#onthefarm with Joe Barsi

February 10, 2010

I had fascinating chat with Joe Barsi, @BerryGiant, last week for #onthefarm. I started following Joe during one of the initial #agchats. And I’m pretty sure he’s the only berry guy (farmer or industry) that I follow on Twitter. If you aren’t following him, make sure you do. He provides interesting tidbits about berry production around the world and has snapped some pretty cool pics of berry farming in other countries. I learned a ton about berries during our chat and I think several folks following the chat did as well. It was nice to step out of the row crop/livestock world for 75 minutes and get to know more about berries. I hope to do more of these types of #onthefarm subjects in the future.

The transcript is below. Enjoy!


n_web: Q1: Take 3-5 tweets to tell us about yourself and what you do for a living.

BerryGiant: Q1: I grew up in Watsonville, CA which is a large strawberry producing region. Went to Cal Poly and have a bs in agribusiness. Moved to Eden Prairie, MN after college and worked for C.H. Robinson a large 3rd party producing sourcing company. Lived in MN for 3 years and lived in Atlanta for 1 year. I sold our services throught the SE, so I got to see the country. Been back in CA since 1996. Married my high school sweetheart and have 2 children 10 & almost 13, yikes!!!! Joined Cal Giant about 5 years ago because I wanted to work for a company that farmed their own products. So you can say I way back 2 the farm. I understand the whole produce supply chain now & its nice 2 work 4 a Co. that produces their own #berries. I’m the VP of Biz Dev 4 Cal Giant. Cal Giant produced strawberries & has for  > 35 years. I was brought on 2 develop other #berries

n_web: Q2: What products does California Berry Giant Farms produce and where? Strictly CA?

BerryGiant: Q2: We grow, pack and ship #strawberries, #blueberries, #blackberries and #raspberries. Most of R own production is in CA & R economic engine is strawberries. We also have strawberry suppliers in FL & Mexico. CA produces ~85% of North America’s #strawberries and we grow them year round there, but as you know you must be diversified. Especially when you need to service large major retailers that expect to be supplied all year long.

n_web: Q3: Can you walk me through the US seasons for each type of berry? And their main production area?

BerryGiant: #strawberries grow in CA year round, but peak in April. They start in Oxnard (Dec-Mar), Santa Maria (Mar-Nov), Watsonville& Salinas (April – November/December). Mexico also produces Dec-Mar and Florida is Dec-March.

#blueberries are more complicated. It is very fragmented and production is usually six week windows. #blueberries are imported from South America November-March because North America does not produce during those months. In April CA and FL produce blueberries for 4-6 weeks. Then production moves up both coasts. FL, GA, NC, NJ. #blueberries on the West Coast go CA, OR, WA, British Columbia. The fragmentation makes it that much more complicated.

#blackberries are predominately grown in CA from May – September and then in Mexico from October through May. There are other states that produce great #blackberries besides CA. GA, ORegon, WA etc.

Keep in mind, I am talking about fresh market berries, not berries for processing (frozen). For the audience, #strawberries are the leader in the berry category followed by blueberries, raspberries and blackberries. For example, 70% of consumers purchased #strawberries last year on a weekly basis compared to 45% for #blueberries.

n_web: Q4: What are some of the challenges facing berry farmers? Does that span the “berry family” or is each berry unique?

BerryGiant: Q4: Great question. Each family member has their own challenges. Much like mine. lol #blueberry growers are facing lower processed prices which makes it harder to make $.#strawberry growers are challenged with rising input costs, land costs, water etc. Also, labor.

n_web: Q5: Is berry farming more “corporate” than other types of farming? Or is it more “family farming”?

BerryGiant: Q5: Another good question. There are 5 #strawberry companies that control >70% of the market, Cal Giant being 1 of them. However, all of those companies are made up of family farmers. 4 example, @californiagiant has 13 farming families that grow CA strawberries 4 us. & they R considered R partners. In fact, the Rocha brothers have been our partners for >20 years. Our competitors are very similar for the most part. Although we grow >70% of our #berries, our company is made up of family farmers. @californiagiant has 4 owners and we have many family members that work at the company in different capacities. We R family!

n_web: Q6: What’s your take (or the company’s take) on the rise in organic production? Do you see share increasing? On one occasion, I noticed #blackberries for $1 a carton, much cheaper than conv. blackberries. Why would that be?

BerryGiant: Q6: You mean organic blackberries? Assuming you mean conventional vs organic.

n_web: I mean organics berry production in general. But for my example, yes, I saw organic blackberries for $1. Couldn’t believe it.

BerryGiant: When there is not that big of a price difference consumers will buy organic. + organic production has increased faster than #organic consumers. Thus, the price spread is smaller.

n_web: Guess what I’m looking for is just your general take on organic & conv. production of berries. Will organic cont. to gain share?

BerryGiant: #organic consumers of berries are heavy users. In other words, not as many people buy #organic . @thepacker fresh trends notes, only 23% of consumers purchased #strawberries in the past year. #Organic berry production is increasing, but not as fast as consumption. I believe there is still solid growth opportuntities, but, I’m not willing to bet #onthefarm on converting everything to #organic. We are increasing our organic production though.

BerryGiant: Was visiting with the @wholefoods buyer yesterday and their organic berry category is growing nicely.

n_web: Q7: from @agropinion: “would love to know if/how immigration reform would affect berry production and prices”

BerryGiant: Q7: Another great Q. If we did not have the labor force to pick our berries, prices would definitely go up. In addition, the CA #strawberry industry is a large employer in the state. R state finances R alrdy a mess, w/out a decent labor force. CA would be in trouble. CA is the 7th largest economy in the world and a large part due to agriculture.

n_web: Q8: How does a berry guy use social media? Who are your targets? What are the benefits of using it?

BerryGiant: Q8: I did blog post awhile back on why I use Twitter http://bit.ly/dnj9jc. I have a unique role in that I get to travel the globe visiting berry farmers. I use SM to share my expertise and experiences. My targets are consumers and industry stakeholders. I joined twitter back in 2008, but I did not become more active until last year. I chose to focus on the #berry industry. The economist last week had a great section on social networking. All companies should be using some SMM as a part of their marketing program. It is not a silver bullet, but should be a big part.

n_web: Final Q: from @celestelaurent: “What do you wish all consumers understood about berries in their grocery store?”

BerryGiant: Final Q: wheh. Consumers should know that berry growing in general is very complicated and berry growers work very hard to work very hard to grow high quality, safe berries for your family to eat. #Farmers are the backbone of our company.

BerryGiant: A note, only 23% of consumers bought ORGANIC #strawberries in the past year. Over 70% of consumers bought conventional.

n_web: This was extremely insightful, Joe. Thanks for your time and patience in explaining the industry. New territory for most of us.

BerryGiant: Thanks for inviting me to join you this morning. It was my pleasure. DM me if you have any Q about #berries.