March 15, 2022

Necessity Led to Founding of Organic Marketing Specialist

CA Member: Homegrown Organic Farms, Porterville, California
Member since 2019

By Tim Linden

Background: John and Cindy France were farmers in the San Joaquin Valley in the mid-1990s who were continually increasing their production of organic fruit crops. But they kept running into trouble marketing their output.

“They had a number of bad experiences with other marketers,” said Scott Mabs, the company’s CEO. “They were struggling to find a company that could market organic fruit.”

So, in 1998 the couple hired a salesman and started Homegrown Organic Farms to sell their own production. “Like many things, the company was born out of necessity,” Mabs said.

Soon Homegrown also was selling the production of other organic growers in the area. “John had a simple philosophy,” said Mabs. “He told his fellow growers that he can’t change market conditions or whatever the realities are at a given time, but he would live by his motto of ‘no surprises.’ Transparency was the key.”

The company slowly grew both by increasing its own acreage and representing more and more organic farmers up and down the West Coast.

Years of Exponential Growth: It was in 2007 that Mabs joined the team as Director of Sales and Marketing. He oversaw sales for about five years before being elevated to the CEO position in February 2013. Over time, the company has experienced excellent growth. “We are about four times the size, in terms of dollars, than we were when I started,” he said.

Under Homegrown’s corporate structure, Agrivision, Inc., is the umbrella or parent company with several entities, including AgriCare Inc., which is a land and farm management company, and Homegrown Organic Farms, which is the sales and marketing arm of the operation.

To quantify the size of the company, Mabs revealed that they farm more than 4,000 acres and he believes Agrivision is the largest organic permanent crop grower in the United States.

Challenges Along the Way: During the first 10-12 years of its existence, Homegrown would take on most items, according to Mabs. If it was grown organically, the company would try to sell it. “We sold everything including organic lettuce, organic garlic and other organic vegetables. We soon discovered vegetables were not our knowledge base; our expertise was in fruit.”

As Homegrown settled in to its second decade of existence, the company eliminated its vegetable production.

Fruit-Forward Focus: With its focus clearly on fruit, the company honed its business structure. “One of our key decisions was to structure the company into two separate categories,” Mabs said. “We have the citrus and grape team and blueberry and treefruit team.”

The CEO explained that it is difficult to be an expert if you wear too many hats. The two teams focus on their commodities and have become specialists. Mabs said the result has been unparalleled growth.

The two categories represent many different organic options, including many grape and citrus varieties as well as a full array of stone fruits and fall fruits, with kiwifruit being its newest addition.

Geographic Footprint and Growth: Homegrown was started as a California-centric grower shipper and that’s not changing. Almost all its production comes from California, but it has expanded into the Northwest for blueberries. Mabs said further geographic expansion is always on the table. “What has been most important to us as we have grown is to have the right partners,” he said. “That’s the same philosophy we have when we branch out. It is partnering with the right people that drives success and we will continue to look for opportunities in organic production.”

While expanding sourcing is always of interest, Mabs said the company is also eyeing the other end of the spectrum and looking to grow sales. He said organic produce sales have grown tremendously over the last 20 years and it is difficult to maintain the same percentage of growth as the base increases. “The next big thing for organics is growth in the export market,” he said.

California: California’s inherent advantages in producing crops must be weighed against some of the challenges that are inherent in a state that is also the nation’s population leader. “The ideal growing conditions in California are hard to beat,” said Mabs. “We live in one of the best places on the globe to grow produce. Just look around the country this week (early February) and you see the storms that are devastating the Southeast. That happens on a regular basis in that region. Even Texas had a devastating freeze last year. We just don’t have to put up with that.”

But Mabs noted that lack of labor and water and an ever more-challenging regulatory environment are cause for pause. “Those issues are curtailing the ability for growth in California. California will continue to be a major producer of fresh produce, but I do worry about growth opportunities.”

Planning for the Future: One way Homegrown Organic Farms and its Agrivision parent company are planning for the future is the recent change in corporate structure to an ESOP (an employee stock ownership plan). “That was a big move for us,” said Mabs. “It was a very strategic foundational move designed to help us survive and move forward.”

In today’s business environment, Mabs said there must be an exit strategy for the founders and owners. An ESOP allows the principals to sell the company to its employees. Of course, another option would be to sell out to a larger company but that is not what the founders wanted to do. “They did not want the company culture to change,” he said.

The ESOP gives employees a stake in the operation and its success. He said it essentially functions as a retirement program, and is an excellent incentive to both retain employees and attract new ones. If the company performs well, the value of the holdings by each employee increases.

Western Growers Involvement: Homegrown Organic Farms has long been a supporter of industry organizations, and has been actively involved in organic specific associations. Mabs said the attraction to Western Growers is fueled by its member services. “Western Growers is extremely strong in the member services it provides. The organization provides practical, real-life help in many different areas. The specific training and educational opportunities are great.”