AMCO reference case: the grower's choice for safe and sustainable tomatoes

written by IFCO SYSTEMS, 13th May 2021, in Reference Cases

For almost 40 years, the AMCO Group has focused on farming through continuous innovation and delivering fresh produce of premium quality from their family-run business in Ontario, Canada. The COO, Mitchell Amicone, is currently on a mission to expand their operations in the most sustainable way. IFCO is supporting this goal for safe and sustainable tomatoes with our pooled reusable packaging solutions.

Why make the sustainable choice for tomatoes?

Mitchell Amicone has a passion for sustainability. The COO at AMCO Group and the son of the company’s founder, Fausto Amicone, is on a mission to expand the AMCO Group to boost sustainability, enhance food safety and bring operational efficiencies. Established in 1985 and located in the "tomato capital of Canada" in Leamington, Ontario, the family-owned business started out as a small-scale farm and has developed into a successful farming and logistics operation. While their flagship produce extends over a variety of specialty tomatoes, the company prides itself on its range of cucumbers and peppers, as well as on its trails of blackberries, raspberries and string beans.

Comprised of AMCO Farms, AMCO Produce , AMCO Express and AMCO Storage, the AMCO Group covers all aspects of the family’s farming and logistics operations, from propagation to growing and packaging, to shipping and distribution of their fresh produce. Due to the integrated nature of the group, Amicone believes the company’s partnership with IFCO will provide crucial support for the company’s ongoing expansion and drive for more sustainable crop production. "We’re committed to increasing our fall and winter food supply program, initially implemented since 2015, to build upon its mission to deliver Canadian produce to customers all year round," explains Amicone.

"IFCO is playing an integral role in reaching our sustainability, efficiency and food safety goals along the way."

Ensuring safe and sustainable production all year round

In order to realize these ambitious goals, Amicone has undertaken a major expansion of the AMCO Group that will affect the company’s whole supply chain, from propagation, vertical faming solutions, production to packaging and shipping choices, and will result in safe and sustainable tomato production all year round.

It will see the farm grow from some 75 acres to a total of 100 acres by the end of 2022. Most importantly, however, it involves extensive modernization measures across the operations to target production efficiency and sustainability goals on many levels. They include:

Expanding and modernizing

the greenhouses to enable fall and winter production. By increasing the farm’s production for the local area, AMCO Group will help shorten the region’s transportation routes, targeting food miles in the process.

Replacing

single-use packaging with IFCO Reusable Plastic Containers (RPCs) to protect the produce and support the shift to more sustainable operations.

Enhancing

food safety and hygiene measures by establishing the company’s own vertical plant propagation facilities.

Upgrading

the lighting and heating system to target energy consumption and reduce the farm’s overall carbon footprint.

Improving all-year-round productivity, efficiency and sustainability

The farm is located in Leamington, which is on the southernmost strip of Canada. The reason for this is that this area of Canada gets the most light in the country. It’s therefore the ideal location to grow tomatoes in the summer. Not so in winter, when temperatures can drop below 25°F (-5°C). To enable all-year-round production, an efficient heating and lighting system is required. As regards heating and electricity, a new Co-Generation system provides a number of benefits for AMCO.

The new Co-Generation system…

  • ensures a more efficient energy generation and usage;
  • eliminates the farm’s base load electrical demand from the Canadian utility services;
  • uses the thermal power produced through the co-generation operating process with natural gas to heat the production area;
  • allows AMCO to condition the irrigation water supply to maintain the required water temperature, saving in the process on the extra energy that was required in the past for this task.

"We no longer purchase base-load electricity from the grid," confirms Amicone. "So our farm is 100% self-sustained."

"When we ship our tomatoes in IFCO RPCs, we know they are safe and secure. We won't have any box damage. We won’t have any pallet tip-overs. This means we’ll have lower rejection rates. Transport incidents drop when we pack our fresh produce in IFCO RPCs"

Mitchell Amicone , COO of AMCO Group

How to reduce greenhouse electricity consumption by 40%?

