Date: May 15, 2017
Magazine:
May/June 2017

Naturipe Berry Growers Inc.

Salinas, CA

Member Since 1972

 

AN AUSPICIOUS START: It was in 1917 when a group of Bay Area growers submitted official papers in downtown San Francisco to form Central California Berry Grower Association (today known as Naturipe Berry Growers), a marketing cooperative owned by growers and dedicated to growers. At the time, the Santa Clara Valley, south of San Francisco, was the epicenter of many California crops, including strawberries. The founding families of Naturipe, in large part, were Japanese-American. So much so that the original charter was presented in both English and Japanese.

From the start, Tom Am Rhein, current day vice president of Naturipe Berry Growers Inc., said the firm had an immediate presence. Many of the top growers of the day joined the co-op and it got off to a fast start, and was a strong player in the industry.

Am Rhein said the guiding principles that were the foundation of the firm 100 years ago are still very much evident today. “We exist to support growers in their efforts to bring product to market. And we do so with integrity, high quality and transparency.”

He emphasized that “integrity is the fundamental philosophy” that drives Naturipe and always has. “As our CEO, Richard Amirsehhi, says: ‘Do what’s right, and do it all the time!’”

 

THREE SEMINAL MOMENTS FOR NATURIPE: As he surveyed the last 100 years, Am Rhein noted three pivotal times in the company’s history, two of which were adversities that had to be overcome. “World War II was certainly very important.” The Naturipe executive said the internment of many of the firm’s growers dealt the company a blow. But it did carry on and was able to help Japanese-Americans restore their farming operations after the war, allowing them to get their lives back on course.

He also cited the development of the interstate highway system, which allowed fresh berries to flourish. Prior to the ability to ship produce from coast to coast in an expedited manner via trucks and the highways, Am Rhein said strawberries were largely a processed product. In 1956, funds were authorized to start building the interstate system with the original routes built over the next three decades. And it has been expanded ever since, as has the production of strawberries.

It was only a couple of years later that the California strawberry industry was almost wiped out. Am Rhein said disease issues delivered a catastrophic blow to strawberry growers in the 1957/58 season. But Naturipe survived and Am Rhein said the company has seen a steady growth in production, sources of production and growers ever since.

 

BUSINESS CHANGES: A century is a long time to be in business and though Naturipe Berry Growers is essentially performing the same basic task today that it did in 1917, there have been quite a few changes in the business environment that has impacted the firm. At some point along the line it transitioned from the co-op format to a corporate business model. Am Rhein said the shift kept the ownership intact, but accounting regulations dictated the move as a more efficient and economically-prudent way to operate.

And in 2002, Naturipe Berry Growers joined the grower-owned partnership of Naturipe Farms. Today Naturipe Farms is the sales and marketing arm which encompasses the many different regions, crops and entities that make up the operation. The expansion in South and Central America has largely occurred since the beginning of this century and has been transformational for the berry category. Strawberries, always a top performer at retail, now lead what is often called the produce department’s top money-maker.

Am Rhein said under its umbrella, Naturipe Berry Growers and it’s grower-owner partners in Naturipe Farms grow and represent berry growers from Canada’s British Columbia to Chile. More than 1,200 growers have their fruit marketed under the Naturipe label with the four berry crops—strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries—the goal always being to be a single source of fresh berries 365 days a year.

Cranberries are also marketed under that label and from time to time Naturipe has represented other produce commodities. “It’s always because it is a service to our growers,” Am Rhein said. “Typically, they have complimentary crops and they have asked us to sell them.”

 

CHALLENGES & OPPORTUNITIES: Am Rhein admits that California has some issues with regard to regulations and cost structure that provide challenges. But he also believes that technology can be the difference maker. “So much is coming so quickly in the area of technological advances. Increased costs will force big changes. I see huge changes over the next generation in the area of mechanization.”

He added that Naturipe Berry Growers “given its history, knowledge and integrity” is perfectly positioned to capitalize on those changes.

 

A BRIGHT FUTURE: Am Rhein has been watching the progress of Naturipe Berry Growers since he joined the co-op as a producer in 1980. His involvement grew which culminated in his employment with the firm commencing about a dozen years ago. Today, he continues to manage a farming operation as well as holding his vice president slot with Naturipe Berry Growers Inc.

From his perch, he sees a bright future. “The strawberry and berry industry remains very strong,” he said. “We have a high quality product and high quality growers and I see a great future. I believe there is a lot more potential to be realized.”

Am Rhein likened the berry industry’s progression to that of the early settlers marching across the plains to reach the Pacific Ocean, at which point they ran out of places to go. “We are not at the Pacific Ocean yet; we are still in the middle of the plains.”

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