BUENA BOROUGH — Felix Donato’s great-grandfather was a farmer who helped start the Landisville Produce Cooperative 100 years ago so growers in the region could match their crops with buyers.
But Donato, 42, who manages it today, is not a farmer. He has an economics and finance degree from Drexel University in Philadelphia, and when the Landisville job opened he was working for a fruit importer. He was ready to come back home, he said.
Fruit and vegetable co-ops are a dying breed: There were just 138 of them in 2010 in the United States, down from 160 in 2006, according to the latest figures available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But at the Landisville Produce Auction, a mixture of flexibility and tenaciousness has enabled it to thrive, said Richard Van Vranken, agricultural agent for the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County in Mays Landing.
The co-op, believed to be the oldest in the nation still operating, represents about 70 small growers in Atlantic, Cumberland, Salem and Burlington counties. Each has 80 to 400 acres under cultivation, Donato said. About 40 to 50 are seriously active, while others sell once in a while.
Van Vranken said the Landisville co-op does about $7 million in sales a year, making it the second largest in the state. The Vineland Produce Auction, which operates on an auction system and started in 1931, is among the nation’s largest, with $70 million a year in sales. Three others in central and northern New Jersey sell about $1 million each in produce, he said.
Landisville has had just five or six managers in its 100 years, said Donato, who lives in Buena.
“(Farmers) pool together to increase their market share,” Donato said of how the co-op works. “We are able to supply customers better. If each had to sell individually, it wouldn’t work.” Members pay 5 percent of sales as commission to the co-op.
One of the new programs Landisville has embraced is a Red Tomato project with Kings supermarket chain, which operates in North Jersey, Donato said.
“Kings promotes that it picks up produce and delivers it within a 24-hour period,” Donato said. “It’s not a big volume, but it’s innovative and people seem to take to it.”
Much of Donato’s work is over the phone, taking calls from produce buyers and sellers, and matching their needs. He works with buyers from as far away as Canada and Charleston, S.C., and there are crops to sell from April to November, he said.
When the co-op started, sweet potatoes were the main crop sold.
“That’s why we have a big potato house, with a heating system used to cure potatoes,” Donato said. Curing increases the shelf life of potatoes by hardening their skins, he explained.
The co-op also has large refrigerators to keep produce fresh, including forced-air cooling units, a hydrocooler that uses water vapor and a vacuum cooler. It sometimes rents trucks to deliver produce, Donato said, but usually buyers send their own trucks to pick it up from the co-op’s five-building facility on Northwest Boulevard, just off Route 40 at milepost 34.
Donato sets prices based on what things are selling for at major markets in New York City and Philadelphia, often determined by availability.
The first fruit and vegetable cooperative in the nation was the Hammonton Fruit Growers Union, which started in 1867, according to the USDA. But it stopped doing significant business in the 1980s and officially disbanded in the 1990s, Van Vranken said.
Van Vranken said co-ops got their earliest start in southern New Jersey because local farmers were selling to Philadelphia and New York, and markets there were notoriously slow to pay or even agree on a price.
“Co-ops gave farmers a local place to sell, where they would know the price and get paid in a reasonable amount of time,” Van Vranken said.
Donato has receipts from the early days showing local farmers shipped sweet potatoes as far away as Florida. The crop was a mainstay of local farmers well into the 1970s, he said. The early paperwork, until about the late 1920s, was written in Italian, Donato said.
He said the group didn’t throw a big party for its 100th anniversary, just marked it at its annual meeting in January.
John Formisano, who co-owns Formisano Farms in Buena, has been president of the co-op’s board of directors for about 20 years. He grows a lot of red- and green-leaf lettuces, such as romaine, escarole and endive, on about 250 acres, he said. He also grow herbs such as cilantro, dill and fennel.
Formisano, who still works full time at age 77, sells plenty of produce directly to Wakefern ShopRite. A Wakefern ShopRite commercial will soon start airing, from Connecticut to Maryland, in which he and other farmers appear.
But he also sells through the co-op.
“Yesterday he took 150 (cases of) beets, 160 kale and some dill from us,” Formisano said of Donato.
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