Dynamic Young Growers Taking the Lead

California’s organic farming movement began in the counterculture days of a generation ago when a cadre of young urbanites—passionate about the environment and healthy food—started farming specialty crops with little experience or background and no pesticides.

A trio of modern-day young farmers recently revealed they came to organic production with traditional agricultural roots but no less passion than their organic predecessors. At Organic Grower Summit in Monterey last week, Western Growers President/CEO Dave Puglia served as the moderator of a keynote conversation exploring the growth, challenges, and future of organic farming with avocado producer Keith Barnard of Mission Produce, tree fruit grower Bianca Kaprielian of Fruit World, and sweet potato grower Mike Valpredo of Country Sweet Produce.

Engaging and insightful, the discussion started with two of the three family farmers—Kaprielian and Valpredo—talking about launching their non-agriculture careers before returning to their roots and helping to transition their families to different farming techniques.

Kaprielian left for life in the city after college to start a career as a documentary filmmaker before she felt the pull of farming tugging her back to the San Joaquin Valley, where she and a partner started Fruit World, which now represents 10 longtime family farmers, including her own.

Before coming back into the fold of the family business, Kaprielian completed a farming apprenticeship at UC Santa Cruz in ecological farming. She quipped that her farmer father could not understand why she would pay for a program to learn how to farm when he would pay her while teaching her how to farm. However, she wanted to learn a new approach, which included organic farming techniques, and bring her own skill set to the table.

Valpredo left the southern San Joaquin Valley following college and began a career in corporate America that was not as fulfilling as he had imagined. As friends from his youth talked about their experiences staying on the farm, Valpredo also felt the pull and came back to the family’s row crop operation. Beginning with 40 acres of mixed organic crops, Valpredo pounded the streets looking for buyers, eventually focusing on sweet potatoes, with organic production leading the way.

Barnard was the outlier of this group as he noted his father gave him no choice but to join the family operation. Mission Produce has since become one of the few public companies in the produce sector and today is the largest avocado producer in the world, with a significant footprint.

In discussing the future of organic produce, Kaprielian said she sees an evolving consumer that “wants more … more transparency, more sustainability, more accountability.”  Organic certification, she said, is a driving force for this type of shopper, and there might come a time when more certifications drive the industry’s farming practices. She does not see the sustainable movement replacing organics.

“It’s not an 'either/or',” Kaprielian said. “It’s an ‘and.’ The consumer wants more.”

Barnard also predicted that increased sustainability efforts—and accounting for them—will increase moving forward. Organics, he said, is a “lifestyle” choice, while consumers see sustainability as a “responsibility” and want companies “to do the right thing.”

Valpredo agreed and believes there needs to be a set of standards by which companies’ sustainability practices can be measured. The national certified organic standard helped define organics and propel organic sales, he said, and a sustainability standard could have the same positive impact.

The three producers said that they see their connection to the non-agriculture world through a much different lens than their farming ancestors.

“Telling our story is very important,” Kaprielian said, noting that her company often does video tours for its customers and loves crowded Zoom calls where all the members of a buyer’s team can get familiar with the Fruit World operation.

Fruit World also reaches out to consumers in a measured way, she said, and told of a program in which the company’s packages of Concord grapes, an old traditional variety, include a message and a telephone number for consumers to text. During the eight-week season, the Fruit World team makes sure it responds to each of those texts personally. Kaprielian called it a “cool way to connect with consumers.”

Barnard said Mission has a robust social media program reaching out to the industry as well as consumers, while Valpredo said transparency is his company’s mantra, and it has an open-door policy to anyone who wants to explore how the firm produces its sweet potatoes. This is a significant change from the previous generation of growers, where secrecy, rather than transparency, was the guiding principle, he said.

Western Growers' Puglia then shifted the panel's focus to the future, asking the three young growers where they plan on taking their companies over the next several years. Valpredo said he sees value-added organic sweet potatoes dominating his company’s future offerings. While more than 80 percent of sweet potatoes are sold in bulk nationally, Country Sweet sells at least 50 percent of its production via value-added options.

Kaprielian said Fruit World is leaning into specialty varieties to help differentiate its offerings. She believes there is lots of room for growth in specialty citrus and heritage grape varieties, such as the Concord.

Puglia noted the paradox of supermarkets wanting packaged organics to ensure they get the proper ring at retail, while the desire of organic consumers is to have less plastic and packaging. Kaprielian noted there are inroads being made with sustainable packaging that will be able to placate both the retailer and the environmentally conscious consumer in the future. She said California legislators are considering a law that will phase out single-use plastic packaging and expressed confidence that the produce industry will be ready when that occurs.

Barnard used the packaging question to caution producers to follow customer preference. He revealed that while Europe is ahead of the game in promoting sustainability in general, it is a highly packaged market when it comes to fresh produce presentations at retail. “They use more plastic than anybody,” he quipped. But when Mission started selling into Europe more than a half dozen years ago, it stubbornly stuck with a bulk presentation. Barnard said it took the company too long to admit the mistake and follow the existing market trend.

In response to a question concerning the challenges of farming in California’s heavily regulated environment, along with climate and water concerns, each of these panelists acknowledged the issues but painted a bright future.

“We are eternal optimists,” Kaprielian said of the farming community. Through use of better irrigation techniques, for example, her family’s fruit orchards use 90 percent less water than 15 years ago. The industry will continue to thrive as it adapts to whatever obstacles are in its way, she said.

Mission Produce has diversified its agricultural footprint and will continue to do so, farming in countries all over the world, Barnard said. Innovation is cheap, he added, noting that new technologies are greatly increasing efficiency and reducing labor use, both of which have a very quick return on investment.

One of the great attributes of the produce industry, Valpredo said, is its willingness to share knowledge. When someone builds a better way to accomplish a task, everyone is able to employ it in short order.

The panelists also said they take great pride in what they do and the product they produce. Echoing the sentiments of his colleagues on the panel, Valpredo called production agriculture “a fantastic world to be in.” He noted that he has friends in many different industries, but none can say that they provide a product that literally feeds the world.