Proprietary Grass Seed Business Prioritizes Quality

Becky Meeuwsen Berger’s grass seed business evolves to prioritize quality and family harmony

Whether she’s meeting with potential buyers in China, weighing a new crop option or sitting at a table surrounded by her family council, Becky Meeuwsen Berger knows difficult times don’t define you – they propel you. And, through hard work and focus, no challenge is too great.

“I’ve been through some tough times, but those tough times make everything else easier,” Berger says.

Around 45 years ago, Berger married into a farming family. The operation, headquartered in Hillsboro, Ore., focused on turf grass seed production. Her father-in-law retired early, so her husband took over. At age 30, Berger’s husband was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which eventually took his life in 2011.

Seeing and understanding the need, Berger slowly started absorbing more and more responsibilities with the farm. This was no easy feat as her family business included a dysfunctional business partner — her brother-in-law.

Berger knew this a toxic relationship and conflicting philosophies were crippling the business. She couldn’t stand by and watch the operation built by her father-in-law and husband, who had both passed away, crumble.

“It took me three years to buy him out, but now we are all pulling in the same direction,” Berger says. “Therefore, it is so important to me that my children, the next generation that will inherit this business, work cohesively in positive ways so we can successfully continue the business.”

New Leader, New Focus

Today, Berger is CEO of Berger International. The business primarily produces tall fescue seed, however it also includes 3,200 acres of wheat, red clover, hemp and hazelnut production.

Most grass seed farms grow seed under contract. About a decade ago, Berger purchased a few proprietary varieties to grow and market independently.

“Our goal was to capitalize on our reputation for being a top-quality producer,” she says. “It’s not risk-free, but we are receiving a nice premium (10%-15%) over contracted seed. Little by little we just built market share. We are now selling our products into China and this year marked our first sale into Europe.”

Currently Berger International has contract growers of its own. As a vertically integrated operation, Berger and her team ensure the quality of their seed from planting to cleaning to bagging to storing to shipping. The operation’s seed cleaning facility also features a 1,000-sq.-ft. weatherproof storage facility.

Berger meets personally with buyers — building new relationships in an industry where relationships have been in place for a long time.

“It has surprised me how much I enjoyed selling,” she says. “It has taken me out of my comfort zone and been a real personal growth opportunity. Luckily, it’s easy to talk about your products when you are confident and proud of what you’re doing.”

Berger isn’t afraid of change. Her innovative approach has led her to recapitalize the farm, revamp the company’s organizational structure expand into new crops and form a family council, says Kevin Adams, CEO of The Mountain Group.

“She has progressively stepped up to ensure ongoing operations of the business, following best practices for family business,” Adams says.

“I have consistently referred to Becky as ‘wonder woman,’” adds Joseph Connors, vice president and relationship banking officer with Columbia Bank. “Her tenacity consistently leads to innovation solutions.”

One area Berger knew she needed to focus was financial reporting and analysis. As such, she invested in a farm management software and an inventory accounting system. Now she can determine costs for each pound of grass seed or red clover and tie profit and loss to each acre.

“We are now forecasting three years ahead which helps us plan our crop rotations,” she says.

In addition, the team is upgrading machinery and equipment. They’ve built a one-of-a-kind combination hazelnut and hemp dryer. They’ve also added weather stations to certain fields, which come in handy as the operation spans a 50-mile radius.

All of these investments have a simple goal, Berger says. “We want more data to make more informed decisions.”

The Family Council 

As a survivor of an unhealthy family business arrangement, Berger is devoted to family and team harmony.

“My sisters-in-law didn’t even know they owned stock in the operation until their parents passed away,” Berger says. “I wanted to change that and have financial transparency with my family.”

Berger International employs eight full-time and six part-time team members. This includes some of Berger’s six children, primarily her son Derek, who has worked full time on the farm for 22 years and manages all the crops. Her husband, Earl Meeuwsen, joined the team in 2015 after they married.

A few years ago, Berger created a family council. It includes her children and their spouses. The group meets twice a year. The meetings are led by a consultant and follow an agenda of important topics such as investments, business decisions and community philanthropy.

“The family council has really taken our communication to a much deeper level,” Berger says. “Our tradition is to be very polite and avoid conflict. At times, it can get uncomfortable but, in the end, we have a deeper relationship. We talk about values and goals, which pull us together. It helps bridge that gap between the family members working in the business and those who are not.”

The council is playing a vital role as Berger eyes retirement and the transition of leadership of the business.

“I couldn’t step away tomorrow, nor do I want to,” she says. “That takes planning, hard work and mentoring to hand this over. It won’t happen unless you make a conscious effort to plan and execute it. I don’t want to be the glue that holds this family together. They need to be the glue and share common goals.”

As Berger looks forward, she’s excited for the opportunities ahead for her, her family and the business.

“We’re in a growth stage, after being paralyzed for so many years in a partnership that didn’t work,” she says. “Now that we’re all owned by one person and one family, we’re able to react quicker and respond quicker to industry changes.”

Indeed. Berger’s fearless leadership and focus on family harmony is propelling a family-owned business toward even greater success.

Snapshot of Berger International

Operation: Becky Meeuwsen Berger is CEO of Berger International, which primarily produces proprietary varieties of tall fescue seed. It also includes 3,200 acres of wheat, hemp and hazelnut production.

Family and Team: Berger International employs eight full-time and six part-time team members. This team includes some of Berger’s six children and husband, Earl. A current goal is better work-life balance for the team. “We want to pay people more for working less,” Berger says. “I want them to feel good about coming to work and look forward to coming to work.”

Community: Berger has served on boards for Oregon Grass Seed Bargaining Association, Oregon Seed Council, Oregon Tall Fescue Commissioner and Hazelnut Marketing Board. She created the non-profit organization, Griffin’s Place, which empowers those with intellectual/developmental disabilities to engage in their communities. She was motivated by her youngest son, who is autistic.

Virtually visit Berger International in Hillsboro, Ore., by watching a video about the operation.

Published originally at AgWeb on 11/25/2020