LED lights, which is expected to reduce the farm’s electricity energy consumption by over 40%. In order to become a more sustainable farm with all-year-round production, the lighting system is also currently undergoing a major upgrade. Around 50% of the greenhouses have high-pressure sodium (HPS) lights to enable production under lighting. These HPS fixtures are being replaced with LED lights, which is expected to reduce the farm’s electricity energy consumption by over 40%.

After one year of winter production under lighting, the benefits were already clear. "Essentially, we no longer have those peaks and valleys of labor requirements," Amicone explains. "This is important as it helps provide more stable jobs with more stable hours, and not just seasonal work."By 2023, AMCO expects to harvest up to an average of one million pounds per week of Canadian-grown produce year-round.

How to reduce food miles in the farming industry

The new heating and lighting systems ensure that AMCO can reliably supply the region with premium produce all year round, which will ultimately help reduce food miles across North America, another major environmental concern of Amicone’s.

Instead of fruit and vegetables traveling two to three days from Mexico to reach the shelves in Canada and the northern states in the US, AMCO farms supply the local area more efficiently. Next-day shipping is critical for extending shelf life of the tomatoes. It’s the reason why the AMCO Group focus on areas that are within a 12-hour delivery radius of their farms.

"The majority of our customers are within a 12-hour drive," explains Amicone. "By extending our production cycle into winter, our products can be picked, shipped and delivered within 24 hours all year round."

Eliminating single-use packaging saves time

Time is always of the essence in farming, and not just when it comes to transportation. One of the most time-consuming aspects of the logistics side of the business involves the cumbersome steps to prepare single-use packaging for use to transport the produce.

Typically, Amicone explains, cardboard boxes are shipped in bales and need to be constructed by a box machine on site. At AMCO, on any given day, seven people would be busy making up and throwing any defected cardboard on the company grounds.

"That the IFCO RPCs are easier to handle is worth a lot to the company. With IFCO RPCs you can deliver them right to the greenhouse where and when they are needed. You pop them open and into shape and off you go," he says. "They are so much safer and more efficient in use. You’re not dependent on these intricate box machines anymore."

"Ideally, my plan would be to switch all of our cardboard boxes right now to IFCO RPCs," Amicone adds. "I’d be happy to get rid of my box machines. It’s not a sustainable way to package produce." Neither is it the best way to protect and ship the produce.

Consistently higher product protection in transportation

To highlight the added value of IFCO RPCs, Amicone outlines a far too common incident with single-use packaging. It’s often the case, he explains, that two or even four pallets on one truck can shift during transportation. At the destination, the retailer is often under such time constraints that they won’t be in a position to restack them. Instead, they’ll reject the whole truckload and ask for a new delivery.

Amicone continues to reel off a long list of recurring quality issues with single-use packaging: "If the cardboard is not kept at an optimal temperature or not used within a certain time frame they can become to humid or dry causing complications with carton making. And, unlike cardboard, IFCO RPCs don’t need to be temperature controlled to hold their integrity. This is a huge benefit as it cuts down on inventory and warehousing costs."

Protecting produce from plant pathogens is key

Increased protection doesn’t end with the structural integrity of the IFCO boxes. Like all tomato growers, Amicone is concerned about protecting the produce from pathogens and pests, particularly at a time when the infamous Tomato Brown Rugose Fruit Virus (ToBRFV) is still in circulation in Canada. Throughout the farms, strict hygiene measures are in place to prevent plant pathogens from entering the farms.

"Hygiene is a huge priority," he says. "It’s difficult to mitigate this virus, that’s why it’s so important to use the IFCO RPCs. And knowing that the sanitizing process are third-party audited is important for us."

