained that a boost in local green bean harvests reinforced his decision to build the facility.

The advent of mechanical harvesting for green beans has helped make the crop a viable commodity for Belle Glade farmers once again.

“Growers like my grandfather did very well producing green beans back in the 1940s and 1950s,” Roth noted.

“Green bean production has quadrupled in this area in the past five years to almost 10,000 acres, with average yields of 7,500 pounds per acre.” Sweet corn is the area’s major vegetable crop. Belle Glade farmers harvest more than 8 million crates of it between November and May.

“With the continual improvements in sweet corn varieties, growers are producing a superior tasting ear of corn that is sweeter, more tender and holds its flavor longer,” Roth said. “The yield increases and superior quality are pushing farmers to invest in valueadded packaging.” Attention to quality control issues also figured in the planning. The project gave Roth the confidence and ability to deliver the best vegetables possible. “Everybody wants a better pack and a better quality,” he noted.

But the main incentive driving the move is Roth’s optimism about the future of agribusiness in the region. “The Everglades Agricultural Area has a bright future,” he asserted. “We will always be under some type of economic or political or environmental pressure.

We have managed to succeed because we have been able to stick together as an industry.” All vegetable growers satisfy the buyer’s demand for a constant supply. If a grower cannot provide the foods on a constant schedule, customers look elsewhere.

By working cooperatively, Belle Glade farmers have met this demand.

“If I have a regular customer who wants lettuce and I do not have any production this week, I will buy from my next-door neighbor,” Roth said. “The secret is making sure the customer gets the product he wants every week.” Ray’s Heritage is a self-contained, refrigerated, insulated tilt-wall concrete structure. The walls were poured on the ground, then lifted into place in sections.

One of the most impressive features of the building is the hydro-cooling system, consisting of four independent tubes, each of which is 60 feet long. Unlike older structures, Roth’s facility relies upon a two-stage process to cool produce. In one pipeline a solution of glycol (antifreeze) is chilled with the same ammonia refrigerant that cools the building. The glycol is pumped through sealed coils built inside independent tanks. Water is chilled by circulating around the coils and lifted up to drip pans which, in turn, “rain” on the produce.

With a capacity of 9,000 gallons per tube, the system delivers a complete return of the water to the coils every two minutes.

“Starting the hydro-cooler for the first time was akin to watching the X-15 rocket plane launch from the mother airplane,” Roth recalled. “In my 30 years of farming, this is the first time I have seen a custom-made machine work perfectly the first time with no adjustments.” Computers monitor the system, which includes a series of valves. If any section fails, it is automatically shut down, while the rest of the hydro-cooling apparatus is allowed to operate. The placement of both the refrigerant and the glycol pipes outside the building minimizes the risk of contaminating produce.

Three storage rooms maintain the desired temperature until vegetables are transferred to refrigerated trucks.

Packing activity at Ray’s Heritage began last December, with a line of green beans. In March Roth opened the hydro-cooler to ship endive, parsley, varieties of lettuce and sweet corn. By April 9 the entire facility was put to work with the addition of a radish-packing component. The gradual process “gave us an opportunity to concentrate on one piece of the puzzle at a time,” Roth said.

He pointed out that leafy vegetables and corn are packed in the fields and are Transported to the packinghouse for cooling in preparation for shipping.

Radishes and green beans are cooled and packed at the facility.

Handling food items requires careful adherence to federal and state sanitary standards. The packinghouse is completely enclosed. Employees have one entrance; truckers have one entrance. No unauthorized persons are allowed in the building. “One of the main accomplishments here is that this facility is designed to meet or exceed all food safety standards,” Roth stated. “It exceeds them, for example, by allowing us to handle the product at temperatures lower than those now required by our buyers.” Ray’s Heritage employs two full-time and 50 seasonal workers. In addition, Roth Farms employs four full-time and 32 seasonal workers to run its radish operation as a lessee.

They form what Roth considers to be the basis for his success. “Ray’s Heritage is owned by my two sisters, Buddy and myself,” he said. “There is no way we could have done this alone. We have first-class management and employees.

“Most have been with us for at least 20 years.” Roth acknowledged that vegetable production can be a tough livelihood.

But he pointed out that Roth Farms has a long history of overcoming obstacles.

“To expand production, growers in our area are forming joint venture partnerships with landowners,” he observed.

“This allows us to partner with landowners who want to diversify and grow vegetables in rotation with sugarcane without additional equipment or employees.” At the same time, “with the increased yields per farm in the vegetable business and attention to food safety and the players involved, we see vegetable production in this area continuing to increase.” Roth pointed out that the location of the packinghouse promises further development.

Ray’s Heritage was built in the Belle Glade Business Industrial Park, a 100-acre site with vacant land still available. The structure is adjacent to another packing facility and is within two miles of a sugar mill. Byproducts from these businesses could be processed to create bio-fuels.

Given its size and design, Ray’s Heritage is poised to take advantage of innovations in production, packaging and marketing as they become available.

Value-added products, such as “tray pack” sweet corn and ready-to-eat green beans, might become income generators for the business.

One thing is certain. Rick Roth is prepared to meet the challenges ahead.

“The produce industry is changing and will totally change over the next five years,” he said. “This facility has put us in a position to do whatever it takes.” Roth, vice-president of Florida Farm Bureau and a board member of the Western Palm Beach County Farm Bureau, cites his experience in the organization as the fundamental reason for his optimism.

“I have been able to meet with producers around the country,” he explained.

“You realize that everybody struggles with similar issues.

“I have learned from my participation in Farm Bureau that we can work together as an industry. We have real opportunities to serve our common interests – whether it is in public policy or other issues. By doing this, we can all be successful.”
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