MONTEREY, Calif. — Ben Johnson is founder and president of Bridges Produce, a Portland, Oregon-based organic produce company that represents multiple organic growers and brands. OPN recently caught up with Ben for a conversation about Bridges’ organic produce offerings, the services his company provides growers, organic produce trends, and more.
What is the history and mission of Bridges Organic Produce?
I founded Bridges Produce in 2002 with the mission of helping all the stakeholders in the organic produce trade to thrive—growers, retailers, workers, wholesalers, and the environment. Throughout our history, we have always worked to build long-term sustainable partnerships rather than short-term opportunistic sales. The name Bridges Produce was chosen to indicate our role as the connector between the farm and the market, and our goal is to add value to all parties.
Why do you sell almost exclusively certified organic produce?
We focus on organic produce because we believe it is better for the health and safety of the field workers and the environment. The certified organic label directly communicates to the consumer that produce has been grown in a way that benefits the environment and protects farmworkers from dangerous pesticides.
What commodities do you specialize in? And what growing regions do you source from?
We specialize in many different crops—summer and winter squash, potatoes, onions, apples, pears, blueberries, cranberries, bell peppers, chili peppers, cucumbers, beans, eggplant, melons, and many more. These items come from our diverse group of grower partners in the Western United States, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, and New Zealand.
Is all of your Mexico-sourced produce fair trade? Why do you prioritize fair trade?
Just about all the produce we import from Mexico is from Fair Trade Certified farms. This is an easily understood and direct way to communicate to the consumer that higher worker treatment standards have been met. We would love to see more retailers commit to contracted fair trade programs to further give back to grower communities. Consistent, reliable orders are the key to making the fair trade programs work for everyone.
How do you initiate and cultivate your relationships with growers?
We have met and cultivated our relationships with growers in many ways. We often start out with small volumes of product and then build the program slowly and steadily as we develop sales and marketing plans to accommodate the growth.
At Bridges, our goal of achieving sustainability applies to the long-term economic vitality of the grower as well as to the more common environmental meanings. The same fundamental principles of organic growing inform how we run Bridges Produce—we continually invest in health and the diversity of supply to harvest long-term rewards.
What services does Bridges offer its growers? In other words, what are the advantages of employing Bridges as a sales agent?
At Bridges, we often say that our role is to act as a marketing consultant for growers and that sales is a byproduct of that process. We spend a lot of time in crop planning, variety selection, label development, and especially helping growers with food-safety compliance and traceability. The requirements to sell into mass-market retail have become so much more complex than they were a decade ago that it requires a lot of knowledge and expertise to keep those channels open and available to our growers. The Bridges team has hundreds of years of combined produce experience, and that knowledge base is a valuable asset for growers to tap into.
Do you sell your produce under your own label or under grower-specific labels?
Historically we have worked to promote the grower’s identity and label in the market—Columbia Gorge Organic, Rico Farms, Nature’s Pride, Andersen Organics, etc. We do have some “Bridges Organic Produce” and “Aztlan” packaging available, and they are primarily used to build a cohesive retail program for product sourced from many smaller growers.
Has Bridges recently added any new growers or product offerings?
Our Pacific Northwest blueberry program has grown exponentially over the last few years, so we’ve brought on some new growers to help meet demand. The market for organic blueberries keeps growing and shows no signs of slowing down. It is phenomenal to see how consumers just cannot get enough organic blues! We have also recently added a year-round organic English cucumber and Persian cucumber grower that has allowed us to build consistent retail programs.
Can you describe your customer base? And is your produce distributed nationally?
We work with many mass-market supermarkets, warehouse/club stores, regional retail chains, wholesalers, online retailers, and home-delivery operations throughout the US and Canada. We also work with some foodservice and processor customers as well to help sell all the sizes and grades that get harvested.
As a purveyor of popular COVID-era items like onions, potatoes, and squash, what was it like to source those commodities over the last year or so? Has demand waned significantly in more recent months?
We experienced some intense demand—especially for longer-storage items like potatoes, onions, and hard squash—during late March of 2020. More perishable items like berries were flat. By May 2020, the market seemed to have stabilized as new shopping patterns had become more routine, and packing houses figured out how to better manage worker safety and caught up with demand. Sales have not declined but have plateaued since May 2020.
What kinds of trends have you noticed in the organic produce industry over the last year or several years?
Over the last few years, we have seen costs rising significantly for growers—labor, seed, water, packaging, etc. We now must adjust to higher prices for produce in order to keep growers in business. We all must recognize that we need to make this system work for everyone, or it will not be viable.
While it’s still a few months off, have you started planning your booth for the Organic Produce Summit? What items will you be featuring?
After no trade shows or in-person meetings for almost two years, we are really excited to get to reconnect in person. We will feature all our items, but given the later show date in September, we will be focused on our fall harvest items—including Pacific Northwest-grown apples, pears, potatoes, and onions; US and Canadian cranberries; and our robust Mexican veg program.
What is your favorite part about your job?
Honestly, getting to spend all day connecting with all the passionate folks who are dedicated to building up the organic produce trade is a great way to spend a career!
— Organic Produce Network
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