"I’ve been doing this for thirty-five years now, and what was true then is true today: If you stand still too long you will get run over.”
David Lake, like the operation he governs, is always moving. The Co-Founder and President of 4Earth Farms welcomes me into his home base—a cozy office two feet from his sales, support, and transit teams, and 20 feet from the warehouse. It’s the perfect setting to steer the company’s 160,000-square-foot headquarters—which continues to grow.
“Our development and ability to adapt has always been driven by the needs of our customers. These changes, which are often challenging, have always ended up making us a better company. Twenty-five years ago, when I was selling, building the pallets, and loading the trucks myself, I could not have imagined all that we are doing now,” he continues.
It’s nearly impossible to envision given our surroundings. In 1994, David and his partner at the time, Fred McConnell, started MCL Distributing in a small warehouse off the terminal market. Later, David and his wife, Deborah, bought the entire company when Fred retired. Three moves and 400-plus employees later, I have no doubt today’s sprawling 4Earth Farms is still a surprise for him every morning. But that doesn’t slow him down.
“We are feeling pretty confident now that what we’re building, both in acreage and facility, is going to successfully take us through the next three-to-five years. The speed of growth and demand in our industry is staggering, and you have to stay ahead of it,” David shares.
“Quality, safety, and year-round supply are what our customer’s customer is demanding and what we’ve worked hard the last several years to achieve.”
- Mark Munger, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, 4Earth Farms
That plan includes expansion in both its existing warehouse and the acreage it grows. This year, Guatemala joins the regions from which 4Earth Farms ships from, enhancing its portfolio and further strengthening its supplies of both conventional and organic products.
The company’s moves and purpose couldn’t be more clear than its motto: People, Produce, Planet.
Though my time with The Snack Magazine, and our industry overall, is that of a toddler (literally, my boss’ daughter was born within my first couple of weeks on the job, lest I forget), I have come to read “produce” as fruits and vegetables, forgetting that there is also pro⋅duce, as in “productivity.”
Sitting with the 4Earth Farms team, I notice they clearly recognize and represent the duality and versatility of both definitions. 4Earth Farms’ expansion plans look to provide the freshest, highest-quality produce.
“What’s interesting for us today is that we are not only expanding to meet the needs of our customers, but we are growing to meet the needs and demands of their customers. Quality, safety, and year-round supply are what our customer’s customer is demanding and what we’ve worked hard the last several years to achieve,” Mark Munger, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, reflects.
Kelly Daniels, Vice President of Growing and Procurement, explains further, “We are investing in new state-of-the-art packing equipment—including new baggers, washing systems, and infrastructure—in order to meet the growing needs of our customers and improve our ability to increase our speed, quality, and packing efficiencies.”
Walking the warehouse myself, which is already capable of unloading 20-plus trucks at one time, I am hit with the magnitude of production it must require to make the company one of the largest grower, packer, and shippers of organic, conventional, and specialty produce in the U.S. And it has more expansion planned for 2019 and 2020. Outside of telling me the jump will be significant, the team can’t tell me specifics; it hasn’t grown to today’s success by revealing its secrets. What can be shared is geography.
“We have to chase the sun and be smarter than the weather. For the last eight years, we’ve worked to secure reliable land from Washington State, Oregon, Utah, California, Baja, Mainland Mexico, and Guatemala. Obtaining these lands with their diverse geographic regions, altitudes, and various climates has made year-round possible,” Kelly shares. “We’ve been strategically targeting new and existing growing regions in both California and Mexico to expand our production of Brussels sprouts, green beans, sugar snap peas, and snow peas. This growth will include both conventional and organic farming programs.”
Mark adds to this by telling me that, now that the team has proven the lands and regions it grows in are working, it’s expanding acreage even more. Meaning more offerings for customers.
“Besides all of the new acreage dedicated to our core commodities, we are also increasing our production of mini cucumbers, zucchini, yellow squash, and shishito peppers, as well as rolling out a significant expansion of our own and imported colored peppers,” Kelly comments.
“We have to chase the sun and be smarter than the weather.”
- Kelly Daniels, Vice President of Growing and Procurement,
Adding over 40 percent to the capacity of its value-added packing facility, another aspect of the 4Earth Farms continued growth efforts, is keeping its production a fine-tuned machine that its customers can nearly forget exists.
“Our goal and the way we are wired, is to make our customers’ lives completely painless—we want to be able to grow the business and rarely pop up on their radar. They are dealing with fires all day, the last thing we want to do is be one of those fires,” David says. “So, we are challenging ourselves to stay ahead and make everything seamless for them, and we certainly never want to say no to any opportunity they come to us with.”
It is with this mindset, and David’s intuitive need to stay several steps ahead of the game, that 4Earth Farms has only just encountered a need, rather than a desire, to invest in the expansion of the company’s infrastructure.
“It was an affirmation that the investments and energy we put toward growth were necessary,” Mark tells me. “It’s good to have these reality wake ups. I would also say we invest heavily in our infrastructure, in our transactional systems, in our ability to analyze data and look at trends, to really measure efficiencies. It gives us reliable decision-making metrics, which becomes a really good dashboard. We’re collecting and analyzing more information than we’ve ever been able to in the past and it does make a huge difference.”
But it’s much more than just tools and reach.
