Apr 19, 2018Driscoll’s innovates with machinery, fruit, marketing
Build a better mousetrap, the old saying goes, and the world will beat a path to your door.
Research and development aren’t always common investments in commodity markets. But the Driscoll’s motto is “only the finest berries,” and the company has taken its innovation into growing, harvesting and even marketing strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries. As Driscoll’s CEO Kevin Murphy told the U.S. House Agriculture Committee last year, the specialty crops industry is rapidly changing.
“From new production techniques, to packaging, to better connecting farmers and consumers, the future will be very different from the past,” Murphy said. “Like many in produce, we are committed to meeting the issues we face.”
The company’s creativity seems to be paying off: Driscoll’s is the leading brand for fresh blueberries in more than 22 countries around the world, and in the U.S. represents about 30 percent of the total U.S. berry industry and 64 percent of the organic segment.
There are other competitors: Driscoll’s of the Americas President Soren Bjorn mentions Naturipe, which he says is the biggest player in the blueberry market and also participates in the other berry markets. But he adds that on the whole, “We still are probably three times bigger than they are.”
Bjorn grew up in Silkeborg, Denmark, and earned degrees from Texas Christian University and Baylor University. A seasoned executive in the food industry, his work experience includes time at Del Monte Foods and UniMark Foods.
Bjorn has been with Driscoll’s for more than 11 years, and in his current role leads the company’s largest business unit and oversees all aspects of the business from the company’s global headquarters in Watsonville, California. The family-owned company, though, goes back more than 100 years, and as Bjorn tells it, so does its focus on innovation.
“Right from the beginning, and even before Driscoll’s even existed, the company, the founders had their own strawberry breeding company going all the way back to the ’40s,” Bjorn said in an interview with FGN. It’s unlikely the founders ever thought of strawberries as a commodity.
“They always thought a better-tasting, a better-quality strawberry would sell better than your average strawberry,” he said. “So, even though back then, when there was a public breeding program that the University of California had, they thought they would do better if they had their own breeding program that focused on what the consumer wants, and not just what on the farmer wants.”
Work to make the strawberries better has continued, and the consumer focus has evolved since the 1940s not only to extend shelf life, increase yields, adapt plants to specific geography and strengthen disease resistance, but especially to improve traits for consumers.
“It becomes an incremental thing,” Bjorn said. If a blind taste test panel could jump in a time machine and compare a 1940s Driscoll’s strawberry to a 2018 Driscoll’s strawberry, the newer fruit would likely win. “The flavor, in all likelihood, wasn’t as good as it is today,” he said.
It’s not just strawberries. Driscoll’s now has breeding programs supporting all of its berries and over 100 varieties under patent.
Blackberries are a recent addition to the Driscoll’s stable – and Bjorn said that’s a more recent example of how the company established its own proprietary berries.
“We used to sell some public varieties, and now we sell hardly any,” Bjorn said. “In the next couple of years, we won’t be selling any.” He said it’s not so important who owns the berries – in blueberries, for example, they use varieties licensed by other entities – but quite often finding the best means developing their own.
Not all potential products are worth pursuing: While the company breeds both proprietary raspberries and blackberries, so far it’s steered clear of breeding black raspberries. And even its blackberry breeding program was not launched until Driscoll’s saw signs of improvement.
“Most public varieties, while beautiful and black, were really, really sour and not very good tasting,” he said. “It was really some of the breakthroughs that we had on flavor that set the category rolling.”
There’s not a lot of mystery in the fruit business, he said. Consumers just buy fruit because it tastes good. Getting the fruit to them at a reasonable price, though, is often a challenge.
Like many markets in agriculture, berry growers have had a chronic shortage of labor for four or five years, so long-term and chronic that the company is looking at options for mechanical harvesting.
While there are many factors to the labor issue – birth rates in Mexico are down, California wage rates are scheduled to increase to $15 per hour by 2023 – there’s no denying the scale of the problem. Bjorn said that roughly two-thirds of the costs of California strawberry farming are labor, and those costs will only continue to increase.
One short-term idea is growing strawberries on tables, thus opening up the harvesting labor to workers in a wider age group. This technique is already used at Driscoll’s to some extent – Bjorn said a Driscoll’s partner in the UK grows 85 percent of its strawberries that way.
But, with an eye to long-term solutions, Driscoll’s has also begun investing in robotic harvesting.
“We are not the only ones that are doing this,” Bjorn said. “We are aware of at least six serious, legitimate, strawberry robotic harvesting projects worldwide. And we are participating in some of them, and staying very close to all of them.”
Driscoll’s own project is called Agrobot. Development, he said, is based in California, although the machine’s inventor is Spanish. Bjorn thinks the robot will eventually become part of the answer for reducing the demand for labor.
“You can call that a little bit out there, maybe sci-fi,” he said. “But it actually is making a lot of progress.” And, he said, it’s realistic that the robots will be assisting with strawberry harvests in four to five years.
Using robotics in raspberries and blackberries is much more difficult. The fruits are more delicate, sometimes found inside the middle of the plant, and the plants don’t grow in reliable patterns.
“There, what we think has to happen is, fundamentally the way we grow these berries has to change,” Bjorn said. What’s needed, he said, is something similar to how tomatoes or bell peppers are already being grown in greenhouses – something that would “bring the fruit to the harvester.”
And, in the middle of all of the planning for mechanical harvesting, he can’t lose sight of the primary goal: high-quality berries that taste good.
“If you lower the quality, you’re going to lower the demand,” he said.
Quality is king, and Bjorn said Driscoll’s research and development costs are roughly four times that of its marketing costs.
But Driscoll’s has also given serious thought to how consumers react to the berries, in recent years launching marketing campaigns like “berry joy” and “berry together.” The goal is to help consumers connect emotionally with consuming berries.
“It turns out the consumers actually have a very strong opinion about berries,” Bjorn said.
The goal of the campaigns, he said, was to make the brand “a little less serious” than it had been in the past.
“We’re still all about the berries,” Bjorn said. “But we also want this brand to connect with consumers emotionally, because in the end, if you connect with consumers emotionally – if you can do that – then the consumers become much stronger advocates for you.”
Top photo: Driscoll’s has invested in development of a robotic strawberry picker called Agrobot that was invented in Spain.