September 23, 2021

Director Profile: Organic Pioneer Has Deep Salinas Valley Roots

Rod Braga, President/CEO Braga Ranch
Director since 2020  |  Member since 1977

By Tim Linden

Family History: Sebastian and Josie Braga began farming in the Soledad region of the Salinas Valley in 1928 with fresh vegetables and dairy products forming the core of their business. A cattle operation was added later. Ninety-three years later their legacy lives on in many ways. The original 600-acre ranch, purchased in 1937, is still thriving but the family farms more than 4,000 acres. The dairy business was dropped in the 1950s and the cattle operation survived until the 1980s, but today Josie’s Organics is the lead brand for the organic commodities and value-added items produced by Braga Fresh Family Farms and Braga Fresh Foods. And the patriarch of the family has lent his name to the company’s year-round custom harvesting service, Sebastian Harvesting.

A Family Farm Grows Up: That original “home ranch” remains the core of the Braga family farming operation. In the 1950s, the operation began to grow as Sebastian’s three sons Ernest, Norman and Stanley joined the family business and took it into the 1990s, which was when the growth curve started to rise sharply.

Rod Braga, Norman’s oldest son and the current President/CEO, joined the company in the early 1990s, and has been involved in much of that growth. It was in the early 1990s that Braga Ranch added its custom harvesting operation, grew its farming division and launched its fertilizer application unit. By the late 1990s, it was beginning to grow organic crops. In the mid-2000s, the company added production in the Imperial Valley. The Josie’s Organic label was launched in 2012, with the fresh cut division debuting in 2016.

Today, Rod estimated that about 70 percent of its production is organic with 30 percent conventional. Its commodity business still holds the majority position in its daily output but value-added is growing rapidly.

And as it has done for many decades, Braga Ranch remains a grower of both organic and conventional crops for many other California shippers. “We have relationships that go back decades, especially on the processing side,” Rod said.

The Organic Piece: “We’d like to say we got into organics driven by philosophy, but we sort of lucked into it,” Rod said.

He explained that the company acquired some land in the 1990s that hadn’t been farmed. The organic movement was gaining traction at the time and this land presented an opportunity to join the party without having to transition land from conventional to organic production. They started slowly and increased their acreage gradually until they had transitioned the entire 600-acre home ranch. Growth continued after that to other owned and leased land.

Braga has enjoyed leading the charge as the category has exploded over the past two decades. “As organics have become more mainstream, the category can’t grow by the same percentage as it once did,” Rod said, “but it is still growing, and we are still seeing double-digit year-over-year growth.”

Rod noted that he had just returned from a sales trip to Iowa where every store he visited seems to have an ever-increasing organics department. He added that organic sales in the Midwest were once the domain of the larger cities and the college towns, but now even markets in the most rural communities feature organic fruits and vegetables.

The Dynamics of the Organic Market: With more than 20 years of experience under their family belt, the Bragas are expert in growing organic crops. Rod said every crop is different but with some—such as Romaine hearts and celery—they get almost identical yields from their organic and conventional fields. In others—such as broccoli and cauliflower—pest pressure within the product itself makes it difficult for an organic field to yield like a conventional one.

“It’s difficult to generalize because every crop is different, but as a ballpark guess, it costs about 20 percent more to produce an organic crop,” he figured, noting that the biggest cost is fertilizer application. “You got to get the nitrogen down. You have to do it early and have plenty of it. There are other added costs but that’s the big one.”

Rod’s Journey: He grew up on the Soledad ranch and always figured he would follow in the family footsteps. His father, Norman, went to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, but he did not want Rod to follow suit. “He told me he could teach me everything about farming; he wanted me to learn other things.” Rod went to St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., and earned his degree in business administration with an emphasis in finance. “I considered going to the East after college and looking for a job in the financial sector, but I ended up coming back and taking over farming on the home ranch.”

He began with leafy greens in the field and soon helped the company vertically integrate with the addition of new entities.

He stayed focused on the family business and claims that he has limited outside hobbies…at least until children entered the picture. Rod and his wife, Niki, have three children in their lives, including 15-year-old Skyler, 10-year-old Sebastian and eight-year-old Sterling. “I’ve never had too many hobbies, but now my free time is taken up with the kids. All of them play sports. So, if I’m not working, I’m probably involved in soccer, football or basketball. And we also love skiing as a family.”

The 3rd & 4th Braga Generation: Rod leads a group of four in his generation of the family tree involved in the company. His brother, Chris, runs the shop, while cousin Marshall is in charge of the food safety department and cousin Carson oversees the harvesting operation.

The 4th generation is still young with the oldest in college and his grade school daughter rounding out the group. A couple in that generation have put in some time in the office or on the ranch but it is way too early to see who might make it into the company as it approaches its 100th anniversary later this decade.

The Future of Agriculture in California: Rod takes an interesting an optimistic view of the future of production agriculture in the Golden State. He acknowledges all the difficulties involved in running a business in California, but he sees that as an advantage for a many-decades-old-company like Braga Ranch. “All those difficulties are a heck of a barrier of entry. Who would try to start a new business here? On the other hand, we have the best land in the world and all the water we need here in the Salinas Valley. The future couldn’t be better!”