Advice on starting a produce business

“The key thing is to know the business, have relationships, and work hard,” advises Steve Church who, with his brother, Tom, are co-chairs of Church Brothers, LLC, BB #:161800 a family-owned company in Salinas, CA that produces a full line of fresh vegetables year-round with an in-house farming/harvest program and processing plant.

Like many in the produce industry, these brothers grew up in the business.

“As kids we worked in the lettuce fields,” recalls Church. “We both went to college; I majored in agriculture and Tom majored in business.”

They started Church Brothers with five employees; today, their workforce has reached 2,000. “I’d tell anyone looking to get into the business to start with what you’re comfortable with and don’t overextend yourself,” shares Church.

One way of not overextending and staying focused is to create a written, detailed business plan, outlining goals and the strategies to achieve them.

José Louis Obregon, president of importer and distributor IPR Fresh BB #:170086 in Nogales, AZ, notes that a business plan has been a crucial part of his company’s success, which was founded in 2003 by his father, Francisco, who has since passed away.

“I think you need to have a vision of where you want to take the business,” he explains, and says IPR Fresh’s business plan is revisited and updated every year.

As a result, the company has met several goals and enjoyed success. Among the achievements are building a new facility, owned and operated by the company, as well as having their own fleet of trucks for local transportation.

“We were depending on others to do these services,” Obregon says. “We’ve been able to increase our independence and it has helped us increase our customer base because we have the resources to provide better customer service.”

Miguel Gomez, associate professor of the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics at Cornell University, who studies the produce industry, too, stresses the importance of a business plan.

First, it should be realistic; second, get input from others involved in the industry.

“Be conservative,” he cautions. “And discuss your plan with people in different segments of the industry—production, distribution, retailers, and wholesalers. Get honest input.”

This is a multi-part feature on starting your own produce business adapted from the October 2019 issue of Produce Blueprints.