The key to Valefresco's success

Salad firm Valefresco's positive attitude has given the award winner a competitive edge.

Lettuce field: Valefresco's search for ways to improve efficiency has led the salad grower to invest in a whole-head lettuce harvester. Credit: Valefresco
Lettuce field: Valefresco's search for ways to improve efficiency has led the salad grower to invest in a whole-head lettuce harvester. Credit: Valefresco

In the 1960s two young farmers named Giuseppe Mauro and Vito Pilade came to England from northern Sicily in the hope of a better quality of life.

They were among dozens of Italians who at that time - and in a system similar to today's Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) - gained permits to work in the UK.

Mauro and Pilade settled in the Vale of Evesham in southern Worcestershire - a fertile region that for centuries has been a hub for market gardeners and is still home to some 20 salad growers of Italian parentage.

Among these growers is Valefresco - the winner of this year's Salad Grower of the Year award.

The Evesham-based firm is run by Giuseppe's sons Vito and Nick Mauro and their first cousins, Vito's sons Vito junior and Joe Pilade.

"Our parents came over to England with just a suitcase as very poor people," explains outdoor vegetable and salad production manager Nick Mauro. "There were better wages here (in the UK) at the time."

In 2006, after talking about it for many years, the cousins merged the two family businesses, V&S Pilade and G&G Mauro, founded by their fathers, to create Valefresco.

"Merging was a good move," says glasshouse crops and packed produce sales manager Vito Pilade. "We grew up together, we went out together and we supplied the same people."

He adds that the company's formation has helped the families compete in today's competitive market.

"Salad-growing firms are getting bigger because smaller growers are not viable anymore," Pilade explains. "The margins are so tight - they have been squeezed so much, year in, year out, that smaller growers just cannot make it pay anymore. So you need the volume to make the profits work."

The thriving business, which at the peak of the season has 80 members of staff, is proof that their fathers' dream of a better life has become a reality.

The company supplies bagged salads to the food-processing industry, serving leading food-processing factories and multiples.

Since its formation three years ago, the business has striven to strengthen its operations by investing in new machinery, new land and visiting growers across the globe for inspiration.

"You can never say that you have 'nailed it'," says Pilade. "We are always looking for new ideas. People get bored with the same foods so you always have to reinvent your products."

He reveals that Valefresco's best-selling lines are its specialist lettuces such as Lollo Rossa, Course, Fine Endive and Cos. Valefresco also specialises in baby-leaf crops such as red chard and rocket, and grows Chinese vegetables, such as pak choi, kai choi, choy sum, red root spinach and Chinese cabbage (Chinese leaves), supplying London's Chinatown.

"If you go into a restaurant on Gerard Street, there's a strong chance that you will be tasting our products," says Pilade's brother Joe, who manages the oriental vegetable and leafy salad production. Two years ago, he toured China with his customer David Tsang and Valefresco grower Anthony Nightingale to discover new crops and growing techniques. The firm uses several Chinese seed companies for its produce.

"I was looking at the way they grow certain varieties and the way they should be presented to the customer," Joe Pilade explains. "They were doing everything the old-fashioned way - still ploughing their fields with an ox."

Other products grown by Valefresco include cucumbers and tomatoes - with some 5ha of plum, cherry, vine and round tomatoes grown under glass.

The glasshouses at Valefresco are also used out of season to give an extra four weeks for lettuce production.

Harvest time

In just a few weeks' time, around mid-May, the first lettuce crop of the year will be harvested using Valefresco's EUR70,000 (£64,000) whole-head lettuce harvester - the first of its type to be used in the UK. "Before we bought the machine we just had people harvesting the lettuce in the old-fashioned way. This still happens when the weather is wet as that's not good for any machine," Pilade points out.

"But when the conditions are pretty good it's superb. Although it's not a fast machine it ends up being quicker in the long run. People are more comfortable so they work better.

"Usually they get slower as the day goes on but with the machine they keep going because they do not get as tired."

He adds that the harvester, made by the Italian horticultural machinery specialist Hortech, is at its optimum on larger fields where it has longer lines with which to work.

The firm bought it two seasons ago after "scouring the world for better ways of harvesting lettuce" and seeing it working well in Italy.

"We spend quite a lot of time out there," reveals Pilade's brother, Joe. "A company member goes out to Italy once a month." And Pilade admits that the families' Italian roots are often the brunt of many jokes. "We are likened to The Sopranos all the time. But we don't mind - it makes people laugh."

Their heritage has proved vital in helping to give them a competitive edge as they are able to build relationships with growers in Italy and Spain.

"It's unbeatable because we are all bilingual. It makes life so much easier. We have groups growing out there for us and in the winter months we just follow the sun to keep our customers happy. We try to keep a year-round supply if we can," Pilade says.

Baby-leaf salads and oriental vegetables are grown for the firm in several regions, including northern Italy, Sicily, the southern Italian province of Salerno and Murcia - known as the market garden region of Spain.

Valefresco has also invested in new land for outdoor production in the UK with the purchase last autumn of the 235ha Old Pasture's Farm at Hampton Lucy in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire.

After a busy winter installing and tending to field drains and roadways - and renovating some of the buildings on the land - planting has already taken place on the new site. "We'll be growing everything on the new farm," says Pilade.

For Valefresco, purchasing new land has taken priority over the kind of investments made by some other salad growers, such as anaerobic digestion facilities or high-tech glasshouses.

"Outdoor production is our biggest earner so that's where our money's gone," says Pilade.

The firm has its own transport fleet of five lorries so that its produce can be delivered to customers quickly.

"If they order in the morning they can have it the same day," says Pilade, who points out that orders for this year are "looking good" despite the economic downturn.

"The truth is, we do not yet know how we will be affected by the recession because it started when we finished our 2008 season," adds Mauro.

"Every year (our customers) order in the autumn what they want for the following season. So we have seen no change - probably even a slight increase," says Pilade.

But he predicts that the company could start to grow more economical varieties. "Things do change quickly. Because of the credit crunch the processors are making more enquiries about iceberg (lettuce), where you get more weight for your money."

If the credit crunch does hit Valefresco, it will no doubt bite back with the kind of steely determination that has already seen the firm survive the floods of 2007.

"In the 2007 floods we probably lost about £500,000. It flooded one of our sites in Worcestershire where we have all of our polytunnels. But when disaster strikes you just have to get on with it. What's lost is lost," Pilade says.

Last year was also a difficult one for the business because of the lack of seasonal labour. "It was hard," he says, "but I think it will be slightly easier this year because the Government has increased the SAWS quota."

The changing pesticide legislation will also test the business but the Valefresco team sees this as a challenge.

"We have fewer and fewer chemicals to use," says Pilade, "so we just have to find new techniques."

Valefresco has used integrated pest management (IPM) for years, employing a combination of pest-control measures - such as mechanical weeders for lettuce, crop rotation and natural predators - that are less harmful to the environment than chemicals.

"We use IPM all of the time," says Pilade's brother, Joe. "Mechanical weeders make the crops grow better as well because you are putting oxygen into the root system.

"But it's a good thing (the EU) is taking away all of these chemicals. Going back to basics, 'sustainable farming', is better for the consumer."

It is this kind of positive attitude that has helped Valefresco gain a reputation as a dynamic company that is thriving in a competitive sector.

"Innovation and development is so important to the company," says Pilade, "it is the lifeblood."


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