In this industry, to change the game you have to be a strategic risk-taker—put new ideas on the line, fine-tune a way to dynamically go to market, and have a strong belief in your product. There is no doubting that the team behind NatureFresh™ Farms does just these things, and boldly.
With a drive to align with today’s changing consumer and the challenging demands of the market and beyond, President and CEO Peter Quiring, his son, Executive Retail Sales Accounts Manager Matt Quiring, and General Manager John Ketler join me to talk about the evolving program and why change isn’t only inevitable, it is necessary.
“Innovation—it is a word that you hear a lot in our business. Some use it as a marketing term and others truly facilitate innovation throughout their vision,” Peter tells me. “It has to exist at all levels. Innovation isn’t just products. It is your principles, it’s your philosophy, it’s a way of life. It’s who we are. We adapt to achieve those goals every day.”
NatureFresh has been on a growth trajectory that has taken the company to new heights in recent years. From product innovation and research and development to new marketing strategies and growing practices, the team has put its money where its mouth is and has pivoted its business.
“Innovation, to me, is sometimes just improving what is already existing—integrating things in a different way to make them better or more efficient, and sometimes innovation means anticipating trends five or ten years in the future and building to take advantage of these future movements that are on the horizon,” Peter continues, adding that innovation can even mean creating or using things that you can’t calculate an ROI for—from employee retention and attraction to production and everything in between.
"Innovation isn’t just products. It is your principles, it’s your philosophy, it’s a way of life. It’s who we are. We adapt to achieve those goals every day.”
- Peter Quiring, President and CEO, NatureFresh™ Farms
NatureFresh decided that since the start of its marketing company in 2010, what the operation needed to be was a market leader.
“Coming into an industry filled with competition and long-term relationships, we knew that if we did not establish our company in a way that separated us from the pack, we would be forced to compete on price alone—which obviously wasn’t what we were looking to do,” Matt shares with me. “There are more pieces to the puzzle and more ways to bring value to our customer relationships. And we believe we have found them.”
One of the ways that the company is working to achieve this is by investing in research and internal initiatives, such as the NatureFresh Discovery Center. The team works with 20 to 30 different seed companies and conducts 300-plus variety trials yearly to find new products that boast the best of the best in terms of quality, flavor, and shelf-life.
“By having this R&D center located within the farm, we can bring these newly desired products to the consumer market at a quicker pace,” John tells me of the dynamic model that drives the business. “NatureFresh is committed to sharing this research with our retail partners, which provides our sales team with the opportunity to enhance partnerships with retailers and, ultimately, consumers.”
With innovations like the Discovery Center, the Greenhouse Education Center, merchandising tools that create an environment at retail, and unique product launches, NatureFresh is firing on all cylinders and ready to impress.
So what exactly is this elusive Discovery Center nestled in the company’s Leamington, Ontario, operations—kept behind lock and key? The Discovery Center really allows the company’s Trial and Development team to spot the “hot” varieties and pass on the “nots” a lot quicker than you would see with a traditional form of trialing, Matt shares.
The concept of the Discovery Center came about after NatureFresh’s management team decided they wanted to elevate the game in regards to flavor. All too often, growers are pushed to grow product for the best possible cost, which results in a negative influence on flavor.
"We truly do have a flavor-first mentality that is proving to pay off on the retail-side."- MATT QUIRING, EXECUTIVE RETAIL SALES ACCOUNTS MANAGER, NATUREFRESH™ FARMS
“We knew that this was occurring and saw a need to be different. To be able to charge more money for your product, you need to be able to differentiate it with an exceptional taste experience,” Matt says.
The Discovery Center was the starting point in the company’s pursuit to provide a better tasting product for the consumer. This project aligned perfectly with the quest to be one of the most flavorful greenhouse produce suppliers in the world.
The main goal and objective with the Discovery Center: to learn how to grow a more consistent and flavorful product.
“We are working with a number of data points to accomplish this, including climate, variety, harvest stage, and plant nutrition,” Matt continues. “We don’t believe any others are working with the data quite like us. A lot of people are doing trials on varieties, but varieties are only a piece of the equation. Beyond that, there are a lot of things a grower can do to positively influence the flavor levels of a tomato. The Discovery Center is allowing us to better understand the dynamics of growing and where the tipping points are in regards to flavor, shelf-life, and yield.”
Even after so many trials and tests take place in the Discovery Center, only a very small number of products make the cut and end up on grocery store shelves. One of those products this past year was the Tomberry®.
