Jimmy (left) and James Bassetti have a passion to transform how the vegetable industry connects with buyers and consumers. American Vegetable Grower named them the 2019 Grower Achievement Award winner due to the many things they’ve accomplished as a result of that passion. Photo by Palacios Photography.
The Bassettis want to change the world through their crops. If their Little Bear brand produce has enough flavor and packs enough nutrients, perhaps more families will gather around their tables.
“A big problem that we have in our society today is that we’re so fragmented as families, rushing around. Everybody’s busy working, and they don’t take the time to sit down together,” says Jimmy Bassetti, Founder and Co-Owner of J&D Produce, which owns the Little Bear brand.
And if they would do just that, many of society’s ills would disappear.
“Jimmy is always thinking about the bigger picture,” says Bret Erickson, Senior Vice President of Business Affairs. “He understands that food is medicine and food brings people together.”
“We grow a lot of vegetables like Swiss chard, collard greens, kohlrabi, bok choys, and daikon,” says James Bassetti, Vice President of Operations and an emerging leader of the J&D organization. “They have a huge variety of health benefits. Putting more vegetables on the dinner table, in your lunch, or on the breakfast plate can create positive life-changing impacts, perhaps allowing more people to get away from costly medications that have undesirable side effects.”
That drive for enhancing life through the dinner table colors just about everything the company does. It translates to taste testing and sending varieties to labs to assess their nutrition levels. That drive motivates the Bassettis to transform a trade show into a mighty platform for health and wellness. It convinces grocery stores and wholesale brokers to stock more amazingly flavorful and highly nutritious produce. And it energizes their consumer marketing campaign.
But it all starts with the dinner table.
In some ways, the Bassettis and the J&D Produce team are like all other growers. They seek out crops and varieties that offer profitable yields within their climate — in this case, the winter growing season along the Texas border in an area known as the Rio Grande Valley.
But for J&D Produce, that’s just the first step in crop selection.
“The family has always had a passion for growing fresh produce, fresh fruits, and veggies. And Mom and Dad always had them on the table for us kids. That passion was instilled in me, and I’m sharing that with my children,” James says.
That means the greens, melons, onions, and other crops they grow must taste amazing and be packed with nutrients.
While almost any vegetable operation would say its crops taste good, and are inherently healthy, the Bassetti family takes additional steps most do not.
First, the family really does gather around the dinner table and tastes all potential new crops. And so does the extended family.
“That translates into our workplace,” says Erickson. “When Jimmy and Diane renovated an old watermelon packing shed into the operation it is today, they built a big, beautiful kitchen. It really encourages people to gather as a community, as coworkers, as friends, and break bread together and cook together. Especially during the season.”
Most of the office and sales staff eat together just about every day, Erickson says.
“There’s Swiss chard with a little olive oil and garlic simmering in a pot. There’s kale Caesar salad and dandelion salads with HoneySweet onions. The farm is bringing in greens and all these different items — just amazing, amazing things and packed with so much flavor.”
Once a variety has passed the will-it-grow-here and the dinner-table tests, it’s time to send it to the Texas A&M University Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center (VFIC). The Center, currently under the leadership of Dr. Bhimu Patil, aims to improve the produce industry and its crops.
VFIC will test the variety’s nutritional value, down to micronutrients.
“Bhimu’s particular specialty is looking at the health-promoting compounds that are in different fruits and vegetables,” Erickson says.
J&D Produce then uses what they learn to not just help promote and market their crops, but also to educate customers and consumers on how they will improve their lives.
We’d all like to think flavor speaks for itself. In reality, it takes some marketing and strategy to make sure consumers know about it. There are two key ways J&D Produce helps get the message of flavorful fruits and vegetables across to families at home.
The first is by sharing who they are and what matters to them with retail and wholesale customers. The sales teams talk about the farming and packing operations, explaining how they operate. Then they prove how their methods work by letting grocery stores and others taste the difference in flavor. Those customers can then use the same information in their own marketing.
As for the second marketing method, J&D Produce hired a locally popular, certified dietician blogger, Stacey Mattinson. Mattinson, who’s also a home chef and a young mother, consults with the J&D Produce team, then develops recipes and digital content, spreading the word about the grower.
