Sun Coast Farms

California’s grower-direct source for safer, higher quality produce
Written by: 
Molly Shaw

Since 2003, family-owned Sun Coast Farms (Sun Coast) has been growing as a vertically integrated grower-packer-shipper in south-central California and beyond. Based in Santa Maria, Sun Coast covers close to 4,000 acres annually, planting, harvesting and shipping everything from iceberg and romaine lettuce to broccoli and cauliflower.

“We plant it, we harvest it, we cool it and we sell it,” simply puts Sonny Smith, owner of Sun Coast. With years of experience in production and harvesting, Smith launched Sun Coast in 2003 under the grower-direct model, working with major processors and retailers.

“Sun Coast is the grower source for processing plants and food service companies and these major companies really appreciate dealing directly with the grower,” explains Smith. “It’s like a hand to touch the ground through me and access a better product.”

Father-son success

When Sun Coast entered the market in 2003, the company solely grew commodities for the fresh-cut processing industry. Since then, Sun Coast has expanded its sales and growing operations to include both retail and food service customers, acquiring more territory and companies under the Sun Coast umbrella.

In 2010, the company launched Sun Coast Farms Texas, a processing facility located in Carrollton Texas, approximately 20 miles north of Dallas. The fresh-cut facility in Carrollton processes commodities that Sun Coast grows, but also a variety of other items such as apples, carrots, celery, tomatoes and onions.

“What we are now all traces back to my father, Vernon E. Smith Jr., who’s been in the growing business for 50 years,” tells Smith. “He was influenced by my grandfather, who was a federal produce inspector. My father was involved with Pacific Marketing, a company very similar to Sun Coast, which we recently acquired in March 2014.”

After many years working hand in hand with his father, Smith branched off on his own to start Smith Packing in 1997. “I started as a custom contractor in the production and harvesting world,” he recounts. “I would help growers pick the best time to effectively harvest their crops. Opportunity eventually presented itself, because of how good I was on the production end. When the industry began to change in the late 1990s and early 2000s, shifting to high quality bulk products for packers, I realized it was time for Sun Coast.”

Now, Sun Coast goes every step of the way; planting and growing in the rich Imperial Valley and Yuma, harvesting, processing, cooling and shipping to retailers and food service companies. “It’s all come full circle,” says Smith. “We’re a truly vertically integrating operation drawing on years of experience and now my father actually works for me.”

Furthering food safety

Today, Sun Coast farms an area of 4,000 acres in three major growing regions. Through late spring and summer crops are planted in the central coast region of California. In the winter, Sun Coast turns to California’s Imperial Valley and early spring through late fall the majority of crops are grown in Yuma, Arizona.

The company’s main surplus is iceberg, romaine and other leaf lettuce varieties, as well as broccoli. Seasonal crops include; cauliflower, green bell and red bell and jalapeno peppers. “Our main crop is iceberg lettuce, which accounts for approximately 40 percent of our harvest, but romaine lettuce and broccoli are other big products,” says Smith.

But no matter the crop, Sun Coast has made it a point to uphold some of the highest food-safety standards in the industry. “As an original signatory to both the California and Arizona Leafy Green agreements, our commitment to food safety is paramount to the crops we grow, process and deliver to our customers,” measures Smith.

Sun Coast Farms implements good manufacturing practices (GMPs) as well as hazard analysis and critical controls points (HACCP) in its processing facility in order to provide the most secure product possible. “All operations are audited by third party auditors under the Global Food Safety Guidelines in order to ensure our commitment to food safety,” tells Smith.

“Food safety is really one of the things we hang our hat on,” continues Smith. “Since we started, Sun Coast has been at the forefront of the food safety movement. Because we deal with end users in the food service industry, we’re held to a high standard. They’re very strict about what they want and it needs to be perfect, which is one reason I think we’ve always been ahead of the curve on this, and in my opinion, it has kept us in business.”

While Smith says Sun Coast isn’t the largest in the industry, he says the company is agile and fits the grower-direct niche market customers are looking for. “Whether it is new packaging or special blends, our sales staff will work closely with our customers to provide them the service they look for on a daily basis,” says Smith.

In the next five or so years, Smith says he anticipates growth. “There’s great opportunity in the produce industry for those willing to work hard,” he details. “At the end of the day, we’re family-run, we work hard and we’re honest; we’re not trying to be the biggest, but we are trying to be the best at what we do.”

Since 2003, Sun Coast Farms has become a vertically integrated grower-packer-shipper operation, filling a void in the produce market by selling directly to end users.

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