This is the second of a two part interview with Gary Hirshberg. He has worked tirelessly for years building a better food system. He’s followed his heart to encompass a love for the planet and its people. From building a business with seven cows, his heart has driven his mission. Tirelessly defending people from toxic chemicals, protecting the environment all the while selling some darn good yogurt, propels him still tirelessly to this day.
With his accomplishments and accolades in hand many like him would have sauntered off into the sunset of retirement. But Gary keeps pressing and driving hard for a better tomorrow. With such passionate energy I had to sit down and ask him: “Why do you do it?”
MM: You sit on several company boards and host a “boot camp” for entrepreneurs and business leaders in the industry. How is building a stronger business community instrumental to what you want to accomplish?
GH: “I don’t think anyone who is dedicated to organic is satisfied with our sector making up just 5.5 % of US food or .6 % of farmland. So I have a very strong conviction that we cannot rest where we are and we need to keep driving to achieve double digit percentages of total food. That’s not just for the sake of a number. It’s because the consequences of double digit penetration means far greater quantities of chemical free acres and reductions in chemical exposure for millions.
As a business person I have a profound appreciation of the benefits of scale to make Organic choices affordable to more people. This requires doing several things at the same time.
There is only one reason not to use Organic products and that’s the higher premium or cost relative to conventional food. So first we have to educate consumers that cheap food isn’t cheap nor is it usually even food – you may not pay for it at the checkout register, but sooner or later, you pay for it in the environment or our health.
But at the same time, we need to keep trying to control the size of the Organic premium. The central challenge is how to give farmers a chance for economic sustainability while keeping the price to consumers within some reasonable range of conventional prices.
This first few decades of growth in the Organic sector have proven that with increased scale you get more acres, science, specialists, and more efficient distribution so all the economic functions can become more efficient, even while you’re still paying the right price to farmers. We have to find much more efficient ways of performing all of our production functions in order to build an organic food system. With scale we can also control the costs of tools, equipment, repair & maintenance, supply, seeds, feed- every function benefits with scale.
To illustrate this, when we first began we couldn’t produce enough milk efficiently with our small herd of just 19 cows. So we had to make a choice between farming and running the business. At first we could not find enough farms willing to go through Organic certification. When we were finally able to find them, there were only a few and the shipping was really expensive. So eventually we found more farms and stronger networks and the cost of collecting and transporting our milk plummeted.
My personal objective is to help drive the Organic sector to 15% of US Foods. I believe that at that level, we will be able to support farmers with proper farm-gate pricing while bringing down the premium over conventional to quite a bit less than it is now.
One of the things I am proud of with Stonyfield is that at this stage with nearly $400M in annual sales, the average herd size of the nearly 1,700 family farms we help support is 65 cows. So we’ve already demonstrated the power of scale. We just need to keep pushing it. This was always the dream – You shouldn’t have to be a 5,000 or even 1,000 cow farm to make a go of it.”
MM: Organic Voices or Only Organic was formed to spread the organic message in the absence of an organic check-off program and it’s had some measure of success. Why is this important and how can industry leaders be involved in the initiative?
GH: Organic Voices has had a lot of success so far – we’ve reached millions but it’s always been a small group of companies involved and we haven’t put serious muscle into it. We have spent about $400,000 each year in messaging.
Every Organic company has their point of view on what are the most important things we can be saying and doing. The one thing no one can disagree on is that consumers are confused. With growing interest in non-GMO, local, regenerative, Fair Trade and Humane – all those seals leave consumers very confused about what Organic really means. This is a challenge that is bigger than any one company and has to be tackled collectivity- that’s what the Check-off would have accomplished- collectively funding a broad research, promotion and education campaign.
The purpose of Organic Voices is simple – we can undo consumer confusion by all agreeing on a clear and succinct set of messages that unifies us all. We have organized a coalition of companies to pull together research findings and shopper insights and we have done the hard work of agreeing on a key set of priority messages that generally fall under the heading of – It’s real simple: The way you keep your families safe from exposure to toxins is to use Organic products. Avoidance of toxins is the key message that the vast majority of consumers need and want to know. Local, non-GMO, Fair Trade and Humane can’t do that. But Organic includes all those claims and much more.
We want every Organic stakeholder- retailers, distributors, processors and brokers – to be involved. Together we can fund something that none of us can do alone. However, we all agree that unless we can raise a minimum of $1MM it’s not worth moving ahead with this campaign. The good news is that as of this moment we are 67% of the way towards our fundraising goal. I urge all Organic stakeholders to go to www.organicvoices.org and donate. We need everyone to participate! Just because the federal government has gone to sleep doesn’t mean the industry can’t make some fantastic progress.”
MM: Final question we all want to know. With everything you have accomplished why don’t you just throw in the towel and go fishing in New Zealand? Why do you keep driving so hard for more?
GH: “To tell you the truth I am spending time in NZ because NZ represents a country that has infinite potential to become an Organic leader. So I am trying to help companies, farmers and officials there to grow their Organic sector.
But more broadly, we Organic advocates should be proud that we have science on our side and that we can make solid evidence-based claims to back up our health and environmental propositions. And most of us have really worked hard over the last couple of decades to build that case. While there is still plenty of research needed, I think most of us understand that the state of our planet and our health requires that we now dedicate ourselves to capitalizing on all that we have built to make Organic a much larger part of the US and global food system.
I am not stopping because I see the threats to our environment and the health of future generations only growing and because I know the data is in – that Organic really can be the solution to some of our greatest threats – we don’t have to be bashful or shy about it. There’s a fundamental factual foundation supporting the Organic case. The only thing that stands between us and our success is US.
Whether you’re an investor, an activist, a farmer or business executive in the Organic sector, it’s now essential that we look into the mirror every day and ask what have I done today to advance this mission.
It’s so incredibly exciting to have factual verification of our hypothesis that we started with.”
This is our time. We have millennium consumers who understand the planet is warming; they understand that we are what we eat. And half of them are parents now.
So we have the wind at our back. We have the science, a consumer who welcomes it and the clear failure of the conventional farming economy to provide a clear path of success.
It’s a matter of when not whether. We have to lean in now- I have been waiting 40 years to get to this moment!”
I’ve only known Gary as a dear friend for a decade or so but his vivaciousness is contagious. He can make the most uproarious crowd sit still and take note. If all of us strived to be even one tenth of whom he is the world would indeed be a better place.
Why don’t we all do it?