Recently, Mattinson created an especially useful marketing tool, the Retail Dietician Guides. They profile specific vegetables and fruit, like the HoneySweet onion and the BetaSweet carrot. J&D customers can share the Retail Dietician Guides with their own customers on how to cook the onions or carrots, and spelling out their health benefits.
Not that long ago, the Texas International Produce Association held a typical regional produce trade show. Held in the off-season (the summer months, in this case), the show was very local, catering to Texas growers and allied industries.
“To me, it was like a social event,” Jimmy says. “It was not a venue where we could really set up a booth and try to sell to customers because there was not a significant buyer presence.”
As a longtime board member, Jimmy pressed to transform the show into a better marketing tool for produce and a platform to showcase how fresh produce impacts health and wellness.
“Why don’t we have it during our season? Why don’t we have it so we can show our wares?” he says he asked the board.
Eventually, new leadership came in and invited Jimmy to help shake things up.
“One of the things that I was passionate about doing was creating a produce show that could make a difference for the growers here in South Texas and some of the importers from Mexico,” Jimmy says.
Today, the new version of the show, VIVA Fresh Produce Expo, does exactly that.
Now held at the end of the season in March or April — when growers’ crops can be on stage — VIVA Fresh attracts buyers from all over the U.S. and Canada. That includes heavy hitters like HEB, Walmart, Publix, Wegmans, Loblaws, Kroger, and many others.
VIVA Fresh’s organizers hold the show at resorts that are far enough away from major attractions to not lose attendees. Yet the locations have enough to offer to keep buyers sticking around.
“We’re keeping the venue intimate,” Jimmy says. “We’re keeping the show so that it allows for easy communication, easy dialogue, plenty of time. It’s more of a relaxed pace.”
Growers not only have fresh crops to display at booths, they can also feed attendees. That puts an emphasis on menus.
James says the executive chefs from the resorts love working with the growers.
“We’re providing lists of all the commodities that are available,” James says. “Attendees are actually providing their produce. It’s a genuine collaboration between the executive chef and us.”
So VIVA Fresh is one show that will never feed attendees convention-style chicken breast and steamed vegetables.
Just as the J&D Produce team re-defined industry trade shows, its business meetings with retail buyers are a little different, too.
Take a recent meeting with HEB grocery stores.
“They selected us to come up and do some grilling for some of their store managers,” Jimmy says.
In other words, to bond over great produce around a dinner table.
“We did some of our stuffed Italian long hot peppers and raw HoneySweet onion sections with a sliver of jalapeño and wrapped in bacon and grilled,” James says.
This approach makes a difference. Their passion sparks an answering passion in retail buyers.
Jimmy says if they can move the needle just a little bit and get Americans to fall in love with produce, it would be a tremendous thing for the country’s collective health and for families who spend that extra time cooking and eating together.
J&D Produce is doing just that. A few more American families may gather around their dinner table due to their efforts.
“When Diane and I started this journey back in 1984, moving from Vineland, New Jersey to the Rio Grande Valley, we never knew what an amazing ride it was going to be and continues to be to this day,” Jimmy says.
“It’s been wonderful. It’s absolutely been wonderful.”
Owners: Jimmy and Diane Bassetti
Founded: Edinburg, TX in 1986
Crops grown: Conventional and organic greens (more than 30 greens varieties), HoneySweet® onions, and melons.
Locations: Headquartered in Edinburg, TX; growing and/or packing operations in Deming, NM; Vidalia, GA; Vineland, NJ; Peru; and Mexico
Total acreage, all locations: About 7,000 acres
Since 2002, American Vegetable Grower editors, along with United Fresh Produce Association staff, select the Grower Achievement Award winner from a noteworthy list of nominees submitted by fellow producers, suppliers, consultants, and other industry stakeholders.
To win, growers must demonstrate industry leadership, innovative, consumer-oriented marketing efforts, excellence in food safety and quality, and embrace technological advances.
BRANDT is pleased to support the Grower Achievement Award. Recipients of this award are proven leaders in agriculture that demonstrate innovation in their operations, involvement in the vegetable industry, and good stewardship of the land.
BRANDT’s goal is to help growers enhance their operations by bringing new plant health technologies to the farm that advance quality, yield, and sustainability.
We salute all Grower Achievement Award recipients — this year’s winner and those from past years — for their hard work and contributions to excellence in the vegetable industry.