Driscoll’s One Family philosophy has played a key role in helping the company navigate challenges such as labor standards, immigration reform and water stewardship. We spoke to Soren Bjorn, President of Driscoll's of the Americas, about the impact it has had on the farming communities who produce its berries.
From its humble beginnings as a small family business more than a century ago, Driscoll’s has become a major producer of berries in the US and beyond. But the ideas of family and community still play a key role in Driscoll’s business philosophy — especially as it navigates increasingly challenging issues such as labor standards, immigration reform and water stewardship. While agriculture can bring work and prosperity to a community, it can also put a strain on precious resources such as water. And while there may be regulations in place to ensure workers receive the financial and health benefits they are entitled to, making sure this happens can be a very different story.
We spoke to Soren Bjorn, President of Driscoll's of the Americas, about the company’s One Family approach, and to find out more about the impact it was having on the farming communities who produce the berries we eat.
A key part of your business model is your Global Labor Standards. As current legislation covers the rights of agricultural workers, why did you feel it was necessary to go beyond what was already in place?
Soren Bjorn: In our business, we work in a number of different countries, and while there may be laws and regulations in place, we often see varying degrees of enforcement and compliance. In Morocco, for example, many of the farmworkers were not even registered with the state; and so, had no social security or registration number. This meant that although social security was being paid on their behalf, the workers had no way of ever getting the benefits. So, we worked to get individuals registered to make sure that they will be eligible for these benefits one day.
In Mexico, in a lot of the smaller communities, there may not even be a health clinic — meaning that although the grower is paying for health benefits on behalf of the workforce, the workers won’t receive any benefit. To deal with that, in some instances, we would pay to get a clinic up and running and fund the infrastructure required to make sure the workers receive those health benefits.
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If you want to drive meaningful change, you need to address these underlying issues. This is why you sometimes need to draw the circle around your business much wider and think beyond the narrow economic impact.
Water stewardship plays an important part in your sustainability efforts. Can you tell us more about that and also about your involvement with Ceres/WWF’s AgWater Challenge?
SB: Working in agriculture, we have to consider not just the water on the farm; but also ask if the community has enough water to sustain itself. In Baja, California, for example, there was not enough water in the community; so we made a decision not to increase our footprint in that region unless we could find a more sustainable source of water. For five years, even though there was a demand for more berries, we didn't increase our footprint. More recently, our largest grower in the region developed an ocean water plant; which allows us to grow more berries, but also to return that supply of water back to the community.
We've been involved with Ceres for quite a long time. In Watsonville, in the Pajaro Valley, both agriculture and the community depend on the aquifer for water, as there is no pipeline to bring water in. This aquifer is significantly overdrawn, so we wanted to help solve that problem as part of the community. We worked with Ceres on this and also as advocates for the groundwater legislation that passed in California five years ago. Through that, we got introduced to the AgWater challenge.
By joining this challenge, we get to work with others who are already facing similar issues and get access to their expertise, as well as a lot of great ideas. There is also the pressure of having to make progress, and that’s where the challenge part comes in. Water stewardship is not an individual business issue, but a community and a societal one. To be able to tap into all these other resources is absolutely critical to meeting the challenge.
Immigration reform is a hot topic politically and was the subject of your award-winning documentary, The Last Harvest. What has the response been to the issues raised?
SB: That was a really interesting project and one I was very involved in personally. We were originally trying to tell the story of our company through the voices of our growers. But it became clear when we went out to film this documentary that labor and immigration issues were what everybody wanted to talk about. We saw this as an opportunity not to advocate for or criticize any specific policy, but to shine the light on an issue that we think is critical — not just for our business, but for society at large.
In the US today, we are very fortunate to have absolute food security. We are a substantial net exporter of food; and if we want to maintain that status, we should do everything within our power to try to protect it. If we want the fresh fruits and vegetables that we consume to mostly be grown in this country, we need immigration reform. The reality is that 75 percent of all the fruit and vegetables grown in the US are still harvested by hand, and the vast majority of the people who do that work are immigrants to this country.
If we, as a society, make the choice that we don’t want immigrants here doing that work, we also have to recognize that we are choosing not to have that food production here. This means that we would be relying on imports for a whole range of commodities.
Even if a person generally takes an anti-immigration stance, they probably don’t have an anti-food security stance. But they don’t make the connection. When we show the documentary, it is always done with the intention of having a really good dialogue, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
Immigration reform, particularly for agriculture, could easily happen. There is a pretty good bill that just passed in the house of representatives with bilateral, cross-party support.
Although we want to solve the problems in agriculture, we are also aware that it is part of a larger issue about immigration.
Giving back to the community is at the heart of your One Family business model. What would you say are the most exciting community projects you have supported so far?
SB: Because of our business model, our growers are not in a contract with us. It is much more of a partnership, where we are both trying to delight consumers in the marketplace and have the consumers reward us for that. And we share that revenue with the growers. In fact, 80-85 percent of the revenue goes back to the growers in their local community. So, the single largest impact we are having in the community is through the success of the independent grower.
I'll give you an example. We grow berries in a small village in the south of China. For 1,200 years, they have grown only rice commercially in that community. If you grow an acre of rice in the south of China, the revenue you generate is somewhere around $1,000 per acre. Today, we have growers in that community growing Driscoll’s raspberries and the revenue that comes from that one acre is somewhere between $60,000-80,000. In our model, 85 percent of that revenue goes back to the grower in that community to pay for wages, land and other inputs. This means more money for people to spend at the butcher’s; so the butcher gets wealthier and has a lot more money for the people that own the rental properties, so they can develop new properties and so forth. The impact this has on the broader community is tremendous.
Another example is in Mexico, where we have mobile medical clinics driving around the fields providing basic health services to people that otherwise would not have any health services. This led us to partner up with the Colgate Foundation in Mexico, which had always provided basic dental services to children. We asked if they would be interested in serving the farmworker community. We have now partnered up with an NGO that goes out in the field; offering training in how to care for your teeth, as well as providing basic services. And we have recently done the same thing on eyecare.
So, what started as a mobile clinic has mushroomed into a host of services for a community that previously couldn’t access those services. And this isn't happening with our money; it is happening because people are doing a really good job of connecting the pieces together. So, I think that is an example of something that is really exciting, because it creates a much healthier community.