Perspectives Online

College alumnus Vic Beverage (above and below at the Mount Olive Pickle Co.) says, "Our goal is that people work safely and go home healthy."
(Photo by Daniel Kim)
For nearly eight decades, N.C. State University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has been a partner in the success of Mt. Olive Pickle Co., one of the nation's largest pickle-making companies and one of North Carolina's most notable agribusinesses.

For nearly as long as the company has existed, N.C. State scientists have conducted research leading to better products and more efficient operations. They have helped solve problems through extension efforts. And they have educated students who've gone on to work for the company.

For Vic Beverage, a College graduate who serves as Mt. Olive's vice president for manufacturing, the link between the university and the industry is an inescapable fact of life.

The Mt. Olive Pickle Co. "has developed a productive relationship with N.C. State University that extends back to the late 1930s and early 1940s in the fields of horticulture, food science and engineering," Beverage said.

"These relationships have helped the company remain at the forefront of the industry with cucumber and pickle production developments."

Indeed, from its start in the 1926 in the Wayne County community for which the company is named, Mt. Olive has grown into the largest pickle maker in the Southeast. With an annual payroll of $20 million, the company employs more than 450 year-round workers and 300 to 400 seasonal workers.

Income from the company also accrues to area farmers.

College alumnus Vic Beverage.
(Photo by Daniel Kim)
"Each year, Mt. Olive uses 100 million pounds of cucumbers and peppers. Over 35 million pounds of cucumbers and 2 million pounds of banana peppers are received from independent growers in North Carolina," Beverage pointed out. "Our agricultural purchases from North Carolina farmers total over $4 million dollars a year."

While Mt. Olive is a sizable company, it isn't big enough to support an independent research and development unit, Beverage said. And that's where N.C. State comes in.

"We don't have the facilities for research that a Fortune 500 company has, and so we work directly with the university."

By working with N.C. State, Mt. Olive and other pickle makers have gained a university-developed pasteurization process that now accounts for 40 percent of commercially processed cucumbers in the United States, and they obtained a method for preventing brined cucumbers from softening.

University faculty members also engineered ways to help the natural fermentation process of the brine tanks to ensure pickles that are consistently high in quality and appearance. And they routinely help farmers battle insect and disease problems to ensure a steady supply of cucumbers and banana peppers for the processor.

In return, Mt. Olive Pickle helps sponsor N.C. State events, partners with the Food Fermentation Lab in its ongoing research and opens its plant to N.C. State students interested in learning about such topics as good manufacturing practices in the food industry.

Occasionally, some of those students go on to work for the company.

Beverage, for one, was introduced to the pickle industry by College professors back in the 1970s. The son of a Marine who retired at Camp Lejeune after serving for 30 years, he came to N.C. State hoping to go on to medical school. He was steered into food science by adviser Dr. Grover Miller, who saw Beverage's potential to succeed in business.

It was Dr. Henry Fleming, a food science faculty member and expert in the development of controlled fermentation methods for vegetables, who helped Beverage get his first job in quality control at another North Carolina pickle-making company following his graduation in 1976.

He joined the executive team at Mt. Olive about 10 years ago, and he has come to be as much of a fan of his company as he is of the Wolfpack.

Beverage is pleased that a boycott related to wages and working conditions on independent farms that the company buys vegetables from has ended, and he notes that the company has always been committed to eastern North Carolina and to area charities.

"We are more than just pickle packers," he said. "We are a community-minded company that encourages all employees at all levels to give back to the community. In the fiscal year 2003 alone, we contributed nearly $450,000 in corporate and employee contributions to charitable, civic and social organizations and projects.

"We partner with our local schools, we sponsor youth recreation teams, and we support fundraising efforts of local civic organizations."

In addition to supporting the community, Mt. Olive has focused in the past decade on making its plant among the state's safest, Beverage said. In 1995, the company's incident rate for on-the-job injuries was twice as high as the average North Carolina company. But today, he said, the rate is 90 percent below the state average.

Beverage credited Mt. Olive's improved safety record to the commitment of employees and managers. Under his leadership as plant manager, the company focused on lowering the injury rate by teaching and encouraging workers to "be their own safety officer," Beverage explained.

As a result, Mt. Olive became certified as a Carolina Star, a company that has met the highest safety standards set by the N.C. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Division.

"Managers and fellow employees have to look out for each other," he said. "Our goal is that people work safely and go home healthy."