June 6, 2016

Tomato Focus Fuels Firm

Joe Bernardi

Bernardi & Associates

Turlock, CA

Member Since 1971

GETTING STARTED: When Joe Bernardi was a senior in college at San Diego State University in the late 1980s, his father asked him what he was going to do for a living.  “I told him I was going to come work for him.”  At the time, Al Bernardi was a partner at Ledlow, Cole & Bernardi, a tomato and vegetable broker headquartered in Nogales, Ariz. “My father told me he didn’t have a job for me and instead I needed to go out find a company to work for.”

Joe did just that.  “I put on a coat and tie and went and looked for work. I ended up at a large equipment leasing firm in San Diego.”

A year later, Al told Joe he had an opening and made him go through the interview process before hiring him. “Nothing had changed in that year. He just wanted me to go out and see what was available before coming to work for him.”

Al Bernardi eventually bought out his partners and then he and Joe opened up Bernardi & Associates in 1990, with Joe basically running the show. “My dad was semi-retired living in Tubac (Arizona) running an art gallery with my stepmom.”

That first year, with Joe at the helm, things didn’t go so well. “Culiacan (Mexico’s tomato growing region) had 56 straight days of rain. I thought it was going to take me one year to run into the ground what my dad built up over many, many years.”


FAMILY BACKGROUND: Joe Bernardi grew up in a family farming operation. His grandfather was a California tomato grower and his father followed suit running a firm called Tuttle Farms in Merced when Joe was very young. “I remember working on the farm as a 14 year old. Like many, I drove a tractor, stacked boxes and worked in the packing shed.” The family would spend half the year in California’s Central Valley and the other half in Nogales, as his father worked the tomato deal just as Joe does today.

During his year in the equipment leasing business, Joe did entertain the concept of a career outside of produce.  “I was living in San Diego. What’s not to like?” But the produce industry was what he knew as a kid and it was literally in his blood.


FOLLOWING IN DAD’S FOOTSTEPS: From 1991 until just last year, Joe raised his family in the same manner as his father did before him. “We live in California from June 1 to December 31st and we live in Arizona from January 1 to May 31st.  My kids go to the first semester of school in California and the second semester in Arizona. They like it. They have a good group of friends in each place.  We’re lucky; we have a good school in each place that works with us. I think it has been good for my kids, it has made them more adaptable.”

The family, however, has altered its routine for the past year and for the next couple of years will stay in California full time so that both of Joe’s sons can finish high school. “Then my wife and I will go back to splitting our time between the two states. My wife loves it. She likes spending the summers in California and the winters in Arizona.”


BERNARDI & ASSOCIATES: While the company began as tomato specialists and that is still their main focus, they are not a one-trick pony. “Tomatoes represent about 50 percent of what we do,” said Joe. “In fact, tomatoes represent 100 percent of what I do, but we have others who handle others vegetables such as the bell peppers, cukes and chilies.”

When Joe took over, however, he did expand the firm’s reach beyond California and Arizona. They now also have offices in Florida and Texas as well. The company offers boots on the ground and eyes on the product 52 weeks of the year in the various tomato producing regions around the country. Bernardi & Associates works all the major deals as well as the regional summer suppliers. The firm’s commitment is to provide its customers the best tomatoes that are available 365 days a year.


THE FUTURE: With two kids still in high school, Joe does not know if either one of them will take up the family business. But if they do, he suspects he will treat them in much the same way his dad treated him and encourage them to explore other opportunities before joining him in the office.


WESTERN GROWERS CONNECTION:  Though Bernardi & Associates has only been around since 1990, the firm’s membership in Western Growers dates back 20 years earlier to Al Bernardi’s previous company, Ledlow, Cole & Bernardi. Joe remembers going to Western Growers events with his father as long ago as the 1960s. He has maintained the membership all these years noting that “Western Growers does a very important job for the industry. They represent us in many areas that are very important to our survival.”