California Giant Berry Farms, Watsonville, CA, is one of the largest berry grower-shippers in the Watsonville area, the strawberry capital of the world. The company has a robust berry operation, both company owned and as a representative for outside growers. Cindy Jewell is the firm’s vice president of marketing. Below is an edited version of a conversation between Jewell and OPN.
OPN: When did Cal Giant add an organics program to its mix?
I can’t remember when we didn’t have at least some organic strawberries. For many years, we would sell organic berries because one of our conventional growers would also devote some ground to organics so we would sell them.
About five or six years ago we started getting serious, looked at all the different districts and scheduled production in an effort to have a year-round program.
OPN: Have you succeeded in having year-round production?
We have for strawberries. It’s much more difficult for the other berries. Blueberries are a challenge. It’s a challenge to even have an uninterrupted supply of conventional blueberries. Typically it’s a six week deal in each district with areas going in and out and many different areas to deal with such as Chile, Argentina, Peru, California, the Pacific Northwest, Florida. Sometimes organic production is spotty but we are getting closer to year-round supplies.
OPN: What’s the dynamic driving increased supplies?
Demand is the biggest factor. The demand is there. It is a challenge to get the right land. On company-owned land we can bite the bullet and let the land be fallow for two years as we transition to organics. We are also being very strategic. We are devoting land that is near schools or senior citizen facilities toward that purpose. But there are a lot of berries being grown on leased land because of the crop rotation needs. It’s very difficult to get a land owner to dedicate his rented land to organics and make sure only organic crops are grown on that ground during the rotation periods.
OPN: What percent of your production is organic? And are demand and supply growing at the right pace?
We are at about 10-15%. Supply and demand are moving in sync and they need to. You can’t let supply get ahead of demand because you have to have the premium. Production costs are about 35 percent greater. If you aren’t getting a premium of close to that, the grower is not going to devote the same acreage to organics the following year.
OPN: Strawberries are a top revenue and profit maker for retailers, what’s their take on carrying and merchandising organic berries?
Most retailers realize they have to carry both organic and conventional strawberries. They might carry a two-pound conventional pack and a one-pound organic pack. Costco seems to be stirring a lot of competition. They are carrying a four-pound conventional berry and a two-pound organic clamshell.
OPN: Cal Giant is one of the leaders in communicating with your customers via social media. Have you garnered any info about the organic berry grower?
We currently have an on-line contest in which we are giving our customers the opportunity to win $100 by entering the 16 digit code that appears on the bottom of the clamshell and then telling us a little about what they purchased and why they purchased it. We are compiling that data and going back to those people asking them more and more questions for more and more offers. By the end of the year we should have a lot more information about the customers that are buying organic strawberries.
OPN: How are organic strawberry supplies looking this summer?
We are in our peak period right now and we will be for the next couple of months. Supplies of both conventional and organic berries should be very good. This is when the organic berries typically can’t get that big premium because there are just so many berries on the market.