About 40 miles south of Silicon Valley in Watsonville, California the multibillion dollar company Driscoll’s Berries is transforming its half-century old agriculture legacy for the 21st century marketplace. On February 1st, 2017, Driscoll’s Berries CEO Kevin Murphy along with Bruce Taylor, CEO of Taylor Farms and other AgTech pioneers spoke to the unique challenges facing their industry and why keeping the door open to external technologies is key. We had the chance to catch up with Kevin Murphy at Driscoll’s headquarters in advance of the forum to talk about how the company is proactively addressing labor and resource issues through innovation to deliver great tasting berries year-round.
In its nearly 75 years of business, Driscoll’s Berries hasn’t wavered much from its vision to delight customers by offering a great tasting berry year round. The company’s success speaks for itself: every five years for the past twenty years, the company has doubled its footprint to include over 700 growers in 60 different countries. How do they do it? “If quality, flavor and taste are done right, our growers see a return on their investment, they reinvest and expand their contributing hectares- meaning more of a better product,” Murphy says, “it’s a very integrated system with significant scale.” For years, the company has perfected its product – strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries – by investing in breeding and genetics and nursery research and development. The company breeds berries that range in sweetness, color and durability to meet market demands found in other parts of the world. All of this culminates in what Murphy coins “virtual vertical integration” in which Driscoll’s coordinate at the front and backend to cover structural overhead costs, allowing growers to focus purely on growing and promoting alignment and ROI across every node of the value chain.
Buoyed by an inexpensive migrant workforce, the Monterey Valley has been one of the most productive agriculture regions in the world for the better part of a century, proving viable for even resource intensive specialty crops like berries. But as the state’s minimum wage approaches $15/hr and labor laws become increasingly more stringent, producers face escalating operating costs and a diminishing workforce.In Murphy’s view, innovating through technology so less labor is required or creating production environments where people can pick quickly and efficiently is central to production in the future. “Everyone in this industry sees the limited nature of labor and its increasing cost, and I believe Driscoll’s Berries is in a position to accelerate the kinds of advancements we need so that people can pick twice as fast- and hopefully make twice as much as they do today,” Murphy says. “we can’t spend the next 10 years doing this, we’ve got to get this going in the next 2-3,” he adds.
Driscoll’s is well on its way in transforming its growing operations, gravitating to adopt strategic technologies to “stay on the cutting edge, not the bleeding edge” as Murphy describes it. Crossing the chasm and getting to the kind of customized, covered, and precise growing environment that will become standard in the next several decades has spurred new developments within the company, including utilizing substrate farming where fields act as the stage rather than growing medium. New growing techniques like substrate farming alleviate the taxing nature of picking berries, an activity typified by hours spent bent over low bushes. Using substrate elevates the crop to waist level and makes the picking process more uniform and more quickly configured for automation projects.
Already Driscoll's is reconfiguring a few of its growing operations to accommodate robots that are increasingly stepping into harvesting roles in lieu of labor. Working alongside startup companies like Harvest Automation and Agrobot, Driscoll’s is ushering in the next wave of global industrial automation. By coordinating at the front and backend, Driscoll’s manages the structural overhead operational costs, allowing growers the flexibility to implement new technologies to achieve better efficiencies across its vast value chain.
Also driving the precise growing paradigm of the future is the unique profile of the 21st century consumer: by 2030, millennials are slated to comprise 75% of the workforce population, Murphy mentions during our interview. “Millennials are the major purchasing power of the future and the world of how to buy fruits and vegetables is much different for them- they are quite happy to have them delivered to their doorstep, and going to the store won’t be so much a grocery as it might be an automated farm environment four stories high next door,” he predicts.
Whatever the future of growing looks like, Driscoll’s is paving the way to continue revolutionizing its business and the industry it occupies. As a corporate partner of SVG Partners’ AgTech accelerator, THRIVE, “Driscoll’s is well positioned to lead the effort to showcase how all of this might happen,” Murphy says. “The network that THRIVE has cultivated is strategic to helping us quickly identify, test, and iterate innovations on the frontline for our network of independent growers,” he says. As a mentoring company during THRIVE’s 2016 accelerator class, Driscoll’s engaged with nearly half of the companies within the cohort to match and interface the new technologies to particular areas within its supply chain. Murphy advocates a sense of alacrity towards external technology. “I want Driscoll’s to be proactive in sharing the actual issues we are trying to solve for, the outcomes we are looking for, the interfaces external collaborators can expect and then let them get at it,” he states.
With close to three quarters of a century of growing under its belt, a robust innovation pipeline underway, and worldwide scale, we'd say Driscoll's is uniquely positioned to lead agtech activities around the world.