There are few companies in North America that can claim to have had as much of an impact on any product as the Mastronardi family has had on tomatoes. Since the 1940s, the family has pioneered the use of commercial greenhouse technology to supply North American with year-round with the juiciest tomatoes possible. Today, the Ontario-based company has greenhouses peppered across North America and takes pride in putting its spin on more than just tomatoes. Under its Sunset Farm Brand, Mastronardi Produce (MP) supplies the masses with flavorful tomatoes, specialty peppers, and crunchy English cucumbers with heirloom and organic varieties making appearances in between. Along the way, the Mastonardi family has built a company on the principles of flavor, innovation, safety and responsibility so it’s no wonder that the firm was also recently named one of the 50- Best Managed Companies in Canada.
The Mastronardi Family came over to Canada from Italy in the early 1920s, but the family’s history in agriculture spans many generations back. It was really in the early 1940s when Humberto Mastronardi traveled to Holland and brought back greenhouse technology that the company began to take shape. “My grandfather was Humberto and Humberto is both my father’s and my middle name. You can pretty much spell ‘tomato’ straight through in ‘Humberto Mastronardi’”, laughs Paul Mastronardi, president and CEO. In the 1970s the Mastronardi made its first big move in the tomato industry, when it expanded its greenhouse operations to grow tomatoes year round. Ten years later, the family switched from growing pink beefsteak tomatoes, a veritable greenhouse staple at the time, to the more flavorful red beefsteak variety.
It wasn’t until 1995, though that the company blew the lid off the tomato industry, launching its signature Campari variety. “We surveyed our customers and we found a real lack of flavor in the tomato industry so we sought out a renowned European variety of tomato that really opened the door to a wider variety of flavors,” asserts Mastronardi. In the following years the company continued to push the boundaries of flavor in tomatoes, launching baby grape tomato varietals and heirloom varietals in every color of the rainbow.
Running with A Good Idea
Overall, the products have been very well received and developing new varieties is one of the firm’s top priorities. “The Kumato brown variety of tomato and Zima orange grape tomatoes have consistently sold out for the past 12 months. By the time we harvest them, we’re already seeding the next batch to catch up,” says Mastronardi. Though the company doesn’t do any of the hybridization in-house, it works in tandem with seed suppliers to develop new strands for sale.
Furthermore, MP exclusively works with naturally hybridized varieties, never genetically-modified ones. MP officially joined the Non-GMO project when it received its certification in 2010, but pursuing a diversity of plant species has always been an MP priority.
In fact, the company relies upon a diversity of species as well as a diversity of climates to ensure the freshest, most flavorful produce possible. “We have greenhouses across North America from Mexico to Detroit and Florida to California so we can account for weird weather patterns, while keeping our supplies as local as possible,” asserts Mastronardi. Under normal circumstances, MP aims to supply local markets with produce from its closest facilities. In times of harsh winters or heavy rains, the company retains the flexibility to ship produce across the continent to fill in any supply gaps.
In order to grow internationally MP developed a comprehensive food safety program and traceability system to suit all North American government regulations. “We invested in our own microbiology laboratories, which aren’t required by the government or the consumer, simply because it’s the right thing to do,” insists Mastronardi. MP also employs a Vice President of Food Safety Program who holds a doctorate degree as well as two microbiologists to monitor pathogenic and non-pathogenic organisms. The benefits of the operation are twofold. On the one hand, MP can monitor the appearance of molds and bacteria that reduce shelf life in its products and on the other hand, the company can detect a food-born threat well in advance of any regulatory authority.
MP backs the program up with one of the most advanced traceability systems available on the market, capable of tracing a fruit back to a specific vine. In fact, the company’s system is so sophisticated that CNN spotlighted its accomplishments in response to the 2008 Salmonella outbreak. “The industry was frozen in the middle of a Saintpaul salmonellosis outbreak, which is a rare and very dangerous strain. CNN approached us because at the time the food industry thought an effective traceability system couldn’t be done, but we had one in place since 2002,” admits Mastronardi. In the years following, the province of Ontario ahs made traceability systems like the ones MP uses mandatory. In 2012, MP took home the tenth-annual Food Quality Award awarded by DuPont Qualicon and Food Quality magazine.
Sustainability You Can Taste
But MP has never been the kind of company to rest on its laurels. The company first made its mark through widespread greenhouse usage, but the company has worked tirelessly to continue and implement sustainable farming practices continuously. MP’s popular Zima grape tomato not only grows in a greenhouse, the tomatoes are grown upside down to prevent bruising, and the vines lay roots in coconut husks, not soil. MP also prioritizes the use of recycled water and fertilizer in its greenhouses and has even developed an integrated pest management system to avoid pesticides and insecticides naturally.
Though MP’s biggest sustainability coup came when it completed a carbon negative greenhouse in Sarnia, Ontario. “We have actually been audited by a third party as carbon-negative and we’re the only carbon negative greenhouse in the country,” says Mastronardi. THE MP team designed the greenhouse to connect to a nearby industrial plant, which supplies the greenhouse with its excess heat and CO2 to warm the greenhouse during cold winter months.
MP will never stop looking for ways to make its operations more efficient, more effective and more sustainable and the Mastronardis are preparing to continue growing the company. According to Mastronardi, “Our vision has never been to be the biggest. Our mission is to be the best and whatever growth comes as a result is welcome.”