“As our packaged offerings have grown, so have our capacity demands. We have three shifts of amazing team members packing seven days a week to keep up with all we have to pack,” Kelly shares.
The moment I walk into 4Earth Farms, the atmosphere resonates this third of 4Earth Farms mantra.
“We are a unique group here. We’ve made a commitment to really growing our in-house talent, and this group has started to define and identify our next all-stars,” Dave Hewitt, Director of Sales, tells me. “We’re discovering gifts other companies maybe wouldn’t have known about, and it’s working pretty well so far. It’s cohesive, everyone has each other’s backs and you can sense the teamwork.”
Hewitt, as the office calls him, and Mark both impress upon me that the deep love David and his wife have for running 4Earth Farms the right way has created its company culture. Gone are the days the CEO could look into every box before it ships. Instead, he’s created an organization where everybody has that same attention to detail, caring and investing in each step from field to consumption.
“You can see David’s attention to detail in that everything is usually immaculate, and it’s the employees who do that. If your facility is clean, if every single box matters, and you’re sensitive to waste or damaged product, we’re going to be the ones to produce a better product,” Mark explains.
Hewitt, for example, doesn’t sit at his computer in the morning until he’s walked around the warehouse. When I ask him about the motivation behind this, he tells me he needs to start the day with the product, a statement that makes me wish I had a produce facility to visit before my morning emails.
“I need to start with the most fundamental aspect of our business, and that’s the product itself. It connects you; you get an appreciation for the process and what it takes,” he shares. “Things we do help shape that message and give it that validity, that authenticity, and I’m excited that we are soon going to see new areas we’ve never grown in before. It’s uncharted for us and should address some of the challenges we’ve had in the past. We’re excited to be year-round and to continue to look for new ways to create continued, uninterrupted supply.”
“We’ve made a commitment to really growing our in-house talent, and this group has started to define and identify our next all-stars.”
- Dave Hewitt, Director of Sales, 4Earth Farms
As if he can see my envy of the ability to be so close to ground zero, Hewitt echoes my thought with his own gratitude and the responsibility that comes with that good fortune.
“We have the luxury of having everything right here. So get involved, get your hands on the product, get cold, and get out there and be produce people,” he shares. “We are talking to all parts of North America, so we have to make the best connection between the products we are talking about and our customers’ experience as we can. To put ourselves in their shoes and be involved out on the line. When we do it right, they appreciate it.”
It’s a philosophy he is passing on to the next generation of 4Earth Farms employees as well.
“We have a lot of homegrown talent in the support team, with a range of tenure. We have good chemistry with a group that’s eager to learn, and we’re proud that we’ve been able to take more people on the road to mark new milestones, from first times meeting customers and running a booth to never having been on an airplane,” Hewitt reflects.
Without a doubt, you have heard that as an industry with a deep investment in the Earth, we are also stewards of it. 4Earth Farms embodies this in not just the daily practices of its upkeep, but in a foundation built on social and environmental responsibility.
Nearly half of the company’s farms are certified organic, and it applies many of its organic practices to the conventional farms as well. 4Earth Farms utilizes sustainable farming across all of its programs in an attempt to reduce inputs while maximizing yields and improving soil. Now, the team has turned its attention to packaging.
“We are always looking for plastic alternatives and new technologies. We have worked with our retailers on reductions of plastic and our vendors for new compostable and reusable alternatives. We have added recycling graphics to our packaging and comprehensive information on our website to promote and encourage consumer recycling,” Mark shares.
Looking ahead, he and the team tell me that, to complement the expansion of the packing facility, the company has taken a leadership position on plastic reduction and recyclability. Over 97 percent of its packaging is recyclable, and come 2021 that will account for 100 percent.
This commitment also touches on a unique stance about the “grow local” movement gripping the country.
“We always talk about locale versus local. Sometimes, in the produce industry, we get fixated on local and forget some of these items were meant to grow in certain locales. To find the optimal climate means you’re going to get better quality, better productivity, fewer inputs to grow it, and so those things are all sustainable farming practices,” Mark tells me. “The only unsustainable farming practice is the energy it takes to get it from the right locale to the market, which can often be offset.”
That is not to say that 4Earth Farms doesn’t advocate locally-grown. It is an active participant in situations where it is sustainable, rather than necessitating the additions that might force product to grow in an area it might not be native or naturally able to grow.
“...we are not standing still. We never will.”
- David Lake, Co-Founder and President, 4Earth Farms
“We partner with many local growers. In fact, we work closely with many of the fresh produce growers in the Salt Lake City, Utah, area, and we are very proud of that. We become a conduit to connect these great growers to great customers in Utah, and we do that as much as possible,” he continues. “For us, the big picture goal is to invest and grow in ways that best suit our customer’s customer. If we can provide safe, wholesome, high-quality produce 365 days a year, combined with a price that’s a value for the customer, then we have a winning program. Whether it’s local or grown in the right locale, our goal is to deliver the best product possible.”
“As you can see, we are not standing still. We never will,” David tells me.
The tour is over, but the trajectory is far from it. Mark, with a smile on his face, tells me that he still waits for David to realize he’s not sure what he’s doing. “But David says the same thing after all these years, because that’s produce. It changes so much all the time. Every day is different.”
To have so many plans in motion, so much success realized, and still know that tomorrow will bring unknowns to navigate...that truly is the beauty of 4Earth Farms itself, as well as the industry it serves.