A commitment to customer service, growing, and strong grower relationships has been the hallmark of one of the nations’ leading organic growing/shipping/distributing operations. For over 20 years, Los Angeles-based 4Earth Farms has utilized smaller mixer business as a springboard to significant growth in its wholesale organic business and propelled the company into major growing organic deals across in the United States and Mexico.
“The foundation of our company starts with a culture of being very service oriented, and why we have many of the same customers when we started over 20 years ago, “said Mark Munger VP, Sales and Marketing , “It’s a formula of paying attention to detail and taking care of your customers by learning about their business. We want to develop relationships with our customers---not just sell them.”
4Earth Farms was formed 23 years ago by co-founders David Lake and Fred McConnell as MCL Distributing. The strength of the company was putting together mixers----smaller quantities of lower volume specialty-type items---of conventional produce to fill out pallets. While labor intensive and time consuming work, it provided the company a point of difference to compete in the highly competitive Southern California marketplace.
Ten years into the business, Lake and his wife became the sole owners of what was then MCL, and the pair began to get more involved in other higher volume fresh commodities including Brussel sprouts, sugar snap peas and green beans. As the company continued to grow, additional opportunities came to light, including investments in various growing operations throughout California and eventually Mexico.
“As we grew the mixing side of the business and became more involved with the growing side, the organic market was really starting to take off. We challenged ourselves and our network of growers to look at converting some of our conventional items to organically grown to meet the demand of the rapidly growing organic market, “said Munger. “Our culture of listening to the customer and our expertise in mixers helped make our evolution into organics successful; organics became the new mixing business.”
As part of the growth, the company began to focus on their brand and positioning themselves as a leader in organic growing and distribution. In 2015 MCL rebranded into 4Earth Farms, with an objective of telling a more accurate story of their connection and commitment to the farm, and more clearly stating the companies priorities in their tagline “People, Produce and Planet.”
Today, over one-half of 4Earth Farms business is organic, and the company has become fully vertically integrated---- growing, distributing, processing, and repacking organics. With national distribution from its downtown Los Angeles distribution facility, 4Earth Farms has focused on some of the biggest challenges facing all aspects of the organic distribution chain.
As demand for organics was taking off, many retail chains were struggling with how to take advantage of the trend and especially how to satisfy a growing consumer demand for organic produce. “We recognized early on that we could play a key role in helping retailers with their organic strategy. Our customers were struggling with identifying the optimal organic mix, determining the best merchandising strategy and most importantly struggling with consistent fill rates”, Munger said. “Many of our customers reported fill rates lower than 50%! Our model of combining our own production with our ability to source from other suppliers gave us access to a wide range of products that could be consolidated and offered year-round, which instantly helped address our customers challenge with fill rates. We have been able to consistently get fill rates into the 90% range ”
“Second, “Munger added, “if you do have the item in stock, certain organic SKUs were getting rung up incorrectly as conventional product and stores were losing significant dollar sales. We committed ourselves to providing a correct, clearly identifiable PLU so cashiers could ring up an organic item as organic. We devoted ourselves to implementing double-stacked scannable UPC and PLU bar codes to improve accuracy. We utilized our in-house production facility to ensure that 100% of product was accurately stickered as organic. Properly identifying a product has been a big plus for our organic customers and contributed to significant category growth and profit contribution.”
In addition to partnering with retailers to ensure proper organic sell-through, 4 Earth Farms embarked on a progressive plan to expand organic production in Mexico. With plenty of fertile land and geographically located close to its Southern California distribution facility, growing organics in Mexico has been a boon for the company.
“In addition to an excellent land base and an outstanding growing climate in Mexico, we have been able to identify and develop diversified organic farming programs, “Munger said. “This has become a key ingredient in providing year-round supplies of organic product. We have been able to be in several geographic regions at the same time, giving our customers the supplies they need throughout the year.”
“We are still growing conventional sales, but organic sales are growing faster. Organic farming is the forerunner of our continuing evolution. By growing organics we are learning sustainable methods that help with our conventional farming programs, “Munger said. “We have a very bright future and we are all getting more creative in how we use fertilizers and save water. At the end of the day, it is important we keep our growers healthy----so we can all grow the organic category and deliver the best available product to consumers.”
The ability to supply customers on a year round basis is what Munger calls the biggest challenge and opportunity facing the organic industry. He believes the quality expectations of organic are now on par with conventional and those expectations need to be met throughout the supply chain.