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Transcript: Myra Goodman
Nurturing versus Conquering: Organic Farming as a Relationship with the Land – An Interview with Myra Goodman, Cofounder of Earthbound Farm Organics
Below is our complete archived 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 for NaturalNews.com. We hope you enjoy this informative series of articles. -Jim & Wendi Dee
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 really 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.
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.
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.
[*Interviewer’s note: See “Organic farms unknowingly used a synthetic fertilizer” by Jim Downing of the Sacramento Bee.]
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.
JIM: That reminds me treating farms as holistic units and thinking about the whole “big picture”…
MYRA: Yes, I think there’s a lot of planning. One thing that Earthbound Farm is really proud of is that most of the acreage we farm has been transitioned from conventional agriculture. We work with farmers who’ve farmed conventionally for generations who wanted to grow a little bit of organic – make sure they didn’t miss a strong market. After a while, they saw that it was actually possible and it actually could be profitable, and that, wow, look, my soil is healthier; I have fewer issues with diseases. Pretty soon, they start wanting to transition more and grow more. So, that’s been very gratifying for us. Here’s something really enlightening that one of these conventional growers that is now farming a lot of organic said to us: He realized that what he had to drop with the switch to organic was the macho idea that he should be able to grow whatever he wanted wherever he wanted whenever he wanted to. Conventional growers had grown accustomed to using this arsenal of chemicals to fight off all the weeds, fight off the diseases, make something grow faster, whatever they needed to do to get whatever they wanted, when they wanted, where they wanted. With organic, it’s more like a real relationship where you have to learn about your partner and work in harmony. It’s a give and a take and it’s acknowledging the way something works and working within that system and trying to nurture that system so that it stays healthy and you can grow a crop. But you’re not growing the crop when you want, where you want, [what] you want all the time, you know? You’re having to compromise and plan, and do a lot of nurturing versus a lot of conquering.
JIM: In terms of the state of the art right now, in terms of whatever the metric is for what yield you get per crop for an organic farm, is there R&D going on trying to push that yield up, or are you at a place where you’re satisfied with the yields?
MYRA: If you talk to Organic Farming Research Foundation or any of these organizations that are really trying to get research dollars for organic, you will hear how frustrated they are that organic doesn’t get its fair share of any of the [agricultural] research money – that most of the advances are made through trial and error on individual farms. But, I think in terms of the yield question there’s an important point: one reason why we talk about organic farming as sustainable farming and why it’s such a healthy system is that, over time, organic land becomes more and more productive. The soil gets richer, the microorganisms are flourishing, it’s easier over time to get a healthy crop, and it starts costing less to farm that crop. If you look at the conventional system, the soil gets more and more depleted over time, the pests get more resistant to pesticides – you need more pesticides, you need more expensive pesticides – so, if you charted it, you would see conventional getting more expensive and less productive, and you’d see organic getting more affordable and more productive over time. So, we’re finding that the land we’ve been farming the longest is having the best yields and is producing organic more affordably the land that has been transitioned more recently has more problems.
It’s also the crop…I was telling you about how a lot of our success had to do with the fact that we started with these baby greens and we put them in a bag. I think the other part of our success with these baby greens is that, because we harvest them when they’re so young, we have less issues with pest damage. We found that we can grow most of these baby greens really pretty profitably year round. We do have problems with mildew and certain issues with certain crops – and then of course you have weather problems that every farmer faces. But, on the crops that are in for a longer period of time […] most of our crop loss has to do with loss to pests that we just can’t control and we don’t have these heavy-duty insecticides that are going to control them effectively. So, we do have a lot more crop loss on the longer-lead crops. And that’s really what impacts our yields, our total yields, for the year more than how much we’re actually harvesting per acre, if all of it was harvestable.
JIM: You know, it’s fascinating about the fields getting healthier. I was wondering, do you see on the scientific end, as a farm matures and the fields become healthier, have there been any tests on whether, for example, the mineral content of the produce actually increases?
MYRA: There have been a lot of tests that show that, with certain nutrients, organic is more nutritious and that conventional food over time has gotten less nutritious for certain nutrients. And so I think part of that is reflected in that cycle of the organic soil getting healthier over time and the conventional soil getting more depleted. And there have been studies that document that.
A subsequent note from Earthbound's communications
director clarified: "I would suggest that you visit the
Organic Center website. It’s a great repository of
information about the science around organic and it’s
where our information comes from. Here is a direct link
to some of the nutrition info and you’ll find much more
that’s interesting there.
JIM: When you’re starting, year after year, do you produce your own seed stock for everything?
MYRA: No, we don’t. I have a whole supply department, and I have a senior VP of supply. Things have changed so much from the old days when I did every job and I knew what was happening in every department. But, one of our partners has a whole R&D department, and they do seed development trying to get varieties that are more resistant to things like mildew and different diseases.
[Note: A subsequent note from Earthbound's communications director clarified: "In terms of seeds, we do breed some of our own seeds, but not all of them. Organic seed production on a commercial scale is very limited right now. "]
JIM: What are your thoughts on GMO?
