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The New Home Front: An Organically Driven Era

"If you are not growing as a business, you are going backward.” These are words to live by if you are CEO Scott Mabs and the team spearheading the constant evolution of Homegrown Organic Farms as the company maps out a dynamic future in organics while raising the bar in the industry—from berries to blood oranges.

This mindset, instilled in Scott by his own grandfather, Grandpa Patterson—who was planting acreage even at 99 years old—is not just an ideal to strive for, but a way of doing business that keeps the team at Homegrown moving strong and steady into its next era of growth.

“You have to continue pushing the envelope forward,” Scott tells me. “Sometimes this is a hard notion to live by when the realities of the numbers or the potential struggles of the business are staring you in the face, but we truly believe in what we are doing here at Homegrown Organic Farms, and our deep passion and refined focus have allowed us to become experts in what we do and leaders in the organic category.”

(left) Scott Mabs, CEO; and (right) Chad Hansen, Blueberry Category Director, of Homegrown Organic Farms, picking fresh blueberries

I sit with Scott, along with Chad Hansen, Blueberry Category Director for the company, as they detail Homegrown Organic Farms’ tried-and-true strategies that are allowing the company to take progressive steps to build a program tailored to the changing needs of retailers and the shifting demands of the consumer. And while these two minds are priming Homegrown for growth, they are also grounded in a set of family values that give the company what you can sense right off the bat: heart.

“The company was founded on the principles of a family, and they brought that commitment, care, and integrity to the business they built,” Chad shares with me, speaking of Founders John and Cindy France. “Homegrown revolves around community, people, and relationships—these are values and intentions that I have always been attracted to. You hear a lot of people talk about these things, but putting them into action is something different.”

"We truly believe in what we are doing here at Homegrown Organic Farms, and our deep passion and refined focus have allowed us to become experts in what we do and leaders in the organic category."

Scott Mabs, CEO, Homegrown Organic Farms

Homegrown Organic Farms’ roots date back to the 1990s when John and Cindy were farming and working to break into organics. They had little success with a series of conventional marketing co-ops, but, as the phrase goes: if you want something done right, do it yourself. And so John and Cindy, as the sole growers in the beginning, founded Homegrown Organic Farms in 1998.

“The team here always has everyone’s best interests at heart. That’s from the growers and the sales desks to the marketers and, of course, our retail partners,” Scott adds. “We move forward with the benefit of everyone in mind, and I think that is why we have become so successful. John imparted that on us.”

That success comes in many forms at Homegrown, from the expanding program and retail footprint to the increased focus on R&D and staying at the head of the variety game—specifically, for blueberries.

“Organic blueberries were up-and-coming when we started, so we have really been able to make our mark and find the most successful growing and harvesting practices to cultivate the best berries,” Chad says. “We have experienced healthy and consistent year-over-year growth in the Central Valley, which has allowed us to expand our program north and, about three or four years ago, we moved into the Pacific Northwest and began growing in Oregon.”

Packaged Homegrown Organic Blueberries

This move north has allowed Homegrown to extend its West Coast season and ensure that good, consistent, and quality berries can be provided as they transition between those regions. The program evolved even further and, about two years ago, the company brought on coastal California acreage, which rounded out that 52-week organic window of domestic offerings for retail partners.

“Providing a domestic window of this length has been really attractive to our customer base, especially those that have supported us in our initial growth,” Chad notes. “Maintaining that organic-only focus has been a challenge at times, but has proven to be very helpful in our long-term success, allowing us to focus on the core of the business without distraction.”

In this sense, the team has become incredibly specialized experts in the organic sector with the ability to thoroughly educate the buyers and growers on the market and new demands, with the highest quality and care they can bring to customers.

“Offering only organic enables our ability to bring some unique things to the table when we work with customers,” Scott reflects. “For one, our story to the consumer is very clear. There are no mixed messages about who we are and what we do—we have a clear purpose. There is a value aspect to what this brings to the table as well. We are pioneers, on the cutting-edge of where we can continue to push organic. Sometimes it gets down to, ‘Well, you can make more money doing that conventionally or the same amount of money as doing that conventionally,’ but we are going to choose to do it organically because that is who we are as growers. It is a focused effort to continue to build the organic market space.”

"Organic blueberries were up-and-coming when we started, so we have really been able to make our mark and find the most successful growing and harvesting practices to cultivate the best berries."

Chad Hansen, Blueberry Category Director, Homegrown Organic Farms

And that space for Homegrown is evolving. In the past year, the company has also included a focus on regional support and building bridges between different growing regions to create a grower community that has been incredibly healthy for the overall program, as well as for Homegrown’s customers in different parts of the nation.

“We have been really focusing on understanding regions: where we can scale organic growth and where it needs to be maintained at a different level,” Chad tells me. “With this detailed knowledge, we have recently expanded into additional regions like North Carolina, adding to our overall supply portfolio.”

This is where regional targeting has become an advantage, as well as a new direction for the team; something Homegrown has been hearing, loud and clear, from its national retailers.

