BY DAVID RAMIREZ MATUS
The story of one of the pioneers of local produce business starts in the early 1930’s when Al Harrison and his brother, Robert, owned a wholesale company named Harrison Brothers in the Los Angeles, California area. Harrison struggled to acquire decent quality fruits and vegetables, which a large majority was being transported from Florida to California through freight train. The Harrison brothers had a realization that Mexico was located in an ideal location with great growing conditions to produce great quality commodities.
Al Harrison then packed up and traveled to Nogales, Arizona with the destination of arriving in the Guaymas Valley, Sonora , Mexico. While he was there, Harrison wasted no time in meeting with growers and setting up programs to begin distribution of commodities throughout the United States. “My grandfather was a pilot so he flew back and forth into Mexico setting up these packages and meeting many growers where he would land right on the field where some deals were signed right there on the wings of the plane,” said Brent Harrison, President and Owner of Al Harrison Produce Company.
Harrison then became a staple in the local area, conducting business right out of the Montezuma Hotel in downtown Nogales. While Al Harrison has had a variety of different products throughout their history, Harrison focused on melons which has remained a specialty ever since. “Al (Harrison) and the company became so successful with the melon distribution that he became known in the industry as the watermelon king,” said Brent Harrison.
While the company’s main focus was in melons in the early days, they also distributed cherry tomatoes, corn, and squash which was the base of products that were distributed into the U.S. As the company grew, they included a larger variety of commodities. The growing areas also expanded into the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Jalisco, making Harrison one of the larger distributors in the area. In the early days, Harrison’s main distribution was to the west coast of the United States, the business has grown to include mid-west, Canada and a growing distribution into the eastern part of the country. “We are really driven by supply and demand so if our competition is not able to produce the product, then it is shipped from here, these days things have changed dramatically, so we can do business anywhere in the United States,” said Brent Harrison.
Harrison also had a vast concept of marketing; one example was the Mile Long Railroad Freight of Watermelons as a promotion for a Canadian chain store that was met by a large amount on fanfare in the early seventies. “This was the largest single commodity train load in the history of the country at the time, which was an impressive feat,” said Brent Harrison. Around this time frame, the Al Harrison Company was relocated to its current location in the northern area of Nogales.
Al Harrison was president and owner of the company until the time of his death in 1984, at which time his son Thomas Harrison took over operations of the Al Harrison Company. Thomas “Tom” Harrison then ran the company successfully until his retirement in 2006, where his son Brent Harrison is currently president and owner. “I started working with the company at age 16, doing every job I could possibly do, I have seen many changes in the company and in the industry,” said Brent Harrison. “One of the larger changes we have seen currently is the consolidation of our customers, and fierce competition among every aspects of the business,” said Brent Harrison. “Government regulation has also increased, with an emphasis on traceability, food safety and certifications,” said Brent Harrison.
The company has also moved into bringing technology into its operations. “We have invested considerably to have the best quality products that we can possibly produce,” said Brent Harrison. Today, Harrison also includes a domestic product with growing areas in Arizona, California and New Mexico making the company a year around distributor. Harrison also has expanded its growing area into Costa Rica with that product being distributed in Florida. “The Al Harrison Company is truly an international business, which is fitting because the industry and competition has become global and world-wide,” said Brent Harrison.
“Our products can be found in most of the largest retail stores in the United States, so when you buy a watermelon from Wal-Mart anywhere including locally it is not out of the question to think that it is an Al Harrison watermelon,” said Brent Harrison. Currently the Al Harrison Company has three different labels, which it ships its products under which are Si Senor, Harrison Fresh and Sweet Eden. The Si Senor label is placed on al foreign produce products that come into the country. The Harrison Fresh label is placed on all the domestically grown products. The Sweet Eden label is placed on a specialty product, which is the mini-melon. “The label is named after my daughter, Eden, but a mini-melon, I believe, is a great winter product because its price point and size,” said Brent Harrison.
Today, Harrison products include spaghetti squash, hard shell squash, butternut squash, banana squash and the many variety of watermelons. Harrison is shipping about 120,000 melons a day, which varies depending on demand.
Brent Harrison, current President, has continued the traditions. He is a Board Member for the FPAA, Chairman of the National Watermelon Promotion Board, President of the National Watermelon Association, Vice President of the Western Watermelon Association and Board Member of the United Fresh Produce Association.
Harrison is a pioneer in the local produce industry, and has remained one these last three generations. Harrison is involved in a great deal of community work, donations, and scholarships. Its impact in business has left a mark, not only in Santa Cruz County, but also through out the United States. The Fresh Produce Association of America (FPAA) recently honored Al Harrison for his contributions to the industry, being a pioneer and the lifetime of impact he left in the community.
To learn more about the Al Harrison Company, please visit online at www.alharrison.com or call (520) 281-1222.