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100 Years: Growing the Naturipe Way

 can’t think of a more passionate drive for success than the one that legacy inspires. With generation after generation of growers building on what their parents and grandparents planted, the desire to see your work grow beyond yourself is a pattern our industry celebrates more than most.

Naturipe Berry Growers, one of the four grower-owners that make up the Naturipe brand, shares how it has seen this dream come to fruition as it celebrates its centennial year.

“The Naturipe Way. It is all about our growers, our customers, and our employees−because you won’t be successful unless all three are taken care of,” Rich Amirsehhi, President and CEO of Naturipe Berry Growers, shares with me when looking back on the success of how the company operates. “It is simply doing what’s right, and doing it all the time–for the grower, for the customer, for our employees. If you do that, you’ll be a hundred years old and thriving.”

Representing the partnership that is the Naturipe brand: Hortifrut S.A.; MBG Marketing–The Blueberry People; Naturipe Berry Growers; and Munger Farms, who joined forces to expand the philosophy the original founders of Naturipe Berry Growers started in 1917. Rich and Dwight Ferguson, President and CEO of Naturipe Farms, sit with me as we reflect on what it means to be one hundred years old.

“Wherever we grow, you find a special heritage, tradition, and passion amongst our growers,” Dwight shares with me, explaining that a strong facet to The Naturipe Way is being dedicated to family farms spanning the brand’s now international reach. “Similar things happening here in California take place in Michigan, the Southeast, New Jersey, the Pacific Northwest and Canada with MBG, now 80 years old. The culture exists with Hortifrut in Chile, Argentina, Peru, Mexico, Europe, and Asia, who’s now 37 years old. And the Munger family, who are now third generation growers in Delano, California, and throughout the western US—they all carry that rich tradition going back generations. Bringing together these four entities at Naturipe Farms in 2000, I  firmly believe, is the most significant event to take place in the company’s history.”

That beginning was a modest one: a cooperative of California growers that joined forces because they saw that meeting the needs of the collective industry would, in turn, be more beneficial to the individual members.

“I think we’ve found success because the current four partners in Naturipe have the same values as the original Naturipe Berry Growers (known then as the Central California Berry Grower Association); that we’re all growers, and we’re trying to connect our growers with our customers,” Rich tells me.

Now, 100 years later, that partnership has grown to create a network of over 1,200 growers who span the western hemisphere; from British Columbia to the south of Chile, and everywhere in between.

The company’s leaders show more enthusiasm for reaching the century mark than I ever thought possible. And, Dwight assures me, everyone will know about it before the year is out.

“We’re celebrating in a lot of exciting ways this year. Our Director of Marketing, Kyla Oberman, and her team have put together a whole menu of activities to honor one hundred years of Naturipe, from receptions that we’re hosting at large trade events like PMA’s Fresh Summit, to social and trade medias, the list goes on. By the time we’re done I think everyone in the country is going to know that we’re a hundred years old,” he laughs.

The company is also celebrating with a “100 Years” label on its berry packaging; a move the two leaders explain is a simple, straightforward message.

“It’s 100 years of doing business The Naturipe Way, ultimately enabling year-round value for our customers, which we feel is very special and unique in the industry. That model and commitment to it is what separates this company from so many others in produce,” Dwight says, to heartfelt agreement from Rich.

The kinship in the partners is clear, and I don’t just mean the joking and teasing that happened as they walked me through the  fields. Rich brings more than 20 years with the company, 15 as CEO, while Dwight is coming up on eight years as President–a time he says is the best of his 25+ years in produce.

With such significant strides just in the last quarter of the company’s time, what new ventures could the company have as it embarks on another hundred years?

“Because we’re a hundred years old, we do a lot of things right,” Rich laughs, but adds that while the company does do so many things right, it continues to strive for perfection. “We challenge ourselves daily as a management team, along with our growers, to see if there is a different way of doing things. As growers, what we do out in the fields, everything in regard to safety, we want to see if we might find out one or two things we should be doing differently.”

In that vein, Naturipe is continuously investing in technology that directly benefits its growers and customers.

“As the CEO of the company, it’s easy for me to get support on the innovation side as far as resources go, and for me that’s everything,” Rich explains to me. “Because, we can invest in more together as a group of growers than we ever could individually. As a result, we can look ahead to the right technology and make the right investment.”

Focal points include breeding programs, harvesting and planting methods and operations, communication technology... anywhere that touches Naturipe’s berries, pre- or post-harvest.

“When it comes to innovation this company’s focus and commitment is having a big impact,” Dwight adds. “I truly believe innovation is part of the DNA of Naturipe, and combined with technology, both are greatly influencing every aspect of our business today.”

Reflecting on all the growth, the achievements, and the overall success it means to be 100 years old, I have only one question left for the two leaders: What would they say to those original founders of this berry legacy?

“The one thing I’d want to tell them is, ‘You guys were smart beyond your years, knowing that you had to connect all the growers in order to market and offer something to the customer,’” Rich says. “There’s a lot of places where the grower is paying out, but only one where they’re getting that back, which is on the sales side. They were smart enough to know that and I would want to congratulate them on doing it successfully. Between Naturipe Farms and its partners, we know what our stakeholders’ expectations are, and we feel that everything we do is helping our growers maintain and meet those expectations.”

To that, Dwight adds, “I’d tell the original growers that the same mission, vision, and values that pulled them together 100 years ago, are still alive and well at Naturipe today.”

With both a firm grasp of where the company came from, and on where it’s going, I don’t doubt that the underlying mission that has carried Naturipe’s foundation through the past century will help it to usher in many years to come.