Driscoll’s President Soren Bjorn discusses creating shared value within its business and local communities.
Now more than ever, it is critical that companies understand and manage their business, supply outlook and promotional activity to withstand both natural and economic disasters. Our conversation with Soren Bjorn, President of Driscoll’s of the Americas, provided insight into how a top fresh produce brand is fostering business resiliency and how that translates into creating shared value within its business and local communities.
Driscoll’s, a privately owned company, is a global leader for fresh strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries. With more than 100 years of farming heritage, Driscoll’s unique business model is rooted in local communities that grow fresh berries. The business begins with “Joy Makers,” who develop proprietary varieties to deliver on great flavor. Driscoll’s provides the cultivated plants to its network of 700 independent farmers to grow the best berries in the world. Once harvested, the company then markets, sells and distributes the berries — returning 85 percent of the revenue to the farmers. The business model runs on mutual dependence, trust and shared success.
Here, Bjorn discusses some of the ways the company has integrated responsible labor practices and community engagement into its business model.
Driscoll’s localized business model has been the foundation of its growth. How has it challenged you to grow responsibly in the communities in which you live and operate?
Soren Bjorn: Our commitment to community has been in our DNA since Driscoll’s was founded in the 1950s. Driscoll’s is not involved in the fruit farming itself; the growers we work with are all independent farmers. This type of business model means that you don’t have control over all aspects of the operation, but it challenges you to be diligent of your entire supply chain, nonetheless. From the beginning we had to be clear about our expectations whether for food safety, food quality; or, more recently, labor standards. The complexity of our business has changed over the years as we have entered new markets, production regions and communities; these changes have challenged us to look at the business more holistically and reevaluate the expectations of our independent growers.
[At one point], we had unrest in a community in Baja, Mexico. It did not originate in something we were doing or not doing. The underlying issue was that there is not enough water in the community — and one season, it became more acute. It turned out that the people who were organizing in the community for water security got advice from organizers in the US, who told them that if you really want change to happen you need to target the big brands, because they have a reputation that they will try to protect. We became the focus as the only big brand in the area.
So, we did a significant outreach to our industry association, which led to a much bigger collaboration between us and the two organizations that represent the fresh produce industry here in the Americas — the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) and United Fresh. We began collaborating to implement changes in our global community. The collaboration has been going on now for several years, and has seen successes both at the local level and in motivating other companies to make significant changes. The Ethical Charter on Responsible Labor Practices was adopted in January 2018.
Given the complexity of your supply chain, how do you ensure that the standards are met at each stage of the process?
SB: You have to take a pragmatic approach. Our philosophy is about improving how things work. We have different types of growers — some bigger growers have their own HR, legal, and health and safety departments. Implementation with those growers is a lot easier. It’s a bigger negotiation to change something with them; but once agreed, it is much easier to implement because they have their own support structure. The biggest challenge is with the small community growers who don’t have that support in place. But we are very committed to small growers being part of our vibrant agricultural community. It can’t just be all corporate farms.
To help those growers, it means that sometimes we have to be willing to live with something on an interim basis that is not ideal. Early on, in developing countries, it wasn’t unusual for the payments of very small growers to be in cash. With no proper payroll, you can’t verify that things are being done as they should. For example, you can’t be sure that wages are not being withheld or distributed equally.
But our philosophy is that you can’t just say that’s not acceptable and get rid of them. We might find a third party that would help them; or in some instances, we might even go in and do the work for the grower on a temporary basis. Of course, there are certain things for which we have no tolerance such as child labor or slave labor.
You have to accept the reality you are dealing with, particularly in developing countries. It’s not appropriate to set the same expectations you would have in Europe or the US, so it is much more of a journey. We use third parties to do a social compliance audit, which is separate from the food safety audit. Based on our own risk assessment, we decide our priorities, which determines where they go to audit and how often the audits take place. But it is not about enforcement — it is about how we can help the growers improve their operations and create a thriving workforce.
How do you ensure that the work has a positive impact on the community, in addition to providing work?
SB: One of the things that changed after our experience in Baja was that we started drawing the circle around our business much wider, thinking beyond our four walls of operation. It’s easy to think about your role or impact in the community as solely providing jobs and contributing to the economy. However, we have come to realize that we must think about how our business impacts the entire local ecosystem. If you come into the community, you will be using their resources like water or housing. As a business, you have a responsibility for working out how you are going to alleviate the problem that you are creating.
Some you can fix directly; others are much bigger, and you have to engage with the community. No business wants to get involved in running the infrastructure like water or electricity or housing, although sometimes it is necessary. But you can still contribute to the solution.
We do a needs assessment and usually engage somebody on the outside to interview stakeholders in the community to see what the greatest needs are. One of the things we ended up doing in Baja was help to get 800 water tanks that opened automatically when there was water pressure. In this community, the water only came on at certain times; if the worker was out in the field, there was no one to fill up the tank. Now the tanks automatically fill up even if there is no one at home.
The problems are different in each community. Here in California, housing is probably top of the list. Although we can’t solve the state’s housing crisis, we are working on a project right now to help build some low-income housing in our local communities. In other places, it might be childcare or healthcare.
You can’t sit in a corporate office and try to project what you think the community needs. You have to engage with the community and let them tell you what they need, and you can then choose what you can support from that list.
How challenging has it been to ensure continued supplies of healthy fruit while keeping workers safe during the pandemic?
SB: There was a lot of disruption to the US market in the first six weeks and the impacts were felt throughout our entire enterprise — the business, our independent growers, and our retail partners. In a way we were fortunate to have somewhat of head start, thanks to our operations in China. When we realized that we would have to deal with this here in the Americas, we prioritized regular contact with our colleagues in China to find out how they were managing the situation. We wanted to know what issues were emerging as critical, and how we might be able to prepare for them.
One of the biggest challenges was housing. Many farmworkers don’t live in conditions where they can go home and isolate if they get sick. As an industry, we worked with county officials to get isolation facilities. This might, for example, be a hotel we had secured to be used for this purpose — which the industry paid for, collectively.
We have now passed the peak of the harvest season in the US, and as devastating as this pandemic has been, our One Family has for the most part remained healthy and safe. One thing we have learned from this is that there are vulnerabilities in our food system that we need to address. In the US, the single greatest vulnerability is that hundreds of thousands of essential farm workers are not documented. That creates a difficult situation when you are trying to encourage everyone to get healthcare and to get checked. The farmworker community should be fully integrated into the overall community, and the reason they are not is because of their immigration status. The pandemic has shone a light on that problem, and we have a collective obligation to try to work out how we can fix it sooner rather than later.