The following story was written by a University of Missouri student as part of the 2010 Sonja Hillgren/Farm Journal Ag Journalism Field Reporting Institute. Learn more.
By Leif Kothe
The storage units of Produce Row, just north of downtown St. Louis, are a labyrinth of shifting temperatures and changing scents. The room with tomatoes is a comfortable 55 degrees, while the room with lettuce and carrots is a frigid 34.
In a unit somewhere between these extremes, Tom Butchart tears open one of the many brown boxes. He pulls out a trio of tawny butternut squashes. They are virtually identical.
"Consistency and uniformity," said Butchart, director of sales at Ole Tyme Produce Inc., a longtime Produce Row wholesaler. "Restaurants care about presentation, and these are the things they’re looking for."
Ole Tyme’s drive for crop uniformity represents a relatively new priority for the company, which constantly has to adapt to the demands of an ever-changing, hyper-competitive produce distribution market.
Change and competition are nothing new to Joan Daleo, president of Ole Tyme, whose family has owned and operated the business since her father started it in 1973. The business has been a staple of Produce Row ever since it moved there in 1985.
But as Ole Tyme seeks continued growth, the biggest change of all may be necessary for the company. Ole Tyme may be leaving Produce Row.
In pursuit of what Joan Daleo calls a "sustainable size" for her business, she believes a change of location could improve operations.
"In order to continue to grow, we have to ratchet up our efficiencies," Daleo said.
Growth also necessitates space — which is limited at Produce Row, she said.
"There are established dimensions here," Daleo said. "There’s no real way to alter it."
Technological advancements may have surpassed Ole Tyme’s current location.
For example, Produce Row "wasn’t built with the idea of the modern floor jack in mind," Daleo said. "When it was built in the 1950s, everything was done by hand."