On a late summer afternoon more than 50 years ago, Miles and Garland Reiter had just finished up a hard day’s work on the farm and jumped into their Jeep to head to the barn. Garland dared his older brother Miles to hop onto the back of the car and when he did, Garland hit reverse in full speed.
“I just wanted to scare my older brother and planned to stop right in front of the barn,” Garland reminisced. “Instead of hitting the brake, I hit the clutch and the Jeep went right through the barn. Thank goodness Miles jumped off before. We had a good laugh about it afterward.”
This small moment long ago, which took place on a strawberry farm off the central coast of California, exemplifies the relationship that has helped build Driscoll’s and Reiter Affiliated Companies into the dynamic organizations they are today.
The Reiter family started farming on the San Francisco Bay Peninsula. In the 1900s, they migrated south into Watsonville and the Santa Clara Valley. There, Miles and Garland’s grandfather, Joseph “Ed” Reiter, and first cousin, R.O. “Dick” Driscoll, began growing their own Sweet Briar strawberry varieties. After World War II, they farmed under their respective companies of Reiter and Driscoll’s and began marketing strawberries under the Driscoll Strawberry Associates label with other family and associated suppliers.
Their father, Joseph Reiter, continued to carry on the family legacy by charting new agricultural territories and grooming Miles and Garland to become the next generation of berry leaders.
“I started working on the farm when I was 12 years old,” said Miles. “I would work summers and help out whenever I had free time. It was just a part of life.”
When Miles graduated from Princeton University, he immediately went into the business. Miles started building his reputation as a strawberry farmer in 1970, but things took a turn seven years later when the brothers lost both of their parents in a plane crash.
Miles and Garland, who had just graduated from the University of Santa Clara, were faced with one of the biggest decisions of their lives: what to do with the family business. And, for them, the answer was simple. They would build a company that would help revolutionize agriculture.
Miles took over leadership of the family’s existing operations on the Central Coast, while Garland moved south to found the Reiter’s Southern California business. In 1980, the brothers reestablished a raspberry breeding program that had been abandoned by their father 25 years earlier. In 1988, Miles stepped into the role of chairman of Driscoll Strawberry Associates. Shortly thereafter, he led a transformation of the business that included the goal of creating a year-round supply of differentiated and branded strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries, with a focus on the North American market. Simultaneously, the company decided to move away from the existing packaging systems and created the berry clamshells that are now ubiquitous throughout the global industry. Under Miles’ leadership over the past two decades, Driscoll’s vision has moved to embrace a global footprint with an additional focus on the European and Asian markets and with berry production on six continents.
In the year 2000, Miles took on the additional role of CEO of Driscoll’s. At the same time, Garland took over the leadership of all the family farming activities at Reiter Affiliated Companies (RAC) as their president and CEO. Since that time, the brothers expanded the berry’s popularity worldwide and made it the year-round commodity that we all enjoy today.
“Our father and grandfather, working with their cousins and colleagues, did a tremendous amount to create the foundation of the strawberry industry we know today,” said Miles. “They also explored the potential of raspberries, but with limited success. Garland and I picked up their lead and turned the raspberry dream into a reality. That has been a really satisfying joint effort.”
MAKING A GLOBAL IMPACT
Today, RAC grows Driscoll’s proprietary varieties of strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries in the United States, Baja California, Central Mexico, Portugal and Morocco. RAC is Driscoll’s largest supplier of fresh berries and is contracted to grow and harvest their plants, allowing Driscoll’s to research new plant varieties, market and supply consumers globally with the very best and highest quality berries. But their reach wasn’t always international.
“In Mexico, we started from nothing. We built a business that was based on trust and honesty and that’s something that was missing in Mexico back in 1991,” said Garland.
Prior to Miles and Garland’s expansion to Mexico, investment in farming in the country was minimal. According to the brothers, there was a desire for crops to be grown in Mexico and sold in the United States, but there was no solid foundation. They were the first ever to truly engage with small farmers in Mexico and brought them the resources needed to produce thriving crops while facilitating market access.
“The resources we provided went beyond capital. They were insight and sound processes,” said Garland. The brothers established a RAC headquarters in Jocotepec, a small village just south of Guadalajara and developed relationships with more than 100 different growers and partners. This small village has since grown and now has one of the highest per capita incomes in the region.
“We created a business venture that is both rewarding and prosperous to the population there. It’s really been quite successful. We are now using this model to bring berries to other areas,” said Garland.
