On a summer day a few months ago, I visited a commercial lettuce field for the first time. Walking through the straight rows of green that make up the “Salad Bowl of the World” was memorable, but what really made the experience special was the conversation I shared with Brian and Jeff Church, the CEO and Vice President of Sales, respectively, of Church Brothers Farms.
A team of harvesters worked their way through the rows of lettuce. Around us, the golden hills that make up much of the Central Coast of California reminded me that while I am out of my element, I’m still not far from home. Brian and Jeff were in their element and walked toward the harvesting crew while maintaining an easy conversation. Our industry is on the cusp of a turning point; a new generation of leaders is taking over, and Brian and Jeff are part of that future.
“If you get stuck in your old ways, you’ll eventually get run over,” Brian said. “And you’re only as good as today. If you don’t keep improving on all the things you did in the past, you’ll start going backwards.”
I wanted to ask, “How is Church Brothers Farms improving?” but my attention was divided as I tried to keep from wobbling between the heads of lettuce.
“You’re only as good as your weakest link,” Jeff said, continuing Brian’s train of thought. “These days our customers are in a cutthroat environment, which has made it a very competitive business. Fortunately, we grew up with two brothers each, so we’re used to being competitive.”
Much of our conversation ran a similar course: Brian or Jeff detailing the growth of Church Brothers Farms while the other filled in the gaps. But rather than attempt to volley my own questions into the conversation, I let the two complete each subject. I listened as Brian and Jeff discussed Church Brothers Farms’ double-digit growth, its growing regions in Mexico, the recent acquisition of the Growers Express commodity program, and the company’s food safety initiatives.
"These days our customers are in a cutthroat environment, which has made it a very competitive
—Jeff Church, Vice President of Sales, Church Brothers Farms
“As we get bigger, we’re constantly adjusting,” Jeff said. “We’re keeping our eyes open and making sure we are watching everything. Scale will help us be more efficient, so when we acquired Growers Express, we ultimately became better as a whole. That acquisition helped us enter the retail space, which is a shift for Church Brothers Farms.”
This shift is one that fits into future plans. Brian and Jeff explained that because Church Brothers Farms is a vertically-integrated company from “seed to store,” it has the personnel to manage the addition of retail to its core foodservice business.
As I looked at the rows of green surrounding us, Jeff and Brian pointed out which fields were under Church Brothers Farms’ operations. The company produces a full line of fresh vegetables and salads year-round thanks to its in-house farming program and state-of-the-art processing plant, True Leaf Farms.
That is where Church Brothers Farms has a different storyline than many farming companies in the Salinas Valley. Because the farming/harvesting piece of the company was started from scratch with a small group of employees, it may not have the benefits that come with tradition, but it also does not have the challenges a legacy company may face.
Specific to their farming operations, Brian shared his thoughts.
“I’ve never considered starting with a clean slate—starting without multiple ties to past generations—as a disadvantage,” he said. “Think about it, you can get whatever farming equipment you want, and you can farm how you like. There are a lot of wonderful things about tradition, but there are times when tradition can be the enemy, and a roadblock.”
And my own wheels kept turning as Brian went on.
“Starting from scratch means that there is not a ‘Well, we have always done it this way,’ mentality and instead the message is that I can be loyal to the best solutions and methods that I can find,” he said. “To me, it was easier to enter the industry with a clean slate than try to keep up with the times. We took bits and pieces of knowledge from everyone—but we copied no one. We have not mimicked anyone’s operation. Our farming and harvesting operation is the result of decisions made as a group, for this group.”
"Farming and harvesting—there is a symbiotic relationship between the two. The more productive the farming is, the more productive the harvesting is..."
—Brian Church, CEO, Church Brothers Farms
Brian said that Tom and Steve Church are great marketers that founded the company in 1999 and started the Church Brothers Farms story. But, the reality is that now, twenty years later, in order to survive and respond to the customer that wants to know the source from seed to store, the family had to vertically integrate and get into the farming/harvesting sides of the business to not only survive, but thrive. It is easy to see today what that farming “reach” looks like by just driving down Highway 101 Salinas Valley, between Salinas and King City. I dare you to take a gander out the window and not see CB Harvesting trucks and employees: the Church Brothers harvesting operation.
