Commissioner's Agricultural Environmental Leadership Award
Title:Sanwa Growers, Inc.
Type:Agricultural Environmental Leadership Award
Tony Leung has been in constant motion since 3 a.m. A whirlwind of activity swirls around him at his Tampa distribution center. He greets customers and checks outbound orders with boundless energy and efficiency. Watching him work it’s easy to see how he turned a small vegetable farm into one of Central Florida’s biggest produce growers and distributors.
It is said a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. For Tony and his wife, Connie, that first step took them from their native Hong Kong to Canada where the couple attended the University of Guelph. In 1981, the Leungs made their way south to Hillsborough County. There, on a small piece of leased land, Tony started Sanwa Growers, Incorporated. For several years he ran the small vegetable farm, catering to local markets, before Connie joined him in the operation. Combining her skill in economics with Tony’s knowledge of agriculture, they quickly established themselves as a major provider of specialty foods.
Connie Leung, Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer, Sanwa Growers, Inc.: When we started 21 years ago, the major hurdle that we have is how to introduce ethnic vegetable into the mainstream market. You know that we’re in a south country, this is only meat and potatoes. When you talk to people about bok choy and napa, they go “huh?” What is bok choy and napa? And nowadays, you know, that we were successful to go into the mainstream market.
As Sanwa grew, the Leungs moved to a more vertically integrated operation, doing everything from growing greenhouse seedlings, to assembling and maintaining a fleet of delivery vehicles. They are also expanding their farming operations; recently the company purchased another 100 acres of citrus to add to their line of products.
Tony Leung, President, Sanwa Growers, Inc: Eventually we get in touch with a lot of business and they expect us to supply more than just vegetable. And also since we are marketing ethnic or oriental vegetable and there’s a lot of products not available in this market so I become a source, doing a lot of sourcing for these retailers. So then I start importing and growing different varieties.
Importing produce from South and Central America has been another success for Sanwa. They have been one of the largest importers of ginger in the United States.
Demand for their products increased so rapidly that Sanwa’s wholesaling operation became its primary business. The Leungs added a packinghouse in Wimauma as well as sales and distribution centers in Miami and Atlanta. Recently, Sanwa added a Tampa site to its operation. The company purchased a local produce center and converted it to a one-stop food-service provider that also houses its meat and poultry divisions.
Tony’s real love has always been farming. He not only recognizes the delicate balance between growing a successful crop and protecting the environment, he understands the challenges of the regulatory process that ties the two together. So in 1998, when a 12-agency team was formed to streamline that process, Tony volunteered Sanwa Growers to be the program’s pilot farm. Tony also volunteered Sanwa’s General Manager, Sue Grier, to represent the company on the team.
Sue Grier, General Manager, Sanwa Growers, Inc.: The concept of the whole farm plan is that we would like to see farmers able to run their operations, not exactly with less regulation with more streamlined regulation. We’d like all of that to be put together so that all the permits are issued through inspections by one group of people. And that group of people is made up of representatives from all the different government agencies who need to watch the operation and need to monitor it.
The team analyzed Sanwa’s farm operations and explored ways to consolidate agency efforts. The result will combine 22 permits and 99 compliance conditions into one plan, and consolidate the large number of regulators into a single group. By making it easier for farmers to address regulatory issues, the whole-farm plan offers to save time and money for the agricultural industry. Benefits from the program extend from farmers to environmentalists, all the way to consumers.
In a partnership with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Sanwa will expand and renovate the Sanford Farmers’ Market, turning the oldest continuously operated state farmers’ market in the nation into a state-of-the-art distribution facility in an area of the state that needs it most. As part of a 10-year lease, Sanwa will add coolers, fixtures, processing equipment, and storage facilities, to the market. They will also occupy 11,000-square-feet of warehouse and 2,200-square-feet of office space.
As their business has grown, the Leungs haven’t forgotten the community that has supported them. Sanwa assists a local shelter for abused women and children, Suncoast Community Health Centers, the Redlands Christian Migrants Association’s child care centers, a sheriff’s program for children, the Ag in the Classroom program, and many other community activities.
And their generosity isn’t confined to South Florida. When a devastating hurricane hit Honduras, Connie started “Hope from Hillsborough,” a relief effort for the Central American nation. Sanwa contracted two sea-going containers and collected over 40 tons of clothing and household items. These were sent to a grower’s co-op which distributed the goods directly to the people who needed them most.
Sanwa’s success is easy to understand. The Leungs consider their employees to be their most important resource. They train and cross-train employees and promote 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.
Sue Grier: We are such a diverse group; we laugh about being the United Nations company because we come from such a wide variety of backgrounds. But it comes together in such a way that we know we can come up with a good solution because we’ve seen it from every side possible It’s really been exciting working with a group like this, and I think it’s very good that we have all these different opinions coming in and it helps us grow as a company. It helps us see other people’s perspectives because they are so different sometimes. It’s really a good group.