To hear Rodney Braga talk about produce is to hear him talk about time, about both a storied history and a stewardship over the future. It can be an almost kaleidoscopic experience—with 90 years coming to bear on a single stalk of celery or an organic pest abatement program protracting 50 years into the future health of the soil.
As a third-generation grower, President, and CEO of Braga Fresh Family Farms, a company fast approaching its 90th anniversary, Rod oversees one of the more innovative and dynamic companies in our industry. He does so with a deep understanding of Braga’s roots and its mission going forward.
“In a way, farmers have always been thinking about the ground and the future,” notes Rod. “As farmers, what we do is all centered on the ground and the idea that you’re making decisions for 50 years from now and not just a few years down the road.”
From the first crops grown at the ranch and farmed by Rod’s grandfather in 1928 to Braga Fresh’s current state as a fully-integrated company servicing customers around the globe, the Braga family has seen countless changes in the agricultural landscape. Through all those changes, Rod tells me, the company can trace a singular commitment to providing the best produce possible while preserving the land on which it grows.
“As farmers, what we do is all centered on the ground and the idea that you’re making decisions for 50 years from now and not just a few years down the road.”
-Rodney Braga, President & CEO, Braga Fresh Family Farms
“My grandparents started farming here 90 years ago, leaving us with a deep understanding of the importance of soil and how to take care of it,” says Rod. “We’ve lived here for generations, and we are planning to be here for many generations to come. That means operating in a way to preserve the land—the lifeblood of our farm.”
In 1918, Rod’s grandfather, Sebastian Braga, first arrived in south Monterey County. An industrious young man from Switzerland, Sebastian began growing row crops in the Salinas Valley. By 1928, he started leasing land and building the business in Soledad, California. In 1937, Sebastian and his wife—the eponymous Josie of Josie’s Organics—bought the Home Ranch and built a homestead on the property and settled there, raising dairy cattle and growing sugar beets, tomatoes, onions, hay, corn, as well as lettuce.
“I remember walking the fields with my grandfather, because it was my favorite thing to do,” Rod tells me, recalling the lessons Sebastian taught him about the value of hard work and being present on the job. “He told me the most important thing you can put on your ranch is your shadow. My Nonnie Josie was also ahead of her time in many ways. She used to go out and clip leaves of baby iceberg by hand to serve at the table—just like the baby lettuces you see now in packaged salads.”
By the 1960s, the Bragas had significantly expanded agricultural operation through careful planning and wise management practices. The company began focusing on lettuce, celery, and cauliflower; changed its cattle operation from dairy to beef; and ushered in a new generation of leadership. During this time, Sebastian and Josie’s three sons—Ernest, Stanley, and Rod’s father Norman—officially joined the business.
By the 1990s, the family business had matured into the major presence in the produce world it is today. A third generation of Bragas joined the business, with Rod, his brother Chris, and his cousins Marshall and Carson. Together, these third-generation growers carry on their grandparents’ legacy and maintain the company’s core values of honesty, integrity, and respect for the land.
“I remember walking the fields with my grandfather, because it was my favorite thing to do… He told me the most important thing you can put on your ranch is your shadow.”
Braga Fresh went on to establish its Josie’s Organics label in 2013, named for Rod’s grandmother, Nonnie Josie, and commit to providing consumers with healthy and delicious produce—the kind Nonnie Josie would serve to her family. And just three years later in 2016, the company established Braga Foods—hoping to bring a fresh perspective to the packaged salad market.
Now with dozens of organic and conventional products spread across several labels and a myriad of produce categories, Braga Fresh is able to bring the freshest possible products from the field to consumers, ripe and ready-to-use.
“The next logical step seemed to be getting into the value-added side, so we truly are overseeing the process from the seed to the consumer’s table,” Rod notes. “It’s extremely gratifying being the farmer and seeing our product all the way through from growing the vegetables to harvesting in a timely manner, getting them cooled properly, and now packaging them in a facility that is state-of-the-art and having that product reach the consumer in that value-added form—healthy, safe, and ready-to-use.”
Though the company’s focus on organic farming practices may seem, to the untrained eye, to be a recent development, Rod is quick to point out that it’s the language of sustainability that has caught up to Braga Fresh as much as the company has caught up with increasing demand for sustainable products. For Rod and the rest of the Braga family, sustainable farming is an affirmation of the company’s continued commitment to the soil and to bringing the best possible product to market, both now and in the foreseeable future.
“We do everything possible to make sure Josie’s Organics is the most delicious produce in the world—that all starts with healthy soil,” Rod says. “Sustainable agriculture is the foundation of our operations. Being sustainable is going back to where we came from, going back to the way our grandparents and parents farmed before us. They taught us to farm in balance with the environment. Today, we call this sustainable farming—which is not a new concept to us; it’s been our way of life.”
Rod notes that, while the company’s operations may have changed considerably over the years as it began growing greater varieties and quantities of western veg, phased out its cattle operations, and anticipated trends toward baby veggies, organics, and value-added offerings, the practices and the integrity with which the company operates would be instantly recognizable to its founder Sebastian 90 years later.
“My grandfather and father taught me how to till the soil deep, rotate crops, grow cover crops, and put on compost, and they never used the words ‘sustainable’ or ‘organic,’ but that’s what it was. Our home ranch today is in better condition soil-wise than when my grandfather started farming,” Rod surmises. “A lot of people might attribute that to organic farming; well, to us, it’s just good farming.”
Fast approaching a century in the produce business, Braga Fresh has, through hard work and continuous innovation, transformed from Sebastian’s humble row crops to its current state. Braga Fresh is now an international company that enjoys a well-deserved reputation for quality and service among the industry’s top shippers, processors, and resellers. With year-round operations in California, Arizona, and Mexico, growing and distributing produce to customers throughout the globe, the company keeps pushing forward while acknowledging the past.