MYRA: Well, you know that they’re outlawed in organic and that there’s no labeling requirements for products that have been genetically modified. So, right now, for consumers in the United States, the only way you can be sure you’re getting products that weren’t genetically modified is if you buy organic. And, the way that I feel about it is I do not see a reason to play around with nature.
So much of the justification for a lot of the genetic modification was the promise that farmers could reduce the amount of pesticides used because the GMO variety is going to be a pest-resistant variety, or we’re going to increase the nutrition of something. All of those arguments that these seed companies had talked about from the beginning, about how they were going to revolutionize the food system… As far as I’m concerned, from everything that I’ve understood, it’s all fallen flat on its face. I think a lot of the motivation is really from seed companies looking for something to differentiate themselves and something they can charge more for and own a patent for more than the farmer’s need for something different.
JIM: I think that some of that stuff is kind of scary, how they own the patent for the seed and also the pesticide that goes with it—
MYRA: Oh yeah, like the Roundup Ready Crops… I think it’s also really scary how they’re trying to grow these pharmaceutical products out in open fields. And, who knows what’s going to happen.
JIM: For an individual like yourself, who’s ultimately responsible for tens of thousands of acres of agriculture, it must be even more scary because, for example, there’s contamination concerns, right?
MYRA: Oh yeah, yeah. And so many of the reassurances that the genetically modified seeds were contained and then they find that they’ve spread into all the corn – in any corn chip bag you buy you can find traces of GMOs. Yeah, it is scary. I think there’s potential impact on organic integrity and I think there’s potential impact on people’s health and the health of the environment. It is very scary.
JIM: Are there any things that you have to do at Earthbound—
MYRA: Well, the crops that we’re growing at Earthbound right now are not any of the major crops that have been genetically modified like corn and soybeans. I don’t even know if anybody has done a genetically modified lettuce or broccoli or cauliflower. It hasn’t kind of gotten to the row crops at this point, so it’s not as much of an issue to us as it would be for someone who grew those other crops.
JIM: Oh I see…
MYRA: – because we’re really vegetable farmers.
JIM: Okay. But not cucumbers, right? You don’t grow those?
MYRA: No, we don’t.
JIM: What do you have against cucumbers? [laughs]
MYRA: We just haven’t grown them.
JIM: You know, they’re really expensive – the organic cucumbers, at least where I live.
MYRA: Yeah, we’ve never done cucumbers. I don’t know whether there’s just a perfect climate for it and we don’t have it or what.
JIM: Well, let me ask you about some of the other things in the news. I know you guys grow spinach, for example. I buy your bagged spinach myself. But that was one of these… there’s all these hypes lately, these “scares.” I know there was a spinach one and a tomato one. And they seem to get all the press whenever somebody gets e coli or salmonella or something, versus when you compare that with similar threats in the meat or dairy industry. It seems like there’s this war on vegetables. I don’t know why that is, but how have you been affected by this?
MYRA: I think it’s very scary as a consumer when you’re eating something that you expect to be really healthful and something you can’t see can make it very unhealthful. I definitely understand people being worried about that. At Earthbound Farm, we take food safety incredibly seriously and we have a very intensive food safety program. Since the outbreak in 2006, we’ve actually started testing our raw product for e coli, salmonella and shigella, some of the major food-borne bacteria, before we process our salad. And then we also randomly test our salad once it’s been packaged to make sure that it also tests negative. We also have a whole food safety program in our fields. We test our water, we test our inputs, we make sure there’s boundaries from cattle farms. But, even so, there’s no guarantees, when you grow product in an open field, that you can protect it from these invisible organisms that can travel in the wind or any which way. So, we do this testing program that we trust to catch any widespread contamination and it makes us feel a lot better, as well.
JIM: There’s been talk in health communities about how some of these outbreaks have occurred in the first place. I’m not talking about earthbound; I’m talking about agriculture in general. A lot of people believe, for example, that conditions on farms weren’t necessarily sanitary. For example, people who were picking the crops didn’t have adequate facilities. That sort of thing… Is that a valid point – those sorts of things – as a contributor to the problem?
MYRA: You know, I think it really depends on what you’re talking about. I think concerns about worker hygiene is a lot of the reason why there’s been prejudice against product from Mexico. People believe the water’s dirtier and they don’t have as many hygiene procedures in place. In terms of the packaged salads, if you go out into any of those fields, you’ll see all the workers have hair nets and they’re all wearing gloves and [their] band-aids have metal in them so that they’d be detected when the salads go through a metal detector, they all have bathrooms with hand-washing facilities in the field… So, I don’t think that is an issue. Some people are concerned about stuff south of the border [but] I think there’s so much more awareness about food safety in recent years that I think poor worker hygiene is a much more rare thing to see.
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?
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 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 farmers 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 thepests 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.
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Got a question you'd like answered by an organic farmer? Are you an organic farmer who'd like to be interviewed? Know an organic farming operation you'd like us to interview? Email Jim at Rawdiant [at] Gmail.com and we'll see what we can do to provide you with the information you want!
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