Wayne Brandt: Fourth-Generation Farmer
For Wayne Brandt, his farming story is unique because of his family history, role in the farming business and ability to recover from financial hard times.
Wayne lives in Reedley, CA, a small farming community that skirts along the Kings River about 35 miles southeast of Fresno. He and his wife, Eleanor, have been actively working in the fruit business since they married in 1959, the same year that Wayne graduated from Reedley College.
Wayne grew up working on the farm along side his dad, Jack Brandt. Wayne got his first taste of the sales and marketing side of the business when he was in his 20s in 1962; his dad asked him to take over the sales desk while he recuperated from health problems.
“I guess, I did okay because he never came back to the sales desk,” Wayne said, “and I have been involved in sales ever since.”
In the 1960s, it was standard in the produce industry for fruit shippers to work through produce brokers to move fruit into America’s neighborhood supermarkets.
A few years later, Wayne’s brother returned from the military, so Wayne left for a year and ran a commercial sprayer business.
Wayne did a great deal of self-reflection at this time, to determine whether the family business was the right career choice for him. Wayne observed how his father and uncles farmed, and asked them a lot of questions.
“I was trying to see, through genealogy, if there were family traits that would tell me where I would best ‘fit in’ to my chosen occupation. What I discovered was that the Brandt Family were not of the very best farmers — my great-grandfather was successful at buying and selling cattle, and my father was an expert in getting a high quality pack of fruit to the market,” he said.
Wayne came up with his path to success. He would need people who would help him be the best grower while he concentrated on establishing relationships with supermarkets that were looking for high quality fruit.
With this plan, Wayne knew that sales and marketing in the fruit business was the right choice for him. It would take close to 30 years to execute the program that he envisioned.
Wayne went back to Brandt Farms and there were multiple family members involved, so his dad incorporated the business in 1971 to involve Wayne and his brothers.
“This worked for eight years, but at the end of that time it was decided that to have continuing family harmony it would be better for each of us to assume individual ownership of the areas of our responsibility and operate independently,” Wayne said.
Wayne took ownership of packing, cold storage and marketing operations.
Unfortunately, after several years of poor markets, bad decisions and weather disasters in the 1980s, Brandt Farms was on the verge of going out of business. The market was flooded with an overproduction of tree fruit in the 1980s and the option to sell off the farm would have left the family in debt.
“Some far reaching decisions had to be made,” Wayne said.
Wayne said their situation was to truly an exercise of “betting the farm” when they held onto the farm and had faith that they would not only break even, but recover.
The farm did recover. Infact, it provided Wayne with the opportunity to put his plan into motion, although it wouldn’t be easy.
From the advice of a trusted friend in the produce industry, Wayne took a sales job with another produce company while Eleanor and adult son, Jack, ran the packing and cold storage operation. Wayne spent six years working in sales and marketing for Corrin Sales which was enough time for Brandt Farms to regain its financial health. More importantly, in the sales position Wayne built strong relationships with retail buyers and one specific relationship proved invaluable.
“One of the retailers I was selling grapes to at Corrin (Produce) had just finished a very successful tree fruit season from Chile, flying the fruit from Santiago to Miami. The (retailers) instructions to their produce procurement department was to ‘find a California Tree Ripe Deal like we had from Chile’,” Wayne said.
The retailer had lined up two California tree fruit shippers and needed one more shipper.
Wayne knew the buyer and was able to become the third “tree ripe” supplier of tree fruit. It was 1992 when the deal started, and since then Brandt Farms has been an important supplier for this retailer.
When Wayne’s dad started the business in the 1940s, he based it on packing ripe tree fruit.
“We went back to what I learned as a kid,” he said.
Brandt changed their harvesting practices to pick fruit into totes (a small box that holds no more than 25 pounds of fruit) versus the industry standard to pack in canvas bags that hold at least 50 pounds of fruit and then unloaded into large bins that hold a thousand pounds of fruit. Another advantage of totes is that they go from the field to the packinghouse stacked on a flat bed trailer which minimizes handling of the fruit.
