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Organic farming

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

Thursday, February 26, 2009 by: Jim Dee
Tags: organic farming, health news, Natural News

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(NewsTarget) [This is part three of a three-part interview with Myra Goodman, co-founder, along with her husband Drew, of Earthbound Farm (www.ebfarm.com), 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: I want to discuss what some of the challenges are that larger organic farmers face. For example, I can sense that there can be tension when you're one of the world's largest organic operations because sometimes people have this image of "organic farm" equating with a small farm image. So, I'm wondering, are there challenges in that area?

MYRA: You're talking about consumer perception issues?

JIM: Sure.

MYRA: You know, I think that lately there's been a kind of wave of "big is bad" - you know, small is good / big is bad. Uninformed generalizations have been spread around as fact. You know, there are a lot of small farms that use a lot of chemicals, that don't pay their workers well, that don't have good working conditions - and there are a lot of big farms that are doing everything ecologically, that donate a lot to the community. So, I think that it has become a little bit more important for us to try and explain about our company culture. You know, we're not one huge mono-cropping organic farm. Were 150 different farms of all different sizes growing many different products. There are a lot of small and mid-size and large farms kind of all coming together to produce products for us. So I think it's important for us to take the initiative of explaining who we are and not letting ourselves be generalized.

JIM: So, in a way, it's at least something that large organic farms have to put a little PR effort into, just to keep people informed...

MYRA: I think there are a lot of people who still think that, if someone's gotten successful and they've grown, that's great. And then there are other people who think that, once someone's big enough to be incorporated, they must have lost their values and their morals. So, I think it's a different attitude. Some people look at it as a plus and some people as a minus.

JIM: Right... but, I guess an additional related issue is, when you do have such scale and your values are to be organic and eco-friendly, I guess there are other issues small farms never really face. For example, like in packaging. That must come up as an issue around the corporate roundtable (how to save on packaging, how to retain our values when we have to market to 75% of the supermarkets in the country).

MYRA: I think there are two issues there. One thing that we've been able to do with being a larger scale farm is that we have been able to achieve efficiencies of scale so that we've been able to sell organic produce at a much more affordable premium to conventional, making it available to more people. If you go and look at our salads in the supermarket and you compare them to the price of conventional salads, there's sometimes no difference or the difference is pretty nominal. So, we are in a sense able to democratize organic produce and make it available where people shop, whether that's Wal Mart, Whole Foods, or Safeway. There are a lot of advantages to that scale.

And, on the packaging side, we do work hard to make it as environmentally friendly as possible. Packaging is an issue in every industry - maybe not the Internet industry. But, almost every industry. We switched all of our corrugated cardboard to post-consumer recycled, which has saved hundreds of thousands of trees and lots of power and water. And we're in the process... I don't have an exact date, but we were hoping for the first of April, to actually switch all of our plastic clamshells to post-consumer recycled clamshells. So, we've been working very, very closely for about two years with our suppliers and have finally gotten the resin clear enough and it looks like something we're going to execute any time now. And that's something we feel really good about. When you are big and you do use a lot of boxes or plastic and you do a switch like that, the impact is also big.

JIM: Since the demand for organic produce seems to be continually rising, have any gigantic agricultural companies ever approached Earthbound to try to make you part of their next acquisition?

MYRA: You know, I think that ag [agriculture] is not that appealing to a lot of these big corporations. You know, the produce business specifically... Even these big farms, they're owned by family farmers that have owned them for generations... it's a really high-risk business. It's just not kind of looked at by the financial markets in the same way as a more predictable kind of operation.

JIM: I had read another interview you did... I was wondering about your personal diet. I was wondering about your personal take on produce. Are you pretty strict in terms of only eating organics?

MYRA: In my house, there's really not much that isn't organic. I can't think of anything in my house - any produce item - that's not organic. The only things that I have in my house that aren't organic are things that just aren't made organic. You know, I've got some really nice goat cheeses that aren't organic, but they're really good and I like them. Things like anchovy paste and fish that aren't certified organic. But, when I go out, I really like to make a point if I see something organic on the menu to compliment the wait staff, to order it if it's something I feel like eating. I'm always inquiring about how the chicken is produced or, you know, "I'm not going to eat that fish because it's overfished" to just communicate that. At work, if I don't bring my own lunch, I'll get a to-go cobb salad from the restaurant next door, and there's not one ingredient organic, and I don't really think that much about it. So it's kind of like "in my home, when I'm shopping, when I'm cooking" food, but when I'm sort of out in the real world, I don't obsess about it. But I do try and encourage sustainable foods on menus and that level of consciousness.

JIM: Sure... I was wondering, do you spend a lot of time out in the fields yourself?

MYRA: Hmmm, physically out in the fields? No, I don't. My house is right near our farm stand, which we've had for 17 years, so I'm in those fields, more selfishly - if I just want to go out and pick something or if someone I know is on one of our tours and I'm accompanying them. But, no, I don't personally spend a lot of time in the fields.

JIM: But, you do garden yourself?

