Jun 17, 2021Philosophy, learning from failure recipe for success at Homegrown Organic Farm
Transparency and the latest in technology fuel Homegrown Organic Farms’ work to be good stewards in growing and marketing thousands of acres of California organic fruit and vegetables.
Homegrown grows and markets citrus, grapes, tree fruit and blueberries. The Porterville, California, organization markets organic produce grown by its owners and 120 other growers who produce on 7,500 acres in the San Joaquin Valley and in Southern California. Tree fruit offerings are peaches, nectarines, apricots, pluots, plums and kiwi fruit. In the fall, it’s pomegranates, persimmons, Asian pears and grapes. The citrus catalog includes navels, valencias, cara caras, satsumas, murcotts, tangos, gold nuggets, clementines, lemons, limes and grapefruit. All the produce sold by Homegrown is organic certified.
In facing organic growing challenges, Homegrown recognizes it needs to continue discovering agronomic solutions in a manner better for the land and people. “That’s part of the reason we are specifically organic,” said Scott Mabs, Homegrown’s chief executive officer.
Over the years, Homegrown has experienced successes and failures. In the mid-2010s, it uprooted a large number of grape vines after a mealy bug attack. Homegrown couldn’t control the bug, which can damage vineyards and transmit diseases.
In attempting new methods, growers often experience failures. “A lot of times, that’s how you learn, by developing new things out of necessity,” said Mabs. “Many times, it’s that necessity which can spark the most creativity to find a solution, like with Apollo 11.”
Homegrown experiments with drones and a new irrigation technology that is more sensitive to tree physiology. It and its growers also test new proprietary weed and pest control measures. Homegrown is studying ways to improve weed management through mechanical means or via organically approved herbicides. Mating disruption techniques have become highly useful for organic growers.
As most organic growers have farmed or are currently farming conventionally, they understand not every piece of soil lends itself to organic production. Because Homegrown’s ownership in the past farmed conventionally, it knows transitioning to organic farming practices require pushing the limits.
The bottom line
Homegrown’s business philosophy transcends making profits. Transparent communications to growers, through bringing no surprises, is a bedrock principle.
“It’s the foundation of how things begin to build themselves,” said Mabs. “We treat our growers the way we want to be treated.” While financial compensation is vital to supply a good living, Homegrown wants its workers and growers to experience meaning in what they do every day. “We are also here to impact people for a greater purpose,” said Mabs. “That we would operate in a way that is gracious and loving and are trying to do things in the right way. That people feel that. It’s always a struggle.”
Homegrown’s mission statement is to exceed its customers’ expectations by delivering the highest returns to growers and “displaying the love and grace of Jesus to all,” Mabs said.
That involves more than just earning a paycheck.
“There’s a lot of trying to operate these companies on values, doing more than just trying to make a dollar at the end,” Mabs said. “What we’ve been able to develop over the years is a place where team members really enjoy coming to work. They enjoy doing their jobs. We work hard and work lots of hours and put in a lot of effort. Blood, sweat and tears go into what we do. It’s why we are doing this.”
Availability of labor and water are among the biggest challenges pressing California growers. Increasing labor costs risk grower survival, Mabs said. The heightened costs can dog growers because more labor-intensive organic production requires manual weed control, for example. Because there may not be enough water to satisfy current farming, Mabs worries new state water regulations will remove a lot of farmland from production.
The ever-increasing minimum wage also takes a bite out of grower returns. The rate jumped $1 in 2020 with another $1 increase scheduled for 2021. The escalating labor costs also jeopardize packinghouses, with growers footing higher packaging costs.
“Everything continues to go up,” said Mabs.
Organic growers hope technological advancements will help counteract some of the daunting costs.
“We have to continue to improve technologies so we can bring cost savings types of methods that will offset what is to be done with labor, or we’re just wasting it,” said Mabs. “We must continue to employ new technologies to make our farming viable for the future. If technology doesn’t continue to take steps forward, it won’t be viable to farm here.”
Success in organics requires consumer trust and confidence. Usually, shoppers cannot detect differences between organically and conventionally grown produce on produce aisle shelves. Consumers must rely on statements growers make on product labels about organic certification. Believing stores and growers must never give consumers reasons to doubt a product’s organic integrity, Homegrown works to verify certifications are current with proper documentation.
When Cherie France, marketing manager, talks with people she meets in her travels, one of the first questions they ask is why organics are so expensive.
“It’s the education of the consumers,” she said. “Some do and some don’t understand.”
While organic grapes are priced closer to conventional grapes, the differential with citrus is much higher because it costs more to farm organic oranges.
“There are costs involved as organic farming’s costs are higher with yields lower,” she said. “It depends on the commodity.”
The lack of access to the same tools in the toolboxes used by conventional growers requires organic growers to forecast imminent hazards differently.
“The conventional industry has quick fixes that we don’t,” said France.
Organic growers, for example, cannot use conventional herbicides to fight weeds and depend on insects and manure instead of nitrogen inputs.
“There is nothing quick nor easy about organics,” she said. “Because consumers are extremely sophisticated, to be a successful farmer of organics, we have to be sophisticated as well.”
All in the family
Cherie France is daughter of John and Cindy France, who started Homegrown in 1998, and is the founders’ only child currently working in the business.
Similar to other businesses, the Frances began the company as a necessity. John needed a place to get his fruit to market. In those days, when organics weren’t as popular as they are today, there weren’t many outlets for growers. The larger conventional buyers growers worked with didn’t always want organic.
In 2010, Homegrown’s owners partnered with AgriCare Inc., also of Porterville. Started in 1990, AgriCare, a full-service farm management company owned by Tom and Karen Avinelis, provides multi-level management and consulting services for West Coast conventional and organic farms.
AgriCare manages Homegrown’s production. Initially, the Frances grew oranges and later added grapes and stone fruit. In 2008, they began blueberries, which are also grown in Oregon and sourced from Chile.
Homegrown is part of a “family of companies” run by family farmers operating throughout the ag industry. The companies’ motto is “Quality from root to fruit,” with organic farming as “just the beginning.”
“With AgriCare and Homegrown Organic together, there’s a lot of value placed on families,” said Mabs. “Obviously, our team members, our employees, they are supporting families and trying to do that in a manner that’s honorable.”
Because of the different ways organics are grown and marketed, changes in Homegrown’s farming, packing and even the sales arena are relatively new.
“It’s not like this industry has situated and existed in the last 50 years,” Mabs said. “Even 12 years ago, it wasn’t like one could find all these people that had backgrounds in organics. It has been doing things that are new in so many areas, which requires creativity and bringing solutions by being able to think outside the norm.”
— Doug Ohlemeier, FGN correspondent