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November 4, 2022

California Member Profile: Ocean Mist Farms Focused on the Future

Ocean Mist Farms

Member since 1947

By Tim Linden

It is telling that Castroville’s Ocean Mist Farms, which is the leading producer of artichokes in the United States, does not rank that crop on the top of its list in terms of volume.

Chris Drew, who was named president and CEO of the company in October 2021, is laser focused on strategic planning and aligning the company’s production with consumption trends. He is not content to have Ocean Mist rest on its laurels nor be wedded to its past successes. Artichokes are, of course, still an important fresh produce item for the company but consumers are trending toward value-added vegetables and those that are easy to prepare and to eat. Ocean Mist’s product line is reflective of that, and Drew is certain it will continue to evolve to keep up with consumer trends.

Drew began his ag career with Headstart Nursery, while going to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo as a crop science major. Following graduation, he stayed with the company, moving to the Coachella Valley working in the nursery’s desert operation. It was there that he became familiar with Ocean Mist Farms, which has its winter production program there. It was in the early 2000s when Drew joined Sea Mist Farms, a production affiliate of Ocean Mist Farms. There he learned about farming by doing it. He was educated in every aspect of crop production, with a focus on the importance of producing that crop at a very efficient cost.

Drew stayed in production for about a dozen years before becoming Vice President of Operations in 2016. Today, he admits that he loves the operations side of the business where the emphasis is on finding better and more cost-efficient ways to accomplish all the tasks associated with producing a crop.

As he completed his first year as CEO, he noted that it is a much different role with strategic planning being his main focus. “I am looking five, 10, 15 years into the future to make the business better,” he said. “I am an operations-based guy, but I love the challenges associated with this job.”

He notes at the top of the list of the challenges are all those outside factors—water, labor, regulations—“that keep you up at night.”

Drew doesn’t believe those issues are going away, but he does believe that mechanization can offer tools that alter the cost structure to allow California to continue to be the major player in fruit and vegetable production. “California will always play a role,” he said. “Maybe we will produce a little less, but we will still be an important producer.”

He does offer that controlled environment agriculture that allows for production closer to population centers definitely deserves his attention. The cost of shipping product across the country continues to rise, which makes greenhouse farming closer to the end user a viable option.

“Sure, we’re looking at it,” said the 46-year-old CEO, noting the key to long term survival is to be nimble and adapt to change very quickly. “We’ve seen consumption of fresh vegetables decline a bit in recent years. We have to look at consumer trends.”

Consumers want their vegetables delivered in new ways that are easier and take less time to prepare. Many consumers are no longer looking for a head of lettuce or three romaine hearts packed in a sleeve. More and more consumers want their vegetables delivered in a value-added option and Drew said the industry must meet that demand. He believes the snacking trend is also here to stay and new products must be developed to fill that need.

While California is still where Ocean Mist sources most of its production, the company does grow in Mexico. And Drew said the state’s water situation has also caused the grower-shipper to switch its shoulder season lettuce production from Huron in the San Joaquin Valley to the Oxnard district in Ventura County.

For most of its 75 year history, Ocean Mist Farms and its leaders have been closely involved with Western Growers. Drew indicated that during this year of transitioning to CEO he wasn’t able to get involved with the organization as much as he would like to in the future. But Ocean Mist is a strong supporter of the association, as well as the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology. Drew is convinced that the agtech movement will offer solutions to some of the most vexing issues. “We are at a turning point in our industry, and we do need to be more collaborative to solve some of our problems.”

He said the Pacific Ocean, which is not too far from the Ocean Mist Farms corporate office, is a great reservoir that should be tapped to help water our crops. He noted that Monterey County has a program in which treated water is used to irrigate crops and he believes desalinization of ocean water also offers potential.