“We always seek out new opportunities, one of which is the exclusivity we have with Eminent Seeds to produce Tomberry Tomatoes. These are considered the ‘World’s Smallest Tomatoes,’ but they are still huge on flavor,” John reflects.
Matt, along with NatureFresh’s Trial and Development Lead Benny Teichroeb, and Operations Manager Frank Neufeld from the Leamington farm team, make multiple trips each year to seed companies all around the world in search of the next best varieties to grow in NatureFresh’s greenhouses. They came across the Tomberry specifically in August, 2016.
“We planted some as a trial in our Discovery Center shortly after, and we were picking product in March,” Matt shares. “We really liked what we saw in the Discovery Center with respect to quality and shelf-life, so we did multiple flavor panels on the Tomberry where, again, it shined.”
At this point, the company knew it had a winner. NatureFresh presented the Tomberry to customers and next thing you know, drumroll please, it was on the retail shelves.
As a whole, NatureFresh also continues to engage in ongoing training programs from sources both within and outside of North America. This keeps the team fresh on the industry’s latest discoveries and practices and the team regularly completes intense research paired with high-level analysis to ensure future production and process efficiency.
“Our environmentally friendly values are upheld by knowledgeable and passionate people, thus ensuring that our core values are upheld within all areas of our business,” John says.
“Another key point that is a huge contributor to our growth and success is how we approach the growing side of things. We truly do have a flavor-first mentality that is proving to pay off on the retail-side. With respect to how our strategy is evolving, it really hasn’t changed much. We learn more about our customers’ needs and markets to be able to make minor tweaks along the way, but our focus has been, and will remain, being best-in-class,” Matt shares with me, “as well as being transparent and honest.”
This honesty and transparency that Matt speaks of is ingrained in NatureFresh’s business philosophy.
“We don’t like secrets between us and our partners. If something is going wrong, we talk about it. We make it a mission to provide information that helps them do their jobs easier,” Matt says. “We are the buyer’s bridge to the farms, so we try at all times to make sure that they know what is happening, not only with our own production, but also in other growing regions. In an industry that’s always changing, it is crucial to know in advance when those changes are about to happen.”
"...At the end of the day, it is about building a vision and a business that can span generations.”- JOHN KETLER, GENERAL MANAGER, NATUREFRESH™ FARMS
When I ask John what NatureFresh’s goals and initiatives are this year in terms of production and product portfolio, he tells me that the team has a strong focus on its Phase 7 Lit Program Construction where NatureFresh will be constructing 32 additional acres of greenhouse facilities in Leamington. This will give the team the capacity to provide produce year-round to consumers by implementing the most up-to-date supplemental lighting system technologies. Completion of this project is scheduled for spring 2019.
“Additionally, we strive to introduce new technology that will allow us to be more environmentally-friendly and grow sustainably for our future,” John adds. “Our growing practices are developed by people who have a true passion for our industry and for the land. Our team of growers thrives in the monitoring and adjustment process that is required to ensure our consumers are always provided with produce of top-notch quality and flavor. Because at the end of the day, it is about building a vision and a business that can span generations.”
This idea of legacy is not a new one for an industry like ours, rooted in family and tradition, but for NatureFresh it is also elevated by innovation.
“Family are the people we count on the most, but also the ones we expect the most from,” Peter tells me, reflecting on that family element he often speaks about. “Our vision is to support everyone who works for NatureFresh, however, it is also building something to be left behind for my family: a legacy.”
When the team looks at the next 5 to 10 years, they tell me that they have plans to continue developing the team, which has always led to consistent successful growth.
“I am confident that we will be doubling in size within 10 years because, as you know, growing people and produce is just what we do!” John says with a smile.
“My dad always says we are in the health business,” Matt tells me. “I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. It is very easy to get behind a product that you know, trust, and believe in. Another thing that makes me so passionate about being involved in the company and industry is the fact that it was built entirely from scratch by my father. He worked extremely hard at building up this company ever since I can remember. I want to be able to carry on his legacy.”
The passion for produce is evident throughout the team at NatureFresh.
“Love what you do and make sure others do, too,” John expresses. “Allowing people and the environment to thrive creates a strong, efficient network of team members who can accomplish the unthinkable.”
Looking at the team guiding the NatureFresh vision into a new era of growth, I would say that the unthinkable is not so far out of reach.