Such precisely monitored procedures, certified processes and strictly enforced hygiene standards at all IFCO wash centers ensure the packaging is safe for reuse. Thanks to the rigorous testing and stringent hygiene processes, IFCO RPCs are as safe as new containers. To support the food-safe environment across the farms, Amicone also has plans for a 75,000 sq. ft. vertical propagation facility. The ultimate goal is to be in a position to propagate the farm’s own plants without having to use outside vendors. "Our approach is to have a 360-degree control over plant density flexibility, compliance, food safety practices and bio-security," he explains. Throughout the farms, strict hygiene measures are in place to prevent plant pathogens from entering the farms.

"What I like most about the IFCO model is the fact that it encourages you to be accountable for building a more sustainable operation and food supply chain. It’s in our own interest to keep the IFCO RPCs in circulation"

Mitchell Amicone , COO of AMCO Group

How IFCO supports AMCO to be environmentally accountable

Amicone values how the IFCO model inspires a sense of accountability, particularly with regards to the environment. "What I like most about the IFCO model is the fact that it encourages you to be accountable for building a more sustainable operation and food supply chain. It’s in our own interest to keep the IFCO RPCs in circulation," Amicone explains.

"Personally, I believe the IFCO model brings people together. You get the feeling that everyone is in this together, and together we can eliminate waste," he says. "Everybody is accountable, and in today’s world, having recognized accountability promotes a well-executed and guided thought process before decision-making, which helps identify and eventually resolve issues in most aspects of life."

In Amicone’s view, a company’s packaging choices are closely tied to a company’s core values. And he’s convinced that consumers would agree with him: "What people are most concerned about today is a company’s moral code. They see packaging as a symbol of a company’s ethical values," he says. "And that matters right now."

"A huge trend we’re seeing with our customers is a clear desire for more sustainable packaging," Amicone continues. "Consumers no longer want to see individual tomatoes wrapped in plastic, wrapped in Styrofoam, wrapped in cardboard and covered in stickers or labels. It’s one of the many reasons why our partnership with IFCO is so important to us."

Sustainable operations support a great working environment

Amicone is confident about hitting his expansion and sustainability goals for the company, with the support of sustainable and safe tomato packaging from IFCO. But he also believes that the company has an important overall purpose, too.

"Essentially, my goal is to focus on improving the flow of day-to-day operations and tasks. Part of our overall plan involves revamping our current greenhouse structures, living quarters, warehousing, and generally making the group sustainable for future growth," Amicone explains.

To this end, AMCO recently extended the living spaces for the growing workforce and is also replacing current throw-away personal protective kits that were introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic, with reusable, re-washable equipment. "These are the kind of measures that will help make positive experiences," Amicone adds. "Our goal here is not to be the largest company by any means, but to be a top talented place to work. We strive to be a successful company on many different levels all the while creating a positive working atmosphere where people enjoying coming to work."

How does an efficient IFCO operation bring efficiencies?

Entirely managed by IFCO within the SmartCycle™ pooling system , IFCO Reusable Packaging Containers are designed to be shared, reused and pooled over many cycles and years. IFCO manages delivery and collection, and also ensures food-grade sanitization between each and every reuse. As IFCO circulates and monitors the crates, the RPCs can be repaired by IFCO if required. At end of life, they are 100% recycled into new IFCO RPCs under the company’s watchful eye. It’s a system that targets the elimination of waste and creates a more sustainable and safe packaging for the entire food supply chain.

While the IFCO SmartCycle itself is set up to run as an efficient operation, it also supports Amicone’s own drive for efficiency across the AMCO Group. In total, the AMCO fleet of trucks covers an average of five million miles each year. With an operation of this size, the IFCO RPCs bring important efficiencies on top of increased sustainability.

"It’s common sense to get everybody to work together to share the same box sizes," concludes Amicone. "This uniformity of standard footprint has in itself a ton of advantages. Reusing and sharing the crates in the IFCO pool contributes to our company goals in terms of productivity, efficiency and sustainability."

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