While some might say with every beginning there is an end, I am of the school of thought that with every beginning, there is also a return.
Sure, you may never step into the same river twice, but the memory of that water’s movement, of that bend in the topography of the land, is in itself a return. I like to think serendipity is at play. We orbit the sun, seasons cycle toward and away, birds migrate on a well-traversed course, and, if you are North Bay Produce, the summer months indicate a return home. A home of beginnings.
“July marks a return to our roots as a company and to the growing regions where our Founders cut their teeth and laid the groundwork for what North Bay is today. We have grown across a global stage during our more than 35-year tenure in this industry,” President Nick Osmulski shares with me as he tethers us to the company’s distant origins of 1984. “Our company originated as a group of growers within a processing cooperative in Michigan, who began looking for additional outlets for their fruits and vegetables to thrive outside of juice, sauces, and canned products.”
It is a sentimental journey for a company that has experienced explosive growth across its key categories in recent years. While many could perceive North Bay’s dogma as corporate and boasting due to its wide-spread success, progressive growth strategies, and international footprint, the company operates in a much more admirable space, as Brian Klumpp, Director of Marketing and Strategic Development, shares with me.
“North Bay Produce has a distinguished history of being a quiet and humble company. We want to remain modest yet reveal to the world why they should know us well,” Brian expresses. “Michigan in July keeps us close to our roots and the principles that we were built upon. The beauty of the North Bay global cooperative is that we truly encompass a group of growers that eat what they produce. So, this deep investment in our land and what we grow is more than just financial. It is a commitment and a promise to provide safe, flavorful food that is inherent to all our farmers because we feed our own families with the produce we cultivate.”
As an industry built by the land for the land, it only seems apt to compare ourselves to the Earth in these sentimental and exploratory ways. And in such a sense, this returning home to Michigan for its 35th summer blueberry harvest is a way for the company to reflect on, even excavate, the strata of its beginnings.
North Bay is an extraordinary kind of alloy, beginning as Wilderness Fresh Produce in Traverse City, Michigan. The company could not have known that it stood to gain more international traction three and a half decades later than ever before—all due to its dedication and will to keep its feet firmly planted.
"North Bay Produce has a distinguished history of being a quiet and humble company. We want to remain modest yet reveal to the world why they should know us well."
Brian Klumpp, Director of Marketing and Strategic Development, North Bay Produce
“Those first growers in Michigan began venturing into the fresh fruit and vegetable market and created Wilderness Fresh Produce as a division of Cherry Central Cooperative, producing and marketing apples, blueberries, and asparagus, all of which Michigan is well known for. These continue to be some of the core commodities of North Bay Produce today,” Nick tells me. “One of our key goals early on was creating a 52-week supply through the diversification of Southern Hemisphere and Northern Hemisphere production. These were counter-seasonal to each other to bridge supply gaps during the year. In doing so, we became more of an important partner in our customers’ supply chain.”
To achieve this, the company incorporated on its own and North Bay Produce was started with five original member growers in 1991—four from Michigan and one from Peru—forming one of the first international grower-owned produce marketing cooperatives. With the wind, water, and soil of Michigan inlaid in their dreams, these growers cast their vision into orbit to revolve annually around the sun.
“The model of the company has also been key to our success. We’re a grower-owned cooperative with 31 member growers spread out over six different countries—the U.S., Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Peru—and each one has equal ownership in the company around the world,” Nick shares with me. “Together, they make up our Board of Directors. The profits that the cooperative generates go back to the members in the form of a dividend each year, which helps our growers reinvest in their farms and stay sustainable for the future. This gives even more meaning to the idea resounding in 2020 that we are all in this together.”
Today, North Bay’s core commodities consist of blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, apples, and a line of vegetables, including asparagus, snow peas, sugar snap peas, and French beans. The berry category makes up the majority of its revenue, with blueberries leading the way—and a bulk of that berry program is right there in the heart of Michigan.
Blueberries have been a part of North Bay since its inception, and for the past 15 to 20 years, the category has been the most significant contributor to the company’s incredible growth. Being labeled a superfood, with the support of consistent year-round availability, has helped increase per capita consumption of fresh blueberries from .26 lbs to nearly 2 lbs over the past 20 years, Brian adds. New varieties and new growing regions also keep the supply consistent and have allowed the members of North Bay to stay close to the land, circling the globe each year—vying for growth as a way of providing for plates around the world.
North Bay has allowed retailers the opportunity to promote blueberries nearly any week of the year—all while keeping consumers coming back for more. Brand and customer loyalty at its best, if you ask me.
“Our summer blueberry program is very special to North Bay Produce because, at the heart of it, our entire blueberry program began in Michigan over 30 years ago. Our naturally acidic blueberry soils and moderated lake-effect weather make Southwest Michigan an ideal natural growing area,” Nick expresses.
