riving the 180-mile stretch from Sacramento to Watsonville, California, my mind drifts off to the image of a bright, freshly picked strawberry—the fresh zest of the stem still floating in the morning sun. The car rolls past towering hills blanketed in green suede, clouds parting just above I-5 to reveal a sapphire sky not so far in the distance.
Out in the strawberry fields up the road from California Giant Berry Farms’ headquarters, I follow Kyla Oberman curiously. The Director of Marketing and I travel by car on a dirt path to the top of a hill overlooking Monterey Bay, where we are greeted by Rich Uto, Grower-Owner of Satsuma Farms, one of California Giant’s grower-partners. The three of us circle up at a vantage point displaying miles of thriving green crops all around.
“California Giant’s goal is to hone in on three pillars—people, planet, profit—and ensure all aspects of sustainable agriculture are being served with intent and attention to better serve our customers and the community,” Kyla tells me of the company’s evolving efforts toward becoming more sustainable. “We believe sustainability is the foundation for a thriving business, which is why our commitment spans from our fields to our main office headquarters, and beyond.”
Kyla speaks so effortlessly about the strawberry operation’s Sustainably Grown Certification from SCS Global Services. While working toward the certification, California Giant teamed up with Measure to Improve (MTI)—a fresh produce industry sustainability team helping organizations measure, improve, and credibly promote sustainability efforts—to implement new programs. The company also achieved Gold Certification under TRUE (Total Resource Use and Efficiency) Zero Waste program at its headquarters and is working toward Platinum. Its farms and headquarters follow strict recycling guidelines as evidenced by the spotless fields that stand before me.
"We believe sustainability is the foundation for a thriving business, which is why our commitment spans from our fields to our main office headquarters, and beyond." Kyla Oberman, Director of Marketing, California Giant Berry Farms
"We believe sustainability is the foundation for a thriving business, which is why our commitment spans from our fields to our main office headquarters, and beyond."
Kyla Oberman, Director of Marketing, California Giant Berry Farms
As I come to observe during our morning conversation, the concept of sustainability can be interpreted in many ways. For California Giant, true sustainability includes the company’s actions being environmentally sound (planet), being economically viable (profit), and its practices being socially equitable (people).
“We are dedicated to growing the performance of our workforce; we prioritize education, community development, and employee welfare, all while nurturing the berries we grow,” Kyla says as she details the pillar of people.
For California Giant and its grower-partners’ employees, this means adequate compensation and ensuring safe working conditions. The company has established fair and equitable policies, which include anti-discriminatory hiring practices that promote diversity at all levels of the business.
Rich looks over his shoulder in thought, then turns back to me. He explains that by supporting his team members, they are able to come together collectively and work toward a common goal.
“The people working here are a big part of our success,” he states. “It takes an entire team, from MTI to California Giant to my employees. Everyone, regardless of their role, is trained every year on the recycling program so they know how to dispose of things properly.”
Mother Earth is clearly another integral individual playing a role in California Giant’s sustainability efforts. In addition to strict recycling guidelines, Rich has worked with his employees and MTI to implement the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Healthy Soils Program.
“As leaders in agriculture, we take our commitment to protecting the Earth seriously because our futures depend on it. We are constantly challenging ourselves to find the best ways to reduce water usage, improve air quality, and support the ecosystems in our growing areas and beyond,” Kyla relays. “This is reflected in our strategic goal of increasing sustainability certifications on 50 percent of our acreage in the next few years.”
"As leaders in agriculture, we take our commitment to protecting the Earth seriously because our futures depend on it."
While Satsuma Farms is credited as being the first commercial strawberry operation in the world to be Sustainably Grown certified by SCS, its acreage will also be evolving. Rich points to a 14-acre plot across from us, explaining how he is considering converting the land to organic, a feat not to be underestimated.
As he jokes that his success in organics is attributed to luck, Kyla leans toward us and smiles, pointing out that a bit of hard work comes into play as well.
“I put eight tons of the seedling substrate rice bran in per acre, and I got the anaerobic soil layer, which works like a charm,” Rich demonstrates. “I also put my cover crop out there and rotate back and forth every year. I work with the guys I’m rotating ground with, and it’s just a lot of communication.”
He brings it all back to that first pillar of sustainability: people. Both Kyla and Rich note that the three values are entirely intertwined, and you cannot have one without the other. Naturally, our conversation also continuously returns to the third pillar: profit.
“True sustainability is only achieved with profit. Profit enables investments and the ability to nurture our agricultural and local communities,” Kyla expresses. “Achieving economic success empowers all of us to continue our sustainability journey, investing in eco-friendly technologies and practices to do our absolute best for the planet.”
While interviewing the two berry aficionados, off to my right is an acre of mustard seed—a cover crop planted to support the soil health of rotated fields, all while making the growing operation in Watsonville that much more beautiful: another example of Satsuma Farms’ investment in sustainability.
“To be sustainable costs money,” Rich says. “You’ve got to make sure you’re financially sustainable, because if you’re not, then nothing you do will be successful.”
Now that Satsuma is certified Sustainably Grown, Rich is continuing to up his commitment to sustainability by hitting new points of improvement. No matter the outcome, California Giant Berry Farms knows that by taking one step at a time, progress will be made.
“No one is perfect. It’s like following a healthy lifestyle. If you make an unhealthy choice, you start over the next day and don’t eat that cookie,” Kyla jokes. “It is the same thing with sustainability. You can’t afford everything. That’s a challenge, but you can treat your people right and protect the planet as much as possible.”
"To be sustainable costs money. You’ve got to make sure you’re financially sustainable, because if you’re not, then nothing you do will be successful."
Rich Uto, Grower-Owner, Satsuma Farms
For Rich, sustainability is more than a mindset. The concept runs deep in his veins and is simultaneously something he is always learning more about. I think it all comes down to his—and California Giant’s—vision for the future. While there may be many paths to pursue, there is only one possibility we must be walking toward: a viable and sustainable future for those who will be farming years after us.
“Sustainability in farming rests on the principle that we must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future farming generations to meet their own needs. This means that long-term stewardship of natural and human resources is equally important to short-term economic gain. We’re making informed, sustainable choices now to afford future generations the same,” Kyla adds.
Rich echoes that sentiment.
“That is a large part of why we’re doing this, because when you come back and think about the farming part of things, you’ve got to look at the people,” he says. “If I can make it work, then someone else needs to make it work after me.”
"It is essential that you know the ‘why’ behind what you are doing so you can pass the message on and teach others your process."
Satsuma Farms now serves as a guidepost for many other farms under the California Giant umbrella. In fact, there are two additional strawberry operations currently working toward the Sustainably Grown Certification. In the blueberry fields, growers from South America to the Pacific Northwest have achieved Bee Better Certification™ from the Xerces Society, dedicating at least five percent of their land to promoting pollinator habitats.
With a map of California Giant’s sustainability journey laid out before me, I notice the white afternoon sun hanging low in the sky. Rich turns to me and leaves me with one final nugget to chew on: the “why” behind it all.
“You have to believe in what you are doing,” he tells me. “It’s going to take a little bit more work, and some growers might hit one point better than others, but that is okay. It is essential that you know the ‘why’ behind what you are doing so you can pass the message on and teach others your process.”
At the end of the day, that is truly what California Giant Berry Farms aims to do. The three of us agree that while a farm might not ever be 100 percent sustainable, it is an ongoing goal to work toward. Success is what we can hold in our hands—improvement is forever on the horizon.
So, I share this rallying cry with you: Sustainability is the key to the future; all we must do is find the door, turn the knob, and walk through.