Driscoll’s has long been an innovator in the fresh produce industry as it was among the first grower-shippers to establish a proprietary breeding program. Today it has a robust research and development team affecting all aspects of its company. It still has an innovative crop breeding program, and has brought that same forward-thinking passion to water efficiency, labor improvements, agtech adoption, global marketing and sustainability efforts.
“Everything we do is designed ‘to continually delight our berry consumers through alignment with our customers and our berry growers,’” said Scott Komar, Senior Vice President of Global R&D for the international berry giant, in articulating the company’s mission statement.
Komar and three other members of the R&D team recently sat down with WG&S to discuss the company’s journey in innovation and how its own path informed its decision to be a committed sponsor of the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology.
Speaking to that sponsorship, Komar noted that the ag industry has to learn how to do more with less and Driscoll’s applauds the effort that is WGCIT. Through the center, Driscoll’s team is connecting with other industry members and agtech innovators and fully embraces the concepts of collaboration and shared learning.
Komar gave an overview of Driscoll’s R&D drivers, while his colleagues did a deeper dive into their specific areas of expertise. The R&D department’s top executive said the many projects launched under that umbrella have the ultimate goal of improving its sustainable farming practices for the long term. He reiterated that “more has to be done with less” including less water, fewer inputs and less labor. Seemingly, each of those broad areas deserves to rise to the top of list, but Komar did add that in today’s water shortage environment, conservation and the efficient use of that resource has to be the top priority.
Driscoll’s Director of Sustainability Tannis Thorlakson discussed the overarching themes that are driving the company’s agtech solutions and the four approaches it is taking to achieve its goals. In the first place, she did note that berry production has to coexist with the urban environment “because berries like to grow where people like to live.”
It is a given that 21st century farming in any environment requires sustainable practices, but it’s doubly important when you are sharing the land in close proximity to urban environments. Thorlakson said Driscoll’s must use inputs sparingly and ultimately produce more fresh berries per input to continue to be successful. The company’s four main approaches on this front involve the more efficient use of water, the adoption of innovative agtech solutions to lower costs and increase production, the continuation of its proprietary breeding program to address these concerns when possible in the architecture of the plant, and finally—and most importantly—working with growers to adopt these innovative practices.
The Driscoll’s team reminded that the organization is heavily dependent on the hundreds of growers across more than 30 countries that grow its berries. Thorlakson noted that the innovations developed only become beneficial once they are adopted on the farm.
Michael Seagraves, Director of Global Plant Health Research, discussed several initiatives his department has launched to improve berry quality and reduce pesticide usage. One project utilizes ultraviolet light to control fungi; traps are also being used to eliminate bugs, which ultimately reduces the use of pesticides. Driscoll’s growers are also using beneficial flowers that work in strawberry fields to reduce pest pressure.
Seagraves also commented on Driscoll’s bug vacuum that was developed 30 years ago to literally vacuum the bugs out of the field. The machine was cutting edge when it was first used in the early 1990s and Seagraves says it has been improved and is still used in many situations.
Marta Baptista, who is the Global Director of Strategic Research and Development, discussed a range of projects that Driscoll’s has undertaken to improve its production practices. For example, one research team recently concluded a project where it looked at fertilizer and water use across 20 different growing sites. It discovered an eight-fold difference in production caused by environmental and management practices. She estimated that management practices accounted for roughly half of the difference. By developing best practices, Baptista said significant improvements can be made to lower input use while increasing yields.
She also discussed mechanical harvesting work specifically being done on raspberries and strawberries. While success on that front is a few years down the road, Baptista said it is on the horizon.
Another labor-saving project is one that involves the use of unmanned spraying equipment. Management of cover crops also is being researched as another way to reduce the use of inputs.
Several of the Driscoll’s researchers discussed how the breeding program is being utilized to reduce labor. In other countries in which it operates, most notably Australia, table top production makes it easier for workers to harvest the berries. Strawberries are literally being grown above the ground on table-top type structures. “There is extremely high use of table top farming in other areas,” said Komar, indicating that the need is greater there because of lack of labor and the high cost of labor.
He added that the worldwide breeding program has multiple goals including altering the architecture of a berry plant so that the berries can be harvested faster and easier.
Eric Reiter of Reiter Affiliated Companies, as well as a Driscoll’s Board Member and a grower, talked about some of the innovations that are making their way to the field. Reiter is focused on increasing plant density in the field, which can speed up the harvest and maximize labor, which he noted is becoming scarcer every season.
He added that better management of farm practices is an important strategy that can eliminate waste in the system and ultimately achieve the goal of doing more with less. Reiter said the fallback position of a farmer is when in doubt use more water and more nitrogen. He believes greater adoption of precision farming practices by utilizing agtech data offers great opportunities down the road to use fewer resources.
Komar said another project that Driscoll’s has launched with Plenty Unlimited Inc. is the use of indoor farming projects to grow berries. The first facility is being built on 120 acres in Richmond, Virg., with production expected in time for the 2023-24 winter season.
All these innovations and the research programs behind them are allowing Driscoll’s to remain the unchallenged worldwide leader in the berry category as it continually “delights” the world’s berry eaters.