America Berry Farms
Despite the drought that has nearly dried up ground water irrigation in southern California’s Ventura County produce belt, America Berry Farms (America Berry) is growing at an unprecedented rate. Since moving its strawberry growing operations to U.S. soil, America Berry has progressed rapidly.
“In the last three years since I joined the company, we’ve grown by more than 100 percent,” reveals Hector Velazquez, national sales manager for America Berry. With 300-plus acres throughout Ventura County and another 400 acres in Zamora Michoacán, Mexico, America Berry is quickly realizing sweet success.
Growing on U.S. ground
Before bringing the business to the U.S., the family behind America Berry has been carrying on a long tradition of strawberry farming in Mexico. “We’ve been growing strawberries since 1970,” shares Velazquez. “About 20 years ago, one of the owner’s sons came to California to see if the business could grow there. He went back and told his father about the location and eventually talked him into starting America Berry two or three years later.”
Today the company grows strawberries in Oxnard, Santa Maria, Salinas, Watsonville and Zamora Michoacan Mexico.
The oldest son came to California to start the berry-growing operation in Oxnard and things took off, little by little each passing year. “Technically, we’ve been growing strawberries in the U.S. since 1995, but the family has a long history in it,” tells Velazquez. “We only grow strawberries – not blueberries, blackberries or raspberries, too, just strawberries. It’s what the family knows and it’s what we’re good at.”
Velazquez joined the ranks at America Berry three years ago and in that brief time frame he says he’s seen the company take off. “We’ve already grown by 100 percent and the key to it all is good relationships with customers, the quality of the fruit we grow and the service we offer,” he measures.
Making lasting connections
Today, America Berry spreads its acreage from Oxnard to Santa Maria, Salinas and Watsonville, California, in the heart of the state’s strongest produce-growing region. “With more than 700 acres between California and Mexico, we have the volume to supply major national retailers,” shares Velazquez. “We’re growing more every year. Last year we moved into Texas and once we had good customers there we set up distribution to Chicago.”
According to Velazquez, it was the United Fresh Produce Association annual trade show that stimulated America Berry’s growth into Windy City. “It was our first time attending the show and now that I see the significant value in it, we’ll be going every year to make connections,” he says. These connections are especially important as American Berry continues to build more retailer-direct relationships.
Putting the squeeze on strawberries
Like other labor intensive operations, Velazquez notes one of America Berry’s major hurdles in sustained growth is finding good quality labor for harvest time. “This is one of the biggest challenges for the entire industry,” he suggests. “Keeping good people to harvest your product is essential.”
There’s labor putting the pressure on America Berry and there are the serious effects of the drought in southern California. Irrigating crops in Ventura County relies almost entirely on well water, which because of the drought; aquifers have been pumped nearly dry.
With ground water levels dropping, growers are facing restrictions on usage and fines if they continue to irrigate with groundwater. The choice is a tough one: cut back on production for the spring or pay.
October, which is a peak month for irrigation demand brought about new consumption rules, forcing growers to cough up a 10 percent fee for groundwater irrigation. “With recent challenges, it’s hard to plan for the future,” admits Velazquez. “We’re just focusing on what we do best and that’s growing high-quality berries. We certainly want to build our retailer relationships so we can sell to more directly and if the need is there, we’ll build on our sales force to meet the demand.”
Considering the shortages – labor and water – the fact that the company has managed to grow by 100 percent is astounding. Despite growing obstacles, America Berry Farms has made a serious stake on the U.S. market, reaching to larger retailers and growing in what it knows and does best.