With the firm foundation of the company’s blueberry program anchoring its success, the company has turned its sights to global expansion in recent years to bring more value across the world markets.
“We have sales offices in the U.S., Europe, and China, with additional procurement offices in Argentina and Chile. Our warehousing operations are in Miami, Florida, and Mascoutah, Illinois and the Miami warehouse handles the majority of our shipments arriving from South America’s Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Uruguay growing regions. In contrast, our Mascoutah warehouse handles all Mexican arrivals along with some of our domestic grower’s production,” Nick says as he traverses the globe in his mind and as Nick’s wheels turn, you can sense that enormous trek happening right behind his eyes.
I can only imagine what it must feel like to have that vast connection to the Earth—a literal network of roots wrapping their systems into new homes, into rare earth elements.
To keep that incredible cycle of growth evolving, 17 of North Bay’s grower members operate their packing and shipping facilities throughout the U.S.
"The profits that the cooperative generates go back to the members in the form of a dividend each year, which helps our growers reinvest in their farms and stay sustainable for the future."
Nick Osmulski, President, North Bay Produce
The company’s logistical capabilities are immense and provide a considerable benefit in servicing customers’ needs. The Mascoutah warehouse’s placement is strategic as well, centrally located in the U.S., allowing North Bay to deliver to the majority of its customers the next day. This speed to market means that customers can rely on North Bay for not only the pre-planned shipments but also those last-minute requests when the unexpected need for more product arises.
Anticipating the needs of the customer is what North Bay does best. While the company relies on its rooted network to help retailers flourish, the company instinctively knows that change is the only constant in our fresh produce industry, and so has risen to the demands of the day—perfectly timed for its July return to Michigan’s growing regions.
“This season, North Bay Produce is proudly introducing our new packaging for our fresh produce lines,” Brian reveals. “As our company has grown as a recognized leader providing high-quality products with outstanding levels of service, and dynamic people making it happen, we wanted new packaging to reflect these qualities of our company.”
The first thing you will notice is the larger North Bay Produce logo, Brian tells me. North Bay’s “stamp,” as the team often calls it, remains the same symbol it has been for years. The message: North Bay has farms all across the Americas and the company serves customers globally as well.
“By making the logo larger, we are simply trying to help people know us better,” Brian notes.
The new packaging is an aesthetic vision that simultaneously addresses consumers’ health needs with designs that are fresh and vibrant with clean colors. The aqua color, as used in North Bay’s conventionally grown produce, represents the pure and fresh fruits and vegetables that its growers cultivate. The bright green, as used in North Bay’s organically grown products, represents the “clean and green” practices that make the team’s organic produce so appealing to people. And, to further support North Bay’s commitment to bringing the best food to market, the company’s fruits and vegetables have been certified by the American Heart Association’s Heart Check Food Certification program for its fresh produce, even going so far as to conduct a national survey to confirm its importance to shoppers.
North Bay Produce’s new packaging is available as of this month in a variety of specs and options, depending on the produce offered. These options include resealable punnets, clamshells, bags, and pouches in many different sizes of each.
The vibrancy of the colors also indicates to consumers that there is a dynamic company behind the brand. Retailers will be happy to know that nationwide surveys showed hundreds of consumers overwhelmingly chose these designs over others—revealing that they would be more likely to purchase North Bay products because of the packaging.
"As our company has grown as a recognized leader providing high-quality products with outstanding levels of service, and dynamic people making it happen, we wanted new packaging to reflect these qualities of our company."
“Our objective was that, at a glance, consumers would recognize that North Bay’s produce was clean, fresh, and of great quality,” Brian remarks. “Also, since our farmers feed their own families with this produce, the phrase ‘From our farms to your family. Naturally,’ summarizes the best of what North Bay Produce offers—the freshest produce delivered right from where it is grown to the consumer, while always using the best practices to assure the healthiest and finest tasting produce.”
Naturally, of course.
This year, the company is also taking up the recyclability charge and switching to a wash-off adhesive to aid in removing the label that will be recyclable, giving North Bay’s clamshells 100 percent recyclability. Going that extra mile was the change to Top Seal punnets, which eliminated 30–40 percent of the plastic over a traditional clamshell, and both the punnet and film are 100 percent recyclable.
I suppose it is all in the eye of the beholder, how we concretize our notions of history and beginnings, of the infinite return of all things in the end. Whether it is July in Michigan or the first laid crops in the soil of Peru 30 years in the past, this story is a reverie in itself. A simple return to the earth from which the company sprung some 35 years ago.
A tautology of beginnings.
So, can we step into the same river twice? Maybe not. But to come full circle every year as July stretches its legs can feel like a gift. The serendipity of the return is like a tribute.
And like this story, you are always welcome to return.