MYRA: We do a small garden at home, but we farm these two fields adjacent to my house and that's where we farm our corn, our tomatoes, and our melons. So, I'll go out there when the workers have left and harvest my tomatoes to make my tomato sauce or my corn for dinner. So that's one of the biggest perks of my job and one of the things I love most about my life. But, it's not like I'm in the field supervising the farming. I'm more pilfering produce for personal use!

JIM: Well, I would too!

MYRA: No, it's great. We have really experienced farmers and farm managers. I'm a city kid... We did it for a while when we were a small farm, but that's not my area of expertise.

JIM: But, you said "farm stand," so is that an Earthbound Farm thing, or...

MYRA: Yes, we have a great Earthbound Farm farm stand. It's a little store. We have a kitchen in there called the Organic Kitchen. It was the third certified organic kitchen in the whole country when we opened it. We farm about 30 acres right around the farm stand for the store and for local chefs. We have events every Saturday in the summer, and we have harvest walks where we go out and harvest produce - and chef walks where chefs come with them. And there's cooking demonstrations. So, I do most of my shopping at the farm stand. I'd say 95% of my groceries I buy in my own store. (And all of our produce there is organic.)

JIM: Does Earthbound have any programs for people who like to travel around and work on organic farms?

MYRA: No, to be honest, it's just not a very efficient way to do things: unless that is your business - that kind of eco-tourism business. For us, it takes a while to train people to really be good harvesters ... and there are so many liabilities. I mean, if that were my business... If I had a little farm and I had a bed and breakfast and I knew people were coming there like they were going to a dude ranch and that's what they wanted to do and I planned it out to give them a job... but I would never expect to be able to run an efficient working farm that way. That would only be its own sort of little side thing.

JIM: I was wondering, based on what you've done... What if someone were out there who wanted to start their own organic farm - say on a small plot of land with the idea of being self-sufficient and maybe selling some things for some extra income, very small scale. What kind of tips would you have?

MYRA: The first thing I would say is you would really need to do your research and figure out what you thought you could grow effectively where you were and make sure there was a market for it. So, if you decided to go and be a kiwi farmer, you'd want to make sure that there wasn't a farmer that was 20 times your size right down the road that was going to sell it for 10% of the price. So, you just really need to figure out that you can produce something that there is a market for, that there is a local farmer's market, or that there is a community for a CSA, or that there are chefs that are looking for some specific products and they would like to buy them locally. So, you need to figure out how you're going to sell what you grow at the same time as you determine, you know, what are you going to be able to grow and care for effectively in whatever region you're in.

JIM: According to Earthbound's web site, this is your 25th year. That seems like an important landmark. What's your vision for the next 25?

MYRA: I do hate the forward-thinking question... I think our business has developed organically. There was never a business plan to get where we are. We sort of fell into certain things and were determined to make certain things work. I'm sort of a "one foot in front of the other" kind of person. So, I'm trying to have good relationships with employees, with customers, put out a quality product, and just figure that that will mean that your business will continue to grow at a healthy pace. But, you know, I do see so much interest in organic, in protecting the environment. I love that our new president is interested in healthy eating and is setting an example. I've read articles how Michelle Obama wants to feed her kids organic food, wants organic food in her house. I know we had an FDA inspection at our plant to approve product that was going to ship to some of the inaugural balls. We never found out which ones they went to, but they had specifically approved a certain batch of salad that was shipping. So, I think that the Obamas ... a lot of people hold them in high esteem, and just like they're saying that everybody wants a Blackberry, I hope the fact that they value healthy foods, that they are really concerned about environmental issues, will help keep interest in that area strong even though the economy is going through a tough time.

When we started in 1984, it was really an uphill battle trying to explain what organic was, why it was important. I think people had much more faith in chemicals; they thought that they had to be safe if they were allowed to be used, that there must be a lot of benefits of these modern technologies. I think that now a lot of my husband and my initial intuition that you really want to be able to grow food in cooperation with nature instead of doing it with all of these chemicals that are toxic to humans as well as to the pests they're supposed to kill... it's just a better way to produce food and is one way we can help protect the environment. So, I think that public opinion and the level of understanding of the general population is really surging in a direction that's going to keep our business strong. So, that makes me excited not just for our business but for the health of people on the planet.

JIM: When Earthbound wants to move into a new crop or area it doesn't currently do, does it just go out and make a deal with an existing farm - say, "Hey, we want to make you part of the Earthbound family"?

MYRA: It depends. A lot of what we do in our Carmel Valley farms, by our farm stand, is experiment with different crops and different growing methods. Sometimes, we'll come up with something and we'll realize that we can grow it and there's a market for it. Then, we'll talk to some of our existing farmers and see if they want to add that crop. We started with salads, and then we added vegetables and fruit. We've been doing fruit now for about 10 years. But that model that you suggested is more correct with our fruit - like, when we wanted to do grapes or blueberries and that wasn't what our grower network had. Then we would go out and network and figure out who would be a good partner. A lot of times it was conventional growers who wanted to get into organic and had transitioned to organic, and they were looking for someone to market their stuff. Sometimes it was little farmers that thought they could streamline their business if they sold part of their crop to us versus trying to market all of it themselves. They could focus on growing versus marketing. So, depending on the crop, we either introduce it to our existing network or look to network with someone who's got more expertise and resources in that area.

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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