Mastronardi Produce Ltd.: Responsibly Growing North America’s Tastiest Tomatoes

There are few companies in North America that can claim to have had as much of an impact on any product as the Mastronardi family has had on tomatoes. A pioneer and industry leader in the gourmet tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, lettuce and berries industry for four generations, the family has pioneered the use of commercial greenhouse technology to supply North American year-round with the most consistently flavorful produce possible.
 
Today, the Ontario-based Mastronardi Produce Ltd. (MPL) company has greenhouses peppered across North America and under its SUNSET Produce brand supplies the masses with flavorful tomatoes, specialty peppers and crunchy English cucumbers, with heirloom and organic varieties making appearances in between. Along the way, the Mastonardi family has built a company on the principles of innovation, safety and responsibility, so it’s no wonder that the firm was also recently named one of the 50 Best Managed Companies in Canada.
 
Four Generations of Flavor
 
The Mastronardi Family came over to Canada from Italy in the early 1920s, but the family’s history in agriculture spans many generations back. However, it was in the 1940s when Umberto Mastronardi traveled to Holland and brought back greenhouse technology that the company began to take shape, a shape that seems like it was almost predestination.
 
“My grandfather was Umberto, Umberto is both my father’s and my middle name, and you can pretty much spell ‘tomato’ straight through in ‘Umberto Mastronardi,’” laughs Paul Mastronardi, president and CEO of MPL. Umberto built the first commercial greenhouse in North America, and his family-owned, employee-managed company has expanded over the decades into the largest greenhouse company in North America, drawing on management with 100 years of experience and 1,400-plus acres of greenhouse production capability.
 
It was in the 1970s that the Mastronardi family cemented its substantial presence in the tomato industry, when it expanded its greenhouse operations to grow tomatoes year-round. Ten years later, the family switched from growing pink beefsteak tomatoes, a veritable greenhouse staple at the time, to the more flavorful red beefsteak variety.
 
It wasn’t until 1995, though, that the company blew the lid off the tomato industry, launching its signature Campari variety. “We surveyed our customers and we found a real lack of flavor in the tomato industry, so we sought out a renowned European variety of tomato that really opened the door to a wider variety of flavors,” asserts Paul. In the following years the company continued to push the boundaries of flavor in tomatoes, launching baby grape tomato varietals and heirloom varietals in every color of the rainbow.
 
Over 50 Years of Pioneering Roots
 
MPL has always been dedicated to using the latest technology to remain a leader in the industry, remaining committed to hands-on service and high quality-control standards from seedling to shelf. Growing, shipping, marketing and selling its dozens of varieties of vegetables, MPL has found that SUNSET products have been consistently well received, especially its launches of recent years.
 
“The Kumato brown variety of tomato and Zima orange grape tomatoes have consistently sold out for the past 12 months. By the time we harvest them, we’re already seeding the next batch to catch up,” says Paul. Success does not mean the company slows down on its development efforts, however. Though the company doesn’t do any of the hybridization in-house, it works in tandem with seed suppliers to develop new strands for sale.
 
Furthermore, MPL exclusively works with naturally hybridized varieties, never genetically modified ones. MPL officially joined the Non-GMO Project and received its certification in 2010, but pursuing a diversity of plant species has always been an MPL priority.
 
In fact, the company relies upon a diversity of species, as well as a highly efficient transportation network, to ensure the freshest, most flavorful produce possible. “We have distribution locations across North America – from Ontario and Mexico to Michigan, Florida, Colorado and California – so we can account for weird weather patterns, while keeping our supplies as local as possible,” asserts Paul. Under normal circumstances, MPL aims to supply local markets with produce from its closest facilities. In times of harsh winters or heavy rains, however, the company retains the flexibility to ship produce across the continent to fill in any supply gaps.
 
In order to grow internationally MPL developed a comprehensive food safety program that utilizes the internationally accepted Safe Quality Foods (SQF) standards, and it has implemented a traceability system to suit all North American governmental regulations. “We invested in our own microbiology laboratories, which aren’t required by the government or the consumer, but we did it simply because it’s the right thing to do,” insists Paul.
 
MPL also employs a vice president of their food safety program who holds a doctorate degree, as well as two microbiologists to monitor pathogenic and non-pathogenic organisms. The benefits of the operation are twofold: On the one hand, MPL can monitor the appearance of molds and bacteria that reduce shelf life in its products, and, on the other hand, the company can detect a food-borne threat well in advance of any regulatory authority.
 
MPL backs the program up with one of the most advanced traceability systems available on the market, capable of tracing a fruit back to a specific vine. In fact, the company’s system is so sophisticated that CNN spotlighted its accomplishments in response to the 2008 Salmonella outbreak.
 
“The industry was frozen in the middle of a Saintpaul salmonellosis outbreak, which is a rare and very dangerous strain. CNN approached us, because at the time the food industry thought an effective traceability system couldn’t be done, but we had one in place since 2002,” admits Paul. In the years following, the province of Ontario has made traceability systems like the ones MPL uses mandatory. In 2011, MPL was recognized for its efforts to satisfy a moral and ethical obligation to doing the right thing for customers, and the company took home the 10th Annual Food Quality Award presented by DuPont Qualicon and Food Quality magazine for its decision to be proactive rather than reactive.
 
Sustainability You Can Taste
 
MPL has never been the kind of company to rest on its laurels. The company first made its mark through widespread greenhouse usage, but the company has worked tirelessly to continue and implement sustainable farming practices continuously. MPL’s popular tomatoes not only grow in state-of-the-art greenhouses producing lower gases, they grow in earth-friendly recycled coconut husks using fewer chemicals and fertilizer from recycled leach water from the plants. MPL also prioritizes the use of alternate fuels, and the company has even developed an integrated pest management system to avoid pesticides and insecticides naturally.
 
Perhaps MPL’s biggest sustainability coup came when it completed a carbon-negative greenhouse in Sarnia, Ontario. “We have actually been audited by a third party as carbon negative, and we’re the only carbon-negative greenhouse in the country,” says Paul. The MPL team designed the greenhouse to connect to a nearby industrial plant, which supplies the greenhouse with its excess heat and CO2 to warm the greenhouse during cold winter months.
 
MPL will never stop looking for ways to make its operations more efficient, more effective, and more sustainable, and the Mastronardi family is preparing to continue growing the company. According to Paul, “Our vision has never been to be the biggest. Our mission is to be the best and whatever growth comes as a result is welcome.”

Continuing a long tradition of superior products and service, Mastronardi Produce Ltd. and its SUNSET Produce brand will continue to set the standard for “Goodness Grown Naturally.”