Organic Produce Perspective: Talking with Bruce Taylor of Taylor Farms

Mike Menes is the Vice President of Food Safety & Technology for True Organic Products, and a member of Organic Trade Associations Board of Directors. He sat down with Bruce Taylor, whose company, Taylor Farms, recently acquired Earthbound Farm, to discuss values, sustainability, and Taylor’s not-so-secret wish for a drone air force. 

Mike: Can you speak to the values that power Taylor Farms?

Bruce: We’re here to make the world a better place and leave the world a better place. That’s the way we operate our business every day, the way we work with our people every day; we try to get better every day.

If you look at sustainability, we are continually innovating and getting better at what we do so that we can have a smaller footprint. We’re trying solar, we’ve got wind turbines and cogeneration systems. We’re working on biofuel now. We’re trying to do everything renewably. I think we have the first zero waste processing facility in our industry.

We’re trying to be responsible stewards while feeding the world in a healthy way. If you look at the health of America – the levels of obesity and chronic illness today – every solution is a plant-based diet. That’s our go-to-market mission. We’ve got a fantastic team of people doing that.

Mike: What I’m hearing is: it’s the people, the business, the community and the environment.

Bruce: In terms of the employee manual, we don’t have one. I keep telling people it’s three things: Take care of the customer, take care of each other, and do the right thing. Do what your mother would want you to do.

Mike: What is the significance of organic for your company?

We jumped into organic 12 years ago, about halfway into our journey so far. We have always been a customer-focused business. Sam’s Club came to us and wanted organic spring mix. We said we’ll figure it out, and we did. That got us going in the organic world. We teamed up with great growers, learned how to process really well, and produced great salads. From a personal perspective, I have two granddaughters now. I go to their house for dinner and everything is organic. My son and daughter-in-law are investing in organic for their children.

Then we were able to reach an agreement to buy Earthbound and merge that into our retail business. Earthbound has a fantastic brand. Seven or eight years ago it had a 90% share in organic salads. Because of that they have great brand awareness. They lost a good amount of that share when stores transitioned to private brands.

The produce business needs to have hands-on leadership to be successful. We’ve been able to bring ownership back into Monterey County and start the process of integrating Earthbound into our business. Earthbound will be our go-to-market organic brand, focusing on organic salads and organic commodity products. Taylor Farms will focus more on chopped kits, conventional salads and vegetable offerings.

It’s interesting. Millennials are very tuned into the environment. They really get energized with these renewable energy and zero waste projects. The idea is to get Earthbound where it’s completely sustainable and off the grid. It’s going to take 5-7 years, but I think we can get there. That’s what the organic consumer cares about. We want to be authentic and responsive to organic consumers.

Mike: What are the critical issues facing organic, and how are you approaching them?

Bruce: The most critical thing is building and maintaining consumer trust. Consumers have lots of choices about what to put in their stomachs. If there’s a romaine recall for example, it erodes trust not just for romaine but for all fresh products.

Food safety is not a competitive advantage in our world. We think we lead the world in food safety and we want to share it with everyone because if someone has a problem, it’s a problem for us, too. We don’t want to compete on that basis – we want everyone to win. That’s the biggest challenge.

From an opportunity perspective, organic continues to grow. It’s 40% of our business now. It’s got a great growth rate.

We have a test in South Georgia and North Florida. We’re trying to grow organic in more parts of the country. Now, it’s tougher. Humidity and other factors make it more difficult. We think we can probably get organic closer to the consumer so it’s more of a local option as well.

Mike: I know technology is important to you. Can you speak to the technology piece?

Bruce: For me, the fun part of it is the innovation. I get bored quickly. I love trying new things. I challenge everyone in the company to innovate. The only requirement is that if you fail, learn from it and tell us so we don’t make the same mistake again.

From a growing perspective, we’ve been working on variety development – spinach that is mildew resistant, for example – to try to reduce crop loss. We’re looking at irrigation systems that are more uniform, to increase yields. Automated harvesting systems, figuring out how to control that – what time of day is best to harvest. Processing in the plant, we keep innovating our wash systems to improve food safety. We installed a SmartWash system across the lines that eliminates any risk of cross-contamination from pathogens.

Right now you have a 24-hour pathogen test for E. coli. We’re working with a group that has a six-hour test. We’re trying to get to an instant test. We’re innovating throughout the whole supply chain.

Mike: I can’t wait to see what you do with the drones.

Bruce: We had the Forbes AgTech conference in our front yard a few weeks ago. I cornered the drone guy – again. I want a drone air force. I want a rechargeable battery with a couple drones on it that can fly over five miles of fields instead of our guys driving in trucks a hundred miles a day in different directions. Pods up and down the valley will download their film so we can see what’s going on in the fields. The human eye can see downy mildew at a certain stage. Hyperspectral imaging can see it two days sooner. If you see it two days sooner, you can harvest the field and not lose it. It was supposed to be a six-month project. Three years into it, we’re still working on it. That’s the kind of thing technology will someday offer. You’ll fly the drone over the field and it will tell you everything about that field. Where you need water, fertilizer, or what the pest pressure might be. Someday we’ll have an iPhone on our line that will be able to scan for pathogens.

That’s the fun part. You could be done. The systems today are great, and yet we still find ways to get better.

Mike: Take out your crystal ball. What’s the next big thing for Earthbound & Taylor Farms?

Bruce: That’s a great question. At the very least we’ll get better at growing organic in more places. The more you grow organically, the more you learn to grow conventionally better. Organic will continue to grow. I hope conventional grows as well. I hope what we’re supplanting is things that aren’t healthy for people. Have an organic carrot and hummus snack instead of potato chips. //

Produced by Angela Jagiello, Director of Education and Insights for the Organic Trade Association (ajagiello@ota.com).