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Sustainability success stories

Victories from the trenches

By Natalie Reitman-White

“Sustainable” was the top word of 2006, according to the Global Language Monitor. As popular as it may be, however, sustainability is a complex concept, often misunderstood and misused. For many people, sustainability translates as “environmentally friendly.” The practical applications of the word are broader, namely not degrading the earth’s life-support systems, while creating conditions of social prosperity and equity.

The organic produce trade is at the forefront of an emerging movement of businesses seeking to define sustainability. Sustainability in the organic food trade is about taking this wonderful, wholesome food, and ensuring it is harvested, packaged, transported, warehoused, and retailed in a way that maintains its integrity.

Leaders in the produce trade are stepping forward. In 2006, a group of produce growers, distributors, and purveyors formed the Food Trade Sustainability Leadership initiative. The initiative’s lead sponsors; Organically Grown Company (OGC), Cal Organic, and PCC Natural Markets, as well as 15 other organizations, asked the University of Oregon’s Resource Innovations (RI) to facilitate the effort in 2007. Since March 2005, RI staff has assisted the trade in organizing meetings to discuss the future of the organic produce trade, co-authoring a Declaration of Sustainability in the Organic Produce Trade, establishing a web-discussion board, and facilitating the 2005 “Sustainability Summit” hosted by OGC.

The Declaration of Sustainability was drafted, and vetted over a series of natural food meetings and trade shows during 2005-6. The document serves the dual purpose of a call to action, and an organizing framework for helping organizations track their sustainability initiatives. Signers commit to taking action in the areas of packaging, transportation, consumer education, waste reduction, and labor practices.

In 2007, RI is offering a workshop and meeting series focused on providing practical solutions to the sustainability challenges faced by food businesses. The workshop topics include Food Packaging and Sustainable Alternatives with Energy Efficiency and Renewable Power. Both will be held during the OGC Vendor Faire, pre-conference workshops at the Hilton in Vancouver, Washington on March 16th.

On the road to sustainability

Many organizations across the food supply chain, are working to transition away from our “take, make, waste” production system, and move towards a more regenerative circular model. The following are a few success stories of leaders who are taking steps toward a self-perpetuating production system that ensures conditions of equity and social prosperity.

Since opening in 1994, LifeSource Natural Foods in Salem, Oregon has been proactive on issues of “sustainability.” LifeSource has stocked a 100 percent organic produce department, and the store meets 100 percent of its electrical load with clean wind power through Portland General Electric.

According to store manager Jeff Watson, the store’s “Humanistic Approach” with employees makes his job easier. Their compensation and benefits program makes LifeSource an employer of choice. LifeSource strives to pay its employees a “Livable wage and ensures its employees have a good balance of work and personal time.” For these commitments, Lifesource’s owner Alex Beamer received the 2003 Provender Alliance “Four Nickels” award for, “Minting new paradigms of holistic business operations and balancing the equation between quality of life, human need, and financial success for the strength and betterment of all.”

Persephone Farm

Elanor O’Brien and Jeff Falen’s Persephone Farm is nestled between the south fork of the Santiam River, and the foothills of the Cascade Range. For 21 years, Persephone has been growing a wide assortment of organic vegetables, and many premium varieties of Northwest strawberries. According to Jeff, Persephone was founded on “a desire to create a balanced farm ecosystem,” a place where they work with the elements as opposed to against them. They have been “trying to wean ourselves of fossil fuels,” says Jeff. First they installed eight solar panels which can be arranged seasonally to capture varying light levels. Currently the system meets about two-thirds of the farm’s electricity needs.

To finance the project Persephone took advantage of three incentive programs—the Oregon State Department of Energy tax credit (up to 35 percent of the project cost), the Federal energy-tax credit (for up to 30 percent of the project cost), and they received a grant from Energy Trust of Oregon. Persephone has converted their 1950’s Allis-Chalmers tractor Model G to run on electricity that comes mostly from their solar panels. By replacing the diesel engine with an eight battery electric motor, the tractor is now quieter, emits less pollution, and has plenty of power for cultivating, weed control, seeding crops, and hilling potatoes. The tractor project was also eligible for the same federal and state energy-tax credits. Persephone’s next ambition is to heat the greenhouse and other buildings using heat pumps running on solar, not propane. Heat pumps will increase energy efficiency by using buried copper tubing to pump heat from the ground outside into the building.

Jeff sums-up their dreams this way: “We’re striving to create a farm ecosystem that will feed and nourish humanity for a hundreds of generations.”

