“J&J Produce grower’s business practice of only using legal workers hired through the federal government’s H2B visa program clearly demonstrates that businesses do not need to depend on illegal alien workers to prosper in the market place.*”
Statement from Jack Oliver, Board Member of Floridians for Immigration Enforcement


      Business keeps sprouting for Loxahatchee grower


Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Thursday, November 22, 2007

LOXAHATCHEE — While Florida agriculture may be shrinking overall, that's not true for J&J Produce Inc., a Loxahatchee-based vegetable concern whose sales have tripled over the past five years.

"We're growing like crazy," said Brian Rayfield, 38, vice president of sales and marketing.

J&J is one of about 25 firms in Palm Beach County that grow, pack, ship or market vegetables from two distinct farming regions: the Everglades Agricultural Area and the coastal sandlands, such as Loxahatchee and areas west of Delray Beach and Boynton Beach.

J&J expects to ship more than 5 million 25-pound crates of fruits and vegetables this year to 48 states and some foreign markets. That's a 20 percent increase over last year, Rayfield said.

The company's Loxahatchee packinghouse, a former citrus facility off Seminole Pratt-Whitney Road it bought from Callery-Judge Grove in 2004, is undergoing an expansion - expected to be complete next month - to 125,000 square feet from 80,000 square feet.

In 2005, J&J started its own trucking company. This year it has a new joint venture with Alico Inc. (Nasdaq: ALCO, $43.67), a La Belle-based agribusiness firm that is a major Florida landowner.

But you won't find Jim Erneston, the 63-year-old president of J&J, readily offering that information because he isn't one to brag.

Erneston wants it made perfectly clear that he credits God with the company's success. J&J's business cards feature a New Testament verse, John 14:6 ("I am the way, the truth and the life").

"I want to continue to be good stewards of what God has allowed us to have," he said. "God has allowed us to get to this point, no doubt about it."

Erneston comes from a West Palm Beach family that's been in the produce business since 1923, when his grandfather, Chris Erneston, started Erneston Produce, a wholesale produce company still in business today.

Erneston founded J&J in 1980 with his twin brother Jerry, who now operates the company's packing house in Immokalee.

The company began simply buying and selling but now has farms totaling 3,500 acres in five Florida counties - including Palm Beach and Hendry - as well as in Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee.

On a recent morning, Erneston stood outside the packinghouse beside half a dozen huge plastic bins, each holding more than 1,000 peppers, zucchini and squash, waiting their turn to be forklifted to the automated packing line.

As the produce traveled down the line Friday, workers checked each jumbo bell pepper for defects, discarding any that were not perfect. An automated stainless steel sizer sorted the peppers into one of six sizes.

"The retailers want the big ones, jumbo or extra large," Erneston said while watching a steady flow of peppers go down the line.

To make sure it hires only legal workers, J&J employs 150 people from Mexico at the packinghouse through the federal H2B program. It's expensive, with the company providing transportation, housing and other benefits that must meet government standards, Erneston said.

This season, J&J has more than tripled its Florida acreage to almost 2,000, from 500. Much of that is through a new joint venture with Alico.

"We want to be more involved in produce," said John Alexander, Alico's chief executive officer. "J&J is a premier packer, shipper and marketer of quality produce. When we team up with somebody, we want to be with the best."

Eva Webb, the Florida Farm Bureau Federation's assistant director of field services, said the vertically integrated J&J is a prime example of what it takes to succeed in agriculture today.

"They are the future of agriculture. This is what everybody is going to have to aspire to. This is the only way they will be able to stay profitable and stay competitive," Webb said.