In the early 1990s, Brandt Farms initiated the tree ripe program which has been the foundation to the success of the company today.
Brandt Farms continues this practice today in supplying tree ripe fruit to the retailer which played a pivotal role in moving the family operation forward.
Wayne is the fourth generation of Mennonites from Russia. His family started farming in Reedley in 1922.
Wayne’s grandfather, Peter Brandt, moved his wife, Helena, and children to a farm on Avenue 430, where the business is headquartered today.
They had immigrated to North America from South Russia in the 1870s. Their first home was in Manitoba, Canada followed by Nebraska in search of a more desirable climate. This is where Wayne’s father, Jack, was born in 1911.
A decade later, the Brandt family settled in Reedley. Today, the farm and family have spanned four generations in Reedley. Actually, Wayne’s son and grandson are part of the family business and represent the fifth and sixth generation.
When Wayne’s grandfather started out in Reedley, he was a traditional farmer growing crops and raising livestock.
“Grandpa was a typical farmer of that time. He farmed Thompsons and sultanas for raisin grapes and grew alfalfa and some grain for the dairy cattle and chickens,” said Wayne.
Click here for Wayne’s family history.
CONNECTING WITH CONSUMERS
There was a time when fruit and vegetables sold in grocery stores didn’t have a produce look up (PLU) sticker which is now common place in the produce department. The small dime-size stickers display the PLU number for the cashier to use to reference when entering it into the cash register at the time of purchase.
Adopting the PLU stickers wasn’t popular among packers and shippers due to the logistics and cost of the new practice in the 1990s.
Wayne saw an opportunity. Brandt Farms was an early adopter and added the words “tree ripe” to the sticker to communicate to consumers about the fruit quality. When the time came, they added an email address and eventually, a web site to open up communication with the consumer.
And consumers responded. Overall the responses have been 98% positive, Wayne said.
Interestingly, Alaska served as the most responsive region where consumers emailed Brandt Farms. At first, Brandt didn’t know where shoppers were from unless they identified the store where the fruit was purchased. Wayne explained that Alaska was quick to adopt technology because residents were isolated and the Internet provided an opportunity to connect to other parts of the nation.
Another outlet for Brandt Farms comes through face-to-face interactions with consumers. Wayne is invited to retail produce departments to meet shoppers as part of various retailers’ “meet your grower” promotions.
He said the event includes slicing up peaches, nectarines and plums, and handing out samples to shoppers.
One retailer has invited Wayne each year for the past 10 years, in fact, he recognizes certain shoppers who have attended multiple years. A repeat shopper paid Wayne the highest compliment when he shared the specific instructions he received from his wife to only buy peaches and nectarines, “with the blue label” which is the color of the Brandt label.
Wayne’s father set an example of serving in the community, and served on the school board of the Kings Canyon Unified School District and Reedley Rotary Club for two decades. He followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Lions Club when financial hard times hit Brandt Farms.
“I joined when things were the toughest here, to be away from the pressure,” Wayne said.
Wayne has been involved with Reedley Lions Club for more than 30 years. He has also served on the Board and as Chairman for the following three organizations: California Fresh Fruit Association (Fresno, CA), Palm Village Retirement Community (Reedley, CA), and California Tree Fruit Agreement’s Peach Committee (Reedley, CA).
Today, Wayne is active in the business.
“I’m at my desk everyday,” Wayne said.
As the corporate president, he handles key accounts and attends several expos and retail events to promote Brandt Farms fruit to retailers and consumers.
Brandt Farms is owned by his son, Jack Brandt, and long-time employee, Mike Reimer, who purchased the business in 2013. Eleanor retired in 2013, but Wayne doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. Jack is the fifth generation family member to be at the helm of Brandt Farms, and his son, Alec, recently graduated Fresno State and has returned to the family business to run the packinghouse operation.
Click here to learn more about the Brandt Farms operation.