Homestead Pole Bean Cooperative
Homestead Pole Bean Cooperative (Homestead) started 56 years ago, the way most cooperatives do, out of the notion that there is strength in numbers. “Homestead was established in 1958,” recounts Emilio M. Mirzakhani, general manager of the Florida-based business. “At the time, pole beans were the main commodity most member and nonmember grow, and we’re based in Homestead, Fla., so this is how the name came about.”
According to Mirzakhani, the pole bean is similar to a green bean. “However, it takes more care and labor to grow them, since pole beans are grown on the pole to keep them off the ground,” he details. “Pole bean is a native to North America.”
Since starting in the pole bean business, Homestead has expanded its offerings to include: green beans, wax beans, specialty peppers, Florida avocados, sweet corn, squash, okra, eggplant and even star fruit.
“Today we have 10 to 12 active members, but 44 members in total,” shares Mirzakhani. “Some of our member and nonmember farmers are small, with farms with only 5 to 6 acres and others are large, going all the way up to 200 to 300 acres.”
Mirzakhani has been part of the cooperative for the better part of 20 years, working his way up from accounts receivable and credit manager to assistant controller, controller and finally general manager. “While I was going to college in Georgia, I worked with my friend at Oconne River Produce, a fresh produce packing house,” he recalls. “I went on to get my MBA at Cleveland State University, and when Hurricane Andrew hit Florida, my friend asked me to come to Florida to help his dad at the packing house, which was falling apart after the storm. I eventually got offered a job from Homestead and I’ve been here ever since.”
Marketing to a global audience
Now with approximately 10 year-round employees and an additional 10 during the busy harvest seasons, Homestead helps local growers bring products to worldwide market. “We only package avocados and hydrocollo, our sweet corn, but the majority of fruits and vegetables are already prepackaged when they arrive here,” explains Mirzakhani. “Our most important service we offer our members and nonmember is marketing.”
Homestead effectively markets a range of locally grown produce to a larger, worldwide wholesaler audience, from the U.S. to Canada and European countries, such as England and Holland. “We mostly sell sweet corn to our European markets,” details Mirzakhani.
In peak season
For Homestead, busy season is through the winter. While other farms shut down and almost hibernate through long winter months, Florida’s produce season is just peaking. “Sweet corn, both bi-color and yellow, as well as green bean and pole beans, squash and specialty peppers are all grown locally in the winter, starting after Thanksgiving through January and March,” shares Mirzakhani. “In April, we start slowing down, and in May, we start summer crops, such as okra, star fruit and avocados. For the most part, we’re running on a year-round basis.”
Mirzakhani is excited about the cooperative’s newest addition to the plentiful lineup; fresh ginger imported from China. “We started bringing in ginger about three and a half to four years ago,” he shares. “It’s a good year-round import for us and is profitable enough that it helps us avoid turning to members for support. Right now, we’re importing three containers a month.”
Mirzakhani says Homestead is also researching an option to import garlic. “We’re always communicating with exporters, looking for new sources,” he says. “While locally produced is great, the grower doesn’t always have to be in our backyard. Say someone from Chile wants to bring in a new type of stone fruit; it helps us add variety and get a competitive advantage by sourcing some of these foreign products.”
He has even contacted various global embassies in the past, asking to get farmers on board with Homestead. “In theory, everyone thinks it’s a great idea,” explains Mirzakhani. “Everyone would benefit; the grower, the packing house and the marketers, wholesalers and ultimately customers, but no one has followed through, because the resources just aren’t there.”
Despite unsuccessful attempts to collaborate with embassies and more farmers on a worldwide scale, Mirzakhani states Homestead is always looking for the next product to introduce to the market in an effort to stay competitive.
“Of course, we face the same challenges all cooperatives do; weather and commodity prices – it’s really such an economically dependent business,” he explains. “You need people out and purchasing, considering all of that we’re always looking for a way to get customer in the door and buying. Our overhead is our biggest expense, so we need to keep customer coming through and purchasing.”
Mirzakhani adds that competition from Mexico isn’t easing the pressure on smaller cooperatives like Homestead. “We only have so much land in south Florida, and cheaper, Mexican imports are squeezing Florida farmers out,” he says.
Growing relationships and product lines is in the future for Homestead, as Mirzakhani says the cooperative wants to focus on diversity. “If we’re more diverse, everyone wins,” he assures. For 56 years, Homestead Pole Bean Cooperative has sought to improve marketing for its member and nonmember farmers, bringing a collective competitive advantage.