In addition to building a brand in Mexico, RAC extended its farming operations through partnerships in Zambujeira do Mar, Portugal and Agadir, Morocco to offer new commodities to the European market. RAC and Driscoll’s are currently working to expand berry cultivation in these regions.
“We went from a small operation in coastal California that only grew one commodity to a global company that produces all types of berries. No longer is Driscoll’s known for ‘strawberries.’ We are known as a leader in supplying berries year-round,” stated Miles.
Impacting the Future
Miles and Garland attribute their success to three factors: 1) Commitment to your mission and values; 2) Commitment to your consumers; and 3) Commitment to your employees.
“The big take home is how important it is to have a mission that you are really committed to and a vision of where you want to go,” commented Miles. Breeding new berry varieties and being consumer focused were at the top of the Reiter vision list.
Always prioritizing the consumer, both brothers have implemented programs and developed innovations to bolster food safety efforts. In 2008, Driscoll’s launched a Clamshell Traceability Program where Driscoll’s customers can learn about the “life stories” of the berries they purchase. Consumers can connect with the HarvestMark food traceability App and learn about the farm where their berries were grown, and find nutrition information, recipe ideas, and other helpful tips by looking up the code on the clamshell online. Additionally, RAC and Driscoll’s are working with Agrobot to test robotic-assisted harvesting practices that will help bring more berries to consumers’ tables.
“The consumer comes first and we need to figure out how to increase output to meet their demand, with limited resources,” said Garland. As the availability of labor becomes a global issue, the Reiters are developing solutions to assist with the harvest and enhance the quality of life for their employees.
Over the years, RAC has invested in developing aids to reduce the physical requirements needed to grow and cultivate their crops and to assist the employees in the field. RAC’s Mercado Harvester Machine, developed by and named after a current RAC partner and former harvester, Manuel Mercado, is a remote controlled machine that can follow a harvester and carry boxes of picked produce through a berry field—saving up to 40 percent of their man hours during harvest.
RAC was also the first agricultural firm in the nation to provide private, primary and preventative health clinics for their farm workers. They opened La Clinica FreSalud, a primary healthcare clinic in Santa Maria, Oxnard, Watsonville and Salinas where employees do not pay for co-pays and have access to pharmaceuticals for both prescription and over-the-counter medications. “I think our industry can and will make adjustments to increase efficiencies around resource limitations, but it will require investment and a different outlook,” said Garland.
EXPANDING THE FAMILY LEGACY
Family farms represent 98 percent of all U.S. farms and are responsible for 85 percent of U.S. farm production—and the Reiters are one of those proud families.
Miles and Garland are fourth generation in the family business (third in berries), and the berry legacy lives on with the next generation of the Reiter clan. “We are committed to seeing the value of legacy and knowledge engrained in the family business. From a multigenerational aspect—the compassion for people and the passion for berries exist in our children,” said Garland.
Garland and his wife Brenda’s three sons—Eric, Garland Jr. and Austin—look to carry on the family business. Eric is gaining management experience in Oxnard as their district operations lead after farming several years in Santa Maria and Central Mexico. Garland Jr. farmed several years in Baja California and returned to work outside the family business in the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market to understand the wholesale marketplace. He plans to move to Holland later this year and work in Driscoll’s of Europe in the sales and operations area. Austin, a recent graduate at NYU, is headed to New Zealand and looks to bring his knowledge of environment studies to the family business.
Among Miles and Rosanne’s four children (Brie, Allison, Trip and Sydney), Brie and her husband, Brian, moved to Chile to become blueberry growers in 2011. Since then they have brought two existing, money-losing farms to profitability and Brie has moved into the leadership of Driscoll’s South American operations. Allison has worked in several roles in both Driscoll’s and RAC and has recently established her own interior design business. Trip farmed strawberries, on his own, after graduating from high school. He has just completed an undergraduate degree in Spanish Language and Culture, while working on farms throughout his college years. He plans to spend some time as a hunting and fishing guide before returning to the family business. Sydney has just graduated from college and is exploring the future with lots of energy and excitement.
HONORING TWO LEGENDS
Expanding the market for berries, developing new geographies, and offering new commodities to consumers are only a handful of the achievements the Reiter brothers have accomplished. Together, they have not only preserved the legacy that preceded them, but grown their companies to be among the leaders in the agricultural industry.
Western Growers is honoring Miles and Garland Reiter as the recipients of the 2016 Award of Honor during WG’s 91st Annual Meeting in Hawaii. This is the first time in Western Growers’ history that the Board of Directors has chosen two individuals to receive the award together. And there is no better pair worthy of this honor than the extraordinary brother duo who have established themselves as pioneers in the berry industry.