Lipman Family Farms' Kent Shoemaker Discusses Family Farming, Sustainability, Labor, and More
- by Robert Schaulis
IMMOKALEE, FL - Since its inception more than 60 years ago, Lipman Family Farms has grown to become one of the largest open-field tomato growers on the continent. Yet, as its name suggests, the company is family-owned and driven by the integrity of its founding vision and the immediacy of its relationships. So, how does a family farm operate on this grand scale?
I recently had the opportunity to ask Lipman’s CEO Kent Shoemaker this very question. As the first CEO hired from outside the Lipman family, Shoemaker inherited a business structure that may have made many executives uneasy. But the company’s culture and the benefits of the family-farm-writ-large were a perfect fit for him.
“We like to say that the larger we get, the smaller we want to act,” Shoemaker tells me. “I’ve been around family businesses for most of my career, and I believe that this model allows us to be nimble and customer- and employee-focused.”
For Shoemaker, it’s the immediate and personal connections that Lipman cultivates that prime the company’s culture for success.
“When you work in a public company, many times you never get a chance to meet with your shareholders,” Shoemaker says. “I know every one of my shareholders. We have the ability to be accountable to the vision of the family—which is a very specific one. It’s a unique model in the sense that I don’t have to go through layers to get things done. We make decisions in hours and days instead of weeks and months.”
Shoemaker explains that Lipman’s structure–with no vice presidents and just a handful of administrators interacting directly with business units–allows for greater communication, accessibility, and accountability throughout the company. And, Shoemaker tells me, a sense of shared responsibility that is central to Lipman’s operations.
“When you own thousands of acres of land and a lot of people depend on you for their livelihood, you take steps to preserve that,” Shoemaker notes. “Sustainability is a term that has become very popular in recent years, but the Lipmans have been sustainable for decades. We are sustainable in our agricultural practices, water use and waste reduction. We’re also working on a very large solar project now, and we use drip irrigation throughout our enterprise. We’re always looking for more efficient ways to do things while being respectful of the resources we have. But we didn’t just start doing that. We’ve been doing it for a long time."
For Shoemaker and the Lipman team, issues of sustainability, labor, and leadership are all part of a shared vision. And the company aims to be as sustainable and conscientious in its approach to its employees and its customer- and consumer-relationships as it does in its approach to land stewardship.
“We want to be an employer of choice and offer a work environment where people feel valued and protected; we are continually striving to make our work conditions as desirable as possible,” said Shoemaker, remarking that the company employs both a domestic labor force and skilled workers from Mexico recruited directly by Lipman and brought in under the H-2A visa program. “I think as a country we need to recognize the value of our immigrant population, and we need to be respectful of people who for decades have been doing important work that many in the traditional labor force don’t want to do."
As for the future, Shoemaker tells me that the company, excellently placed from the standpoint of vertical integration, will continue its storied tradition of sustainability. He’s optimistic that trends toward health-conscious eating and increased produce consumption will propel the industry into the future.
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