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Q&A: The Prospect of Perspective With Joe Barsi

Q&A: The Prospect of Perspective With Joe Barsi

Time and technology have made for an indelible transformation within our industry over the past quarter-century. While I am so grateful to be a part of the present, I have some envy for those who have watched the key turning points unfold into now.

Among them is Joe Barsi, who can juggle the fun youthful energy of a fresh produce inductee with the wisdom of one who has seen a profound shift in the world’s access to information.

Perspective is everything, and as Joe settled into the role of President for California Giant Berry Farms just in time to steer the company through a global pandemic, I can’t think of a better person to sit down with to reflect on where we have been and where we are going.

While I would love to say we were in armchairs framed by berries for this conversation, social distancing was observed for the duration of this interview. But, if you choose to picture the armchairs as you read, I will not blame you. In fact, I thank you.

Melissa De Leon Chavez: Joe, I have only ever known California Giant Berry Farms to live up to every word in its name. So, I would love to know, what are some of the ways you have seen the company grow and change over time?

When I joined California Giant in 2005, I would describe the company as “California Strawberries, North America,” meaning our main business was the production of California strawberries, and we sold them in North America. Fast forward to 2020: We currently grow and market strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries. We have berry production in six countries and seven U.S. states, and we now export to Europe and Asia.

Today, we are a global berry company.

MDC: It’s amazing to hear how much the company has morphed and achieved in just 15 years! Going back even further, how has the produce industry at large changed since you joined it, and what would you like to see continue in this transition?

JB: I could go on forever about this subject. I started my produce career in 1993, only a few years after the World Wide Web became publicly available—need I say more? The evolution of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Amazon, et al...the world is now flat.

Seriously, the way business is conducted now versus back then is drastically different. For example, if COVID-19 would have occurred back in the early ’90s, how would the industry have conducted business versus today? The produce industry is resilient and would have found a way, but we would have gone home, used our landlines to make calls, and would have had to line up to use a fax machine. My kids—ages 21 and 23—don’t know what a facsimile is, and we don’t even have a landline at home.

Today, a lot of transactions take place electronically. Cal Giant uses Microsoft Teams, is pretty much paperless, operates in the Cloud, and the transition to working from home was seamless for our employees during COVID-19’s shelter in place orders. In fact, we sold and processed more volume over those few months than we have previously over that period in our history—and did it with 75 percent of our staff working remotely. I think that says a lot about how we, the industry, and the world have changed.

"Our mission is to deliver the best quality."

Joe Barsi, President, California Giant Berry Farms

MDC: It has been so inspiring to see what we all are capable of with the power of technology, and it’s incredible to hear your team has even thrived where some might assume longer-standing companies would have struggled. What would you say, then, is the most challenging part of the business today?

JB: Our mission is to deliver the best quality of berries and this is not possible without high-quality growers.

With rising farm input costs, labor costs, and increased regulations, coupled with a shrinking labor force, it is hard for growers to remain profitable. The industry is going to have to work together to find efficiencies in the berry supply chain for growers to remain competitive.

MDC: Thank you for being so open about the struggle these obstacles can cause. Thinking on how hard this business can be also brings to mind the unwavering passion it inspires. What do you think keeps industry members so loyal to it?

JB: It is a unique industry and one that is hard to explain to someone outside of it. The people, the farming families, the dynamic nature of the industry...I can drive five minutes from my office and walk a strawberry field on the coast of California or head north and walk a blueberry field in the Willamette Valley. There is something magical about fresh produce that you can’t get in other industries.

MDC: Looking back, is there some advice you would give yourself at the beginning of your produce career? Or, perhaps, advice you would like those in the first few years of their produce careers to take away?

JB: I would tell myself to listen more, talk less. But also, don’t be afraid to speak up. Be patient.

For those just joining, I would tell them to be humble and raise their hand to take on projects nobody wants.

Keep your head down and work hard. It will take some time for you to understand the business—again, be patient. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and fail.

Finally, when things get hard, stay with it. Hard times don’t last forever.

"The visibility and the security of the food supply chain will continue to be vital."

MDC: As someone who can very much take those words to heart, thank you. looking forward, what do you see on the horizon for the berry industry and for Cal Giant specifically?

JB: I think we will see innovation happen faster in the next five years than my prior 25 years in the produce business. We recently became blockchain compliant with the IBM Food Trust and, thus, the sharing of information between trading partners will continue to advance. The visibility and the security of the food supply chain will continue to be vital.

There are a lot of investments and progress in robotic strawberry harvesting as well. In addition, there is more innovation in breeding techniques that will enable companies to develop new varieties with unique characteristics more quickly. This will be good for the industry and for consumers.

The produce industry will look different post-COVID-19. New companies will emerge and the companies that were flexible will thrive.

MDC: Is there an aspect of the berry business, or of your experience with it, that stands out in having surprised you most?

JB: When we got into blueberries in the early 2000s, some would say we were too late to the category. But, we have seen quite the opposite.

What has surprised me the most is that the berry category continues to grow and there is a lot more opportunity for growth. Fresh berry sales have performed extremely well at retail during the pandemic—I’m confident we have obtained new berry consumers and I am optimistic shoppers will continue to purchase fresh, healthy berries when the pandemic is over.

I’m happy to work in the berry industry and for California Giant Berry Farms, especially during these challenging times.

Together, technology and time bring a broader perspective of today’s challenges through Joe’s reflection, combined with the unique observation of what those same challenges could have been were they 20 years removed.

Through this lens, his assurance that the produce industry’s resilience will find a way resounds. As we close the book on the first half of a tumultuous 2020 with eyes toward the future, it is leaders like Joe, who bleed resolve, wisdom, and unwavering passion for this business, who serve as reminders of how far fresh produce has come and all it has yet to achieve.