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Organic farming

Organic Farming is a Relationship with the Land: Interview with Myra Goodman, Part I

Thursday, February 19, 2009 by: Jim Dee
Tags: organic farming, health news, Natural News

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(NewsTarget) This is part one of a three-part interview with Myra Goodman, co-founder, along with her husband Drew, of Earthbound Farm, which is perhaps the most well-known name in organic produce in America. With this article, we kick off an exciting, ongoing "Know the Growers" series, in which we will be interviewing organic farmers around the world.

JIM: Today I'm here with Myra Goodman, who is a co-founder, along with her husband Drew, of Earthbound Farm, which is perhaps the most well-known name in organic produce in America. Earthbound's certified organic produce - more than 100 product varieties - is available in more than 75% of supermarkets nationwide. That's an incredible achievement, Myra, especially considering that you guys started with a couple of acres of berries in California in the 1980s. So, for those who don't know, can you give us a brief history of how a farm makes the transition from providing berries and greens to some local restaurants all the way up to providing organic food to 75% of the supermarkets in the whole country?

MYRA: I think the interesting thing about Earthbound Farm's history is that Drew and I started on a little two-acre raspberry farm in the 80s, when baby vegetables and baby lettuce were just getting popular, kind of when Northern California was influencing culinary trends with Chez Panisse and a few select restaurants. And, because we had such a little farm, we looked for things that we could harvest quickly and plant a lot of. That's how we landed on the little baby greens. And our company's history is really locked into the fact that we were the first people to put prewashed salads in a bag. We were growing these baby greens for local restaurants - just little heads and little bunches of arugula and mizuna and other exotic greens. And for our personal use, we were cutting batches and washing and drying them and putting them in ziplock bags so they were ready for us to use at the end of a long day of work on the farm. We always thought they'd be a great product, and so we started marketing that product in 1986 when all you really saw in the supermarkets were iceberg lettuce and a little red leaf, green leaf, and romaine.

The real reason we started getting so much distribution early on was because we had a product that was gourmet - these baby greens. The only way to make that kind of mix available to consumers was to have them premixed in a bag. Then there was the convenience of them being prewashed, and they reall/y just happened to be organic. People weren't really buying them because they were organic. And so that's really how our company grew so quickly before there was that much knowledge about organics or interest in organics.

JIM: And now salad bags are ubiquitous!

MYRA: Yeah, and it's one of those things that's such an ingrained part of everyday life. My kids find it hard to imagine life without it. I tell them when I was in college, I had to type on a typewriter and use whiteout. They can't believe there wasn't a computer; there was no spell-check; there were no cell phones; there was no Internet; there was no packaged salad - you had to wash your lettuce. And those baby greens... people had never really seen them. They were really just served in a few high-end, white-tablecloth restaurants. And so we were really pioneers, not just in organics, but also in specialty salads and packaged salads. Because we were such a small operation, we were able to put those baby greens in a bag and have shelf life without the really sophisticated gas-flush technology that you need for chopped iceberg lettuce, which will brown quickly at the cut edge..

JIM: Did you say "gas flush"?

MYRA: Yes, gas flush. Which is really a nitrogen flush. When you are packaging chopped mature iceberg or chopped mature romaine, the cut edges get brown when they're exposed to oxygen (oxidation). You'll see that if you chop iceberg or romaine at home too far in advance of serving your salad. So there are these machines that suck the oxygen out of the bag and replace it with nitrogen, which prevents the browning. Since the baby greens were whole leaves and only had the little teeny cut on the bottom, we didn't need the nitrogen flush and we were able to do bagged salads before all that technology was ever developed.

JIM: Okay...

MYRA: So, that was more sophisticated technology that didn't even exist back when we started.

JIM: So, it was pure demand that drove the growth of your company? Everyone just fell in love with these bags of salads and...

MYRA: Yes, it was demand for something specialty and something convenient. It just happened to be organic. I think a very small percentage of people were buying our products because they were organic. So, what was interesting for us was that, at first, it was a very gourmet, kind of fringe product. It was like truffle oil or something really high-end. And, as these salads got more popular over time and you started seeing them more and more in restaurants, people started seeking them out because they're so pretty and so nutritious and they're so delicious. Then there started to be a lot of competition in the salad world; people who were doing the iceberg salads and romaine salads started doing the baby greens salads. But by then, there was so much demand growing for organic products that organic really became our competitive advantage, and we could survive with all these larger producers distributing baby greens. So, as these supermarkets started bringing in the Fresh Express and the Dole and kind of the big conventional salad guys, they kept us in because we were organic and they were seeing that there was a demand for organic.

JIM: Right...

MYRA: It was the fact that we started with those baby greens that enabled us to grow to be big enough and develop strong enough distribution so that, when interest in organic really started to flourish, we were positioned to fill the demand for that in a way that worked for national supermarket chains.

JIM: It seems like the growth curve is still on its way up, isn't it?

MYRA: It is. The growth has slowed, I think, a lot because the category is maturing. So while the dollar amount of growth every year is still significant, when you look at it based on a percentage of the total it's smaller. The growth curve isn't as steep. But, we're still seeing really healthy growth in organic salads and we're not seeing growth in conventional salads. So, organic is definitely making headway.

JIM: I really do want to focus in on the organic side of things. So, let me ask you about the word organic. First, what does it mean to you and your husband and, by extension, to Earthbound the term "organic." If you imagine that there are at least a few definitions, kind of the "letter of the law" versus the "spirit of the law." So, what's the legal meaning of "organic" to you, and then what does Earthbound do, if anything, to take that further: for example, with additional commitments to principles that organic consumers hold dear to their hearts?