In the market place, it can be hard to picture the size of Church Brothers Farms. Much of the product line the company produces that is consumed in the country is not branded, but lands on people’s plates through a labyrinth of foodservice distributors or under a customer’s label. While many companies are trying to brand, Church Brothers Farms is looking at the long game that allows them to build a business with structural integrity, innovation, differentiation, and value.
As Brian continued to speak about how the company developed from marketing and shipping into farming and harvesting, I asked what made the company move into the harvesting side.
“We started CB Harvesting in 2006 because at that time, the price of everything was escalating and it was a tough time for the business,” Brian said. “When you have too many contracts out to entities outside of the umbrella of your operation, you are beholden to other people’s ideas of success and profit. So, we started taking more in-house to cut costs and that showed us that vertical integration was key.”
The shift to an internal harvesting operation, CB Harvesting, started with broccoli and then developed commodity by commodity until all items are now harvested by CB Harvesting and its 600 employees. Brian led this shift, with a couple key people spearheading each commodity. He will be the first to tell me, though, that it was a team effort.
“It really just made sense, building our own farming and harvesting program,” Brian said. “Farming and harvesting—there is a symbiotic relationship between the two. The more productive the farming is, the more productive the harvesting is. If the efficiencies roll downhill, you again have a recipe for success. You gain control over quality and efficiencies within the operation to survive, better and stronger.”
Brian is continuing that vision of farming from seed to store and has recently added significant acreage with the team’s newest in-house farming venture, P&C Farms, that represents its largest, contiguous ranch of 1,000 acres in Salinas Valley.
These paths, though different, have enriched Brian and Jeff’s perspectives and helped them become in tune with the evolving needs of the fresh produce industry. And because Brian and Jeff view the industry as innovative and ripe for change, Church Brothers Farms is approaching the foodservice and retail sectors in inventive ways. This includes building out all of its teams, from its Ag Ops department and food safety to sales and marketing, and everything in between. Since 1999, Church Brothers Farms has grown from five employees to more than 2,500—a number that Brian and Jeff see increasing as the company continues to integrate its acquisition of Growers Express.
As the needs of the fresh produce supply chain—from retailers and foodservice operators to growers, packers, and shippers—shift, Brian and Jeff are guiding the company to shift with it.
"I see more growth opportunities in products at both retail and foodservice. I think probably one of our biggest goals is to offer our customers a broader product line."
“It’s a business that is unforgiving and the challenge never stops,” Brian said. “Quite frankly, and Jeff probably agrees, it never gets easier. Just when you think you’re about to break out into the clear, you find a whole new set of challenges or the landscape shifts. So, we’re always thinking, watching, and reacting.”
At this, we fell quiet. I turn again to the harvesters working heads of lettuce from the earth at a speed too quick for my eyes to catch. Despite the urgency of the workers before us—each member cutting, trimming, and placing the lettuce onto the belt into the bins, all while the rig moves forward—the valley is quiet and still, like it too is waiting for where Brian and Jeff will take our conversation next.
“And we always want to be on the top of technology,” Jeff said. “I’m hoping for the day that we’re just like Amazon, where our customers can click, and product shows up at their door—that would be really great. We want to be the company that’s taking advantage of all that’s emerging.”
While this means bringing new products to the market, it also means innovating at the field and processing level, finding new varieties to grow, and embracing new technology. Brian and Jeff truly are the modern day, new-age farmers, and their passion speaks volumes to that.
“How can we do it better? How can we build and change and evolve?” Brian said. “We want to get smarter and understand every aspect of our business and where the opportunities lie to get better.”
It’s all in the details, as Jeff shared, with Brian adding that they both see a lot of opportunities.
“I see more growth opportunities in products at both retail and foodservice,” Brian expressed. “I think probably one of our biggest goals is to offer our customers a broader product line.”
With the marine layer still overhead, and without the sun to track the time, it felt like the world stopped spinning forward in order to give us a moment to sit with the progression of Church Brothers Farms.
As I looked back one last time to take in the horizon of green, I wondered what Brian and Jeff see. While this view may not be clear to many of us yet, we can rest assured knowing that the details will continue to sharpen until the vision Brian and Jeff picture for the future of Church Brothers Farms and for the industry as a whole is the reality, the new normal, for all of us in produce. Until then, it’s all in the details.