Jacobs Farm-Del Cabo

Founded in 1980, 45 miles south of San Francisco, Jacobs Farm cultivates 250 acres of culinary herbs and edible flowers. In 1985 they founded Del Cabo, a project in Baja, California. Del Cabo was established to assist small growers by teaching organic growing practices, management and organizational skills and connecting them to international markets. Jacobs Farm recently began working with other partners to formalize a new company called Farm Fuel Inc, (FFI). FFI’s mission is to develop by-products from oil pressings, that will make it economically viable for growers to plant mustard for biodiesel. Shares of FFI will be available to participating farmers, as well as access to biodiesel and organic products. FFI will press the seed into oil, and convert the left over meal into an organic herbicide and biocide. Sales revenue will go back to grower-owners based on amount of seed delivered. They are striving to guarantee a fair return to growers by concentrating the production of mustard seed for biodiesel in California. FFI’s ambition is to have one million acres of mustard planted in California, replacing roughly two percent of California’s diesel fuel use.

New Harvest Organics

New Harvest Organics is a grower, packer, shipper and growers’ agent based in Rio Rico, Arizona. New Harvest partners with over 25 organic growers, many of whom have been growing organically for more than a decade. In addition to distributing quality organic produce New Harvest is committed to greening its entire operation. In 2004 they began to remodel their 4,000 square foot office space based on environment and employee friendly building techniques. Working with green-building pioneers including Bill and Athena Steen, authors of the Strawbale House, they used locally manufactured paints derived from clay, soy, and casein (made from milk) colored with earth minerals. They replaced all carpeting with bamboo flooring and clay tiles, and made counters and desks using pressed sunflower hull panels.

During the remodel, New Harvest also got serious about energy conservation. They have super-insulated all coolers; replaced all lighting throughout the 20,000 sq’ warehouse with energy efficient fixtures; replaced water heaters with on-demand models, and replaced all heating, ventilating, and air conditioning units with highly efficient models. New Harvest’s commitment to waste reduction is paying off.  These conservation methods have resulted in a 40 percent energy savings.

At their Patagonia Farm, New Harvest established an operation to compost 100 percent of their organic waste and implemented an aggressive recycling process in the warehouse reducing the waste stream by 80 percent. New Harvest uses wax-impregnated cartons that are 100 percent recyclable with non-bleached kraft colored backgrounds and is replacing all plastic bags for packing citrus with completely compostable soy based bags. In the past six months they have doubled the amount of fruit that is being packed in re-usable
plastic containers. To reduce emissions and support renewable fuels, New Harvest now runs 90 percent biodiesel in all of their trucks.

Organically Grown Company

Based in Eugene, OGC is the largest organic produce wholesaler in the Pacific Northwest. In November 2006, Oregon Tilth named OGC “Outstanding Visionary of the Year” for their “Innovation and creativity in forwarding the vision of a sustainable future.” The award highlights their work to become a more earth-friendly company, while encouraging the organic-foods industry to address major issues collaboratively – from global warming to social equity. In 2004, Resource Innovations at the University of Oregon analyzed OGC to determine how to reduce the companie’s environmental impact.

Today OGC meets 100 percent of its electrical load with clean wind power, and has remodeled their facilities to feature state-of-the-art energy-efficiency measures. OGC received support from the Energy Trust of Oregon and the State of Oregon’s energy tax credit. The company has converted its truck fleet to run on 20 percent biodiesel and has initiated tests running 99 percent biodiesel. “We installed fuel heaters on three of our tractors that have allowed us to successfully run 99 percent biodiesel this winter in 30 degree weather,” reports operations manger Tyson Haworth. Between 2004 and October 2006, OGC displaced 27,547 gallons of diesel with pure biodiesel, mainly from SeQuential fuels, which in turn sources 95 percent of its biodiesel from the used cooking oil of Northwest restaurants.

In 2005, OGC began buying bananas exclusively from Organics Unlimited’s “Giving Resources and Opportunities to Workers” (“GROW”) program. In the first quarter of 2006, GROW donated over $61,000 to educational programs in communities in southern Mexico from which Organics Unlimited draws its labor.

The organics industry continues to forge ahead, investing in common sense and visionary projects. Pioneers continue to lead by example, promoting a more sustainable future and feeding the organic revolution.

Natalie Reitman-White currently works as Food Trade Sustainability Leadership Project Manager at Resource Innovations, and as Sustainability Coordinator for OGC.

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