In the third installment of our Faces of Farming series, we speak with Greg France, who grows strawberries with his wife in California.
ND: Your company grows both conventional and organic produce. How has becoming an organic farmer impacted you as a grower? Has it changed anything about how you manage your conventional crops?
GF: It has. I really believe it's made me a better farmer. Farming organics is very, very difficult and you have to be able to anticipate things. You have to anticipate the nutrient needs of your plants. You have to anticipate pest issues or insect or disease issues. So you really have to be forward-thinking, but at the same time, sometimes organically there's just nothing you can do about an issue. It makes you resign to the fact that you don't control everything really on the farm, although you'd like to.
ND: I’m learning that modern farming invests heavily in research and development and technology. Are there new innovations or technology are you excited about?
GF: Oh, yes. Always. Always something new and exciting. I'm involved in this California Strawberry Commission. We had a technology symposium last January. It was exciting to see some of the new ideas that are coming down the line. We're involved in a strawberry robotic harvester that's being built and manufactured and developed in Florida. We also worked with the University of California at Davis on new varieties. We've been working with them for the last three or four years. There's some new, exciting, beautiful, delicious strawberry varieties coming down the line.
ND: What particular qualities are they trying to develop in these new varieties? Is it about nutrient content, or flavor, or maybe resilience to various pressures?
GF: Well, they have a list of priorities and I know at the top is disease resistance or tolerance—strawberries are a very delicate plant—but they're also breeding for flavor and for appearance.
ND: Even with all the technology, so much of farming comes down to people with their hands in the dirt. I’ve heard from other farmers that shrinking labor pools are one of the biggest challenges they are facing. Tell us about the people that work for you and what goes into developing and nurturing that workforce.
GF: They are very good, hard-working people and we have nothing but admiration, appreciation, and thankfulness that they do work for us. Growing and harvesting strawberries is backbreaking work and our people are paid well. We treat our people with the respect that they deserve, for certain, but at the same time, our labor time has shrunk quite a bit.
ND: Are there opportunities for people to start out in some of the more manual aspects of agriculture—manual labor aspects—and move up into management positions, or are there higher levels of responsibility?
GF: Most of our employees started out at the very bottom as just field laborers. We have several employees and it is our company's motto, we like to develop our talent internally as best as we can. So there are a lot of opportunities. One of our supervisors started with us 15 years ago just as a day laborer, became an assistant foreman, and then became an assistant supervisor, and now is a supervisor and we spent a lot of time with him, training him and going through seminars, working with him one-on-one, and very proud that his employee number with us was "11." So he started with us from almost the beginning and it's great to see he and his family be successful.