Tech Led Transformation: Taylor Farms
Bruce Taylor founded Taylor Farms in 1995 with the vision to become North America’s favorite maker of salads and fresh foods. Under the direction of Taylor, a third generation farmer himself, the company grew its 21 fresh produce products in Salinas, CA, the town where Taylor was born and raised.
Fast forward to today and the company boasts over 2,000 prepared and raw food products sourced from 12 growing regions in North America. Supporting such a breadth of products has imbued the company and its employees with a sense of curiosity and an openness to what Taylor describes as “taking thoughtful risks” – an ethos key to the company’s evolution to become a multibillion dollar fresh produce company.
During its first years, the company relied on a strong repertoire of tribal knowledge cultivated by three generations of farming in the Salinas Valley, the region aptly coined “America’s Salad Bowl” for its fertile soil and ideal climate. Over the course of decades as the company has grown the rules of the game have often pendulated in the region, where a changing climate, regulatory pressures surrounding pesticides, and labor challenges have made the state an increasingly difficult place to run a business. All of this has led the company to diversify its risk- expanding its operations into new regions and refining a business model that locates growing as close to market- and the consumer- as possible.
Driven by the detritus of continually increasing freight costs and food miles, the move to regional production is part of the company vision to get fresh food through retail to the consumer’s stomach in as little as 3-4 days. “The closer we are to the customer, the better off we will be as a business – from a food safety perspective, from a freshness perspective, and an environmental perspective” Taylor says.
80 acres of land located in Georgia is the site of Taylor Farm’s most recent regional expansion and example of cross-continental innovation. Taylor Farms is tapping into the high efficiency technology of Cultiva Global, a radish grower with operations outside of Venice and Rome, Italy as the first effort towards fortifying a year round growing operation on the east coast. On site, the plastic high tunnels have machinery specially built to run through and harvest specialty crops. When asked about the economics of the new operations, Taylor says that “by ensuring the technology is really there, we aren’t sacrificing the economics for the benefits of growing closer to market” noting that “We wanted to extend the season, but we first needed to determine a way to offset- [this] allowed us to do that.” In December of 2016, Taylor Farms and its partners yielded the first harvest using the hoop house technology on site.
Shepherding new forms of innovation is the result of Taylor’s “curiosity to find a better way to do it”: ‘it’ being everything from the company’s accounts payable process to the way trucks are docked and loaded into a processing facility. Towards this end, Taylor Farms has acquired several companies and also collaborates with a number of startups with solutions that meet the challenges of its complex value chain. During the THRIVE Innovation Forum in which Bruce spoke alongside CEO Kevin Murphy (Driscoll’s Berries), he mentioned that his company has 40 discrete innovation projects in the works.
Productive partnerships between a multibillion company like Taylor Farms and smaller seed or scaling companies don’t come without their share of challenges. In his experience, Taylor emphasizes the importance of identifying a structure and shared set of objectives “that fit for your path and their path”. He also stresses the importance of taking the time to sculpt a mutually beneficial partnership and also conveying the immensity of achieving the unique goals of specialty agriculture. “Despite there being a larger opportunity in different parts of agriculture, like the hundreds of thousands of acres in soybeans or cotton, we need to sell [them] on devoting their resources and technology by helping them see the size of the prize, knowing explicitly what they need to get them there, and putting those resources in place,” Taylor outlines.
“Our company is very open to change, and ultimately we either all win or we all lose in our focus to satisfy our final customer in terms of the quality, service, and value they expect,” Taylor says. “Business can be an amazing force for good, for our customers, for our employees, and for our community,” he says “For me, it’s about what kind of legacy a company like ours can have, and what kind of role we can have in shaping outcomes for our stakeholders”.