MYRA: I don't see that there are many definitions of organic. I'm comfortable with the USDA definition of organic. Organic is a farming system. There are agricultural principles and agricultural laws involved in what makes something organic. And it's all about relying on natural systems and natural inputs to keep your soil healthy in order to keep your plants healthy. I think that when you start having conversations like "If something is shipped across the country, is it really organic?"; I don't believe that that question is appropriate. If something is grown organically, it is organic, regardless of how it's distributed. Now, is it as environmentally friendly a product if it was shipped across the country? Well it might not be as environmentally friendly because there was all that fuel involved and that transportation. But that doesn't make it less organic. The amount of miles it traveled does not impact the fact that it is organic.

JIM: What's the certification like at an organization as large as Earthbound Farm with all of these different farms? How does that work?

MYRA: The process of certification is fairly standard. It is a process that verifies that you are really farming according to the letter of the law. A lot of it is verifying your recordkeeping - ensuring that you have documented all of your inputs, that you can trace your inputs back to the supplier. It's important that there is accountability and that you can really verify that something you're selling as organic was truly produced organically. The auditors come and they also do a physical inspection. They look around and see if what you're doing is consistent with your documentation. But, in our company, we have a Quality, Food Safety, and Organic Integrity department constantly in the field working with all of our growers, looking at the documentation and looking in the fields and making sure that there are no issues in terms of quality, food safety, or organic integrity. So, we don't just wait for the once-a-year inspection of our certifying agency. It's ongoing vigilance and [a] program of monitoring our growers as well, and giving them assistance, helping them problem solve.

JIM: What kinds of problems happen? Is it mostly procedural things that you have to stay on top of? I think of that department almost like an internal audit organization within a finance company that sort of does the audit before the outside auditors come in... What kinds of things do your internal people do? Do they get out in the soil and do testing and that sort of thing?

MYRA: We do a lot of testing ourselves, and then we demand third-party verification testing. With that whole fertilizer scam [(that story that the Sacramento Bee did *) about a fertilizer company that was adding some artificial nitrogen and all these growers, including ourselves, were buying it and we didn't know about it)], we stay on top of those issues and try to get ahead of them. Since that came up, we are demanding that all of our growers who use any liquid fertilizers get third-party testing of their fertilizers, so we'll catch any suspect fertilizer in the future. But I don't think this is a widespread problem; I really don't think there is a lot of cheating going on in organic. I think organic growers are incredibly committed. And they know that the organic consumers are the ones that are the most educated and are most concerned with how their food is produced, and that there is absolutely no room for any of that. But, an incident like this makes us feel we need that extra level of vigilance.

[*Note: See "Organic farms unknowingly used a synthetic fertilizer" by Jim Downing of the Sacramento Bee. Browse to: http://www.sacbee.com/capitolandcalifornia/s....]

JIM: Here's an easy organic farming newbie question for you, but maybe you can tailor it to Earthbound's situation... For things like pest control, there are a number of well-known options available to the organic farmer - from spraying nontoxic sprays to bringing in good bugs to eat all of the bad bugs. What kinds of things do you do on that front?

MYRA: There are a few things that are important to know when you talk about Earthbound as one of the larger farms. First, we have 150 different growers farming for us, and our farms are anywhere from five acres to 680 acres. It's not one contiguous big farm. This is our 25th anniversary and we've been farming organically a long time - different farms and different crops. One thing that we have really learned is that these organic farming principles are scale neutral; you need to do the same things on your five-acre farm as you need to do on your 680-acre farm or it won't be successful. The people who try and cut corners and allocate, for example, smaller beneficial habitats for their beneficial insects, find it doesn't work. There's too much pest damage. We've learned that you must follow these principles that organic farmers use.

Let's take pest control, for example. One of the best practices that all organic farmers follow, no matter what size, is crop rotation. That helps us both with pest avoidance and diseases because, if you're planting the same crop in the same place over and over, you're not only depleting the same nutrients and letting diseases build up, but you're letting all of those pests know that - hey, I can count on there being a corn crop here; I can count on there being a tomato crop here. And those pests are going to build up. So, crop rotation is very important. That's one of the first things we do. The other thing, which you already mentioned, is the beneficial insects. But, you know, you can't just have a field of romaine, and then release some lady bugs and take care of your pests that way. They might eat some of the aphids and the aphid larvae right then, but then these lady bugs are all going to fly away.

So, one of the reasons why organic farming is more expensive is we devote some of our valuable land to plant what we call host crops, which are crops that serve two purposes. One is that they provide a home for all the beneficial insects so they'll hang out there, and it also provides the pest insects with an alternative food source. So, there might be some different plants in there that they might be happy to eat instead of eating your crop. We have these beneficial habitats going on in our fields and then there are also some things that we can spray. But there's nothing that we can spray that's anywhere near as effective as those harsh chemical insecticides that conventional farmers have. So, really, we practice avoidance as much as we can.

About the author

Active members of the raw and living foods community, Wendi and Jim Dee founded Pure Jeevan in 2006 to help raise awareness of this optimally nutritious and health-giving lifestyle. Since launching Pure Jeevan (see http://www.PureJeevan.com), they have organized retreats, given public presentations, hosted raw food meetups, and maintained an extensive online presence through their blog (http://www.PureJeeevan.com/blog), their directory (http://www.AllRawDirectory.com) and through considerable community involvement both online and in person.

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