Sanwa Growers, Inc.
It is a long way from Hong Kong to Central Florida and a long road from running a small vegetable farm to becoming a major produce grower and distributor. Tony and Connie Leung have made both journeys.
Born in Hong Kong, Tony and Connie attended the University of Guelph in Canada and also ran a small produce operation there before finding their way south to Hillsborough County, where in 1981 Tony opened Sanwa Growers, Inc., on a small piece of leased land. Connie joined the operation several years later, combining her skill in economics with Tony’s knowledge of agriculture to develop an ethnic vegetable business that immediately began expanding and is still growing today.
"Over the years our management team has talked about being at the stage that we’re not going to expand anymore," Connie said. "We have a joke that we are downsizing – but we are downsizing in an upward direction."
Although Tony’s real love is farming, he and Connie recognized the need to diversify, and they soon began marketing directly to chain stores. Moving to a more vertically integrated operation, they did more work themselves – from growing greenhouse seedlings to assembling and maintaining a fleet of delivery vehicles. They also began to supplement their locally grown product with produce imported mainly from South and Central America.
Demand for their products increased so rapidly that the Leungs added a packinghouse in Wimauma as well as sales and distribution centers in Miami and Atlanta. Recently, Sanwa purchased a landmark produce center in Tampa and converted it to a one-stop food-service provider that also houses their meat and poultry divisions. Sanwa’s wholesaling operation became its primary business.
As Sanwa has grown, the founders and staff haven’t forgotten the community that has supported them. They assist a local shelter for abused women and children; a community health center; a sheriff’s program for children; migrant worker child care centers; the Ag in the Classroom program; and many other community activities. Sanwa has also hosted tours by ministers of agriculture from other countries and visits by Florida legislators.
Sanwa’s workforce is a big part of its success. The Leungs consider their employees to be their most important resource. They demonstrate this by training and cross-training employees and then routinely promoting from within Sanwa’s ranks. The result is a team of hard-working, loyal employees and managers who grow along with the company, increasing productivity and keeping morale high.
"Particularly rewarding are people who have worked for us from the beginning, starting at entry-level jobs, and are now making daily decisions in management positions," Connie said.
In 1998, Tony volunteered Sanwa Growers to be the first pilot farm for the Whole Farm Planning project, a multi-agency effort to find more understandable and less burdensome ways for growers and producers to meet environmental protection objectives. Tony also volunteered Sanwa’s general manager, Sue Grier, to represent the company on the 12-agency team that included the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Department of Environmental Protection, and Southwest Florida Water Management District.
The team analyzed Sanwa’s farm operations, exploring ways to consolidate agency efforts, and the result was the combination of 22 permits and 99 compliance conditions into one plan. Suddenly, the large number of regulators with which the farmer must deal was replaced by one familiar face.
"We would like to see farmers run their operations not with less regulation, but with more streamlined regulation," Grier said, adding that growers will also benefit from new technology that the Whole Farm Plan makes available to them. "If it is economically feasible and would work for our crops, we would agree to implement it."
Sanwa’s willingness to take the lead in this innovative process serves as a template for businesses in other counties and states. By making it easier for farmers to grow food, the Whole Farm Plan offers to save time and money for the agricultural industry. Thanks to Sanwa, benefits from the program extend from farmers and environmentalists all the way to consumers.
Another boost to Florida agriculture comes from Sanwa’s partnership with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to expand and renovate the Sanford Farmers’ Market, turning the nation’s oldest continuously operated state farmers’ market into a state-of-the-art distribution facility. As part of a 10-year lease, coolers, fixtures, processing equipment, and storage facilities will be added to the market, and Sanwa will occupy 11,000-square-feet of warehouse and 2,200-square-feet of office space. Through volume production and marketing, the Sanford State Farmers’ Market will assure effective competition for growers and buyers both large and small.
Sanwa’s community, regulatory, and environmental efforts show a deep appreciation of the land on which they farm.
"Our business is food, and food comes from the land," Tony said. "We depend on the air, the soil, and the sunshine. Protecting the land from premature development and working it for full production, that’s good stewardship."
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Tony and Connie Leung, owners of Sanwa Growers, Inc., at their corporate office in Wimauma.
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One of many delivery vehicles in the fleet of Sanwa Growers, Inc.
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Sanwa Growers, Inc., supports many community organizations such as the Redlands Christian Migrants Association Infant Care Center.
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From left, Theresa Alvarado, accounting clerk of the greenhouse and nurseries, and Sue Grier, general manager, in one of the greenhouses at Sanwa Growers, Inc.
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Ginger is prepared for distribution in the Wimauma packing plant. Sanwa Growers, Inc., is one of the largest importers of ginger in the United States.
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An employee inspects the condition of some of the new crops in one of the greenhouses at Sanwa Growers, Inc.