“You can have the best West Coast blueberries available across the U.S., but retailers also want to carry that local support and regional message when there is fruit available,” Chad says. “Consumers are really gravitating toward these options when they are available and we saw an opportunity to expand our operations and help our customers address those needs at the same time.”

Freshly picked Homegrown blueberries on the pack line

In terms of variety development, Homegrown’s investments are positioned to bolster its program as the market becomes more and more competitive for blueberries. Having been in on organic blueberries early, Homegrown sees the next wave of growth happening in variety selection and development. There are so many talented individuals and companies out there making strides to bring a better berry to growers and, ultimately, the market, and raising the bar on quality. This is proving to be a very important part of the company’s model and its ability to differentiate new era blueberries.

“Having varietal characteristics that make stronger berries and cultivate better texture and flavor will help us compete,” Scott tells me. “What we are going to be focused on, across all categories really, is continuing to make strides on the R&D side and the reality of variety development. We can look at what has happened in the grape category. Just in the past 10 years alone, the amount of varieties that have come to market is incredible. Those things are going to continue to happen across multiple commodities, at different rates, and in different manners, but it will happen.”

This is where that “if you are not growing, you are going backward” mentality really plays a role for Homegrown.

(left) Scott Mabs, CEO; and (right) Chad Hansen, Blueberry Category Director, of Homegrown Organic Farms, outside the sheltered blueberry rows

“The question we ask ourselves is ‘How do we position Homegrown to bring those right varieties to the retailer and, ultimately, the consumer?’” Scott conveys. “In the end, it is about increasing consumption and giving a better eating experience on a more consistent basis to produce lovers. We want to be on the front end with the conventional players that are making those types of changes.”

When Homegrown began asking retail partners what they find really attracts a consumer back to purchase blueberries again, they noted that flavor is still a big part of their buying decisions, but texture and firmness are really coming into play. Chad tells me that a “crunchy” and “snappy” berry is really a new addition to the demands within the flavor profile, in terms of consumer feedback.

In addition to a better eating experience, Homegrown works directly with retail partners to bring more value to the produce department from a marketing standpoint, with merchandising strategies, grower stories, demo services, and that regional targeting aspect that has been a new part of the Homegrown strategy.

A worker sorts freshly picked blueberries

Helping to lead that charge on the marketing front is Marketing Manager Cherie France, daughter to John and Cindy, who is building on the company’s desire to grow more authentic and lasting relationships with customers and consumers.

“Today’s consumers are a diverse group, ranging far and wide in terms of age, backgrounds, regions, and tastes,” Cherie tells me. “We realize shelf-space is at a premium and want to provide as many avenues for our customers to succeed in reaching their shoppers as possible. We can impact the consumer basket whether it is through displays and POS, digital routes and social media platforms, or getting in-store to educate the produce department and buyers and meet their consumer base through demos and even telling the story of our fruit in-store. We are always looking for ways to deepen that relationship between ourselves, the retailer, and the consumer.”

Homegrown is always bringing new ideas to its retail partners, and that comes with the extensive category knowledge that stems from being experts in the trade.

"We realize shelf-space is at a premium and want to provide as many avenues for our customers to succeed in reaching their shoppers as possible."

Cherie France, Marketing Manager, Homegrown Organic Farms

“That education aspect is a big part of our customer relationships—whether it is how cost structures change for the grower depending on region in that growing window or how the market is faring, we really try and make an effort to come at it with a tiered approach because of that organic focus. We make sure that we are sharing all the information that is available to us—farm issues, labor, quality, you name it—and providing it to retailers in real time, if not ahead of time, when we can sit down ahead of the season and make plans with volumes and promotions. That attention to detail and overall relationship alignment has proven to be very valuable to our retailers,” Chad expresses.

Value is the name of the game for Homegrown—the value the company offers, but also how Homegrown values its team members and employees. From a mission standpoint, Homegrown has three specific phrases the team lives by. One, is to exceed their retail partners’ expectations in the way the company provides its fruit—in the quality, and in customer service. The second part of that is to give the best possible return back to the grower.

“The purpose is to continue to help those growers survive and grow—develop new acreage and make new ranches and farms and help them be successful in this market,” Scott shares with me. “It is about putting together the right programs with the right fruit and finding the right customers for the right types of products.”

Chad Hansen holding fresh blueberriesAnd third, but nowhere near last on that list, is to display the love and grace of Jesus Christ to all, as Scott shares. A big part of this belief can be found in the way Homegrown deals with relationships.

“This is a people business, and it is about caring for and nurturing relationships, no matter what your religious views are,” he says. “We have other people’s interests in mind and strive to show love and grace in all our business matters. We define grace as unmerited favor; that is hard to commit to in a lot of situations—giving favor to people whether or not they deserve it and trying to live that out—but it is how we approach our operations every day.”

These are all critical pieces to the Homegrown puzzle. As the company evolves, it will only become more challenging to keep that cohesiveness that Homegrown prides itself on as a partner and a team. And the business also gets more complicated as a reality of that growth, but as Scott tells me, it also gives Homegrown the opportunity to impact the industry, effect real change, and maybe, just maybe, sell a few organic blueberries while doing it.