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Pioneers of organic processing

The innovators behind the first organic processed foods

By Erin Volheim

Who were the innovators behind the first certified organic processed foods? Oregon Tilth was a certifying agency that was there at the beginning (see "Yvonne and beyond"), still there are other guests at the table of organic food history. The historic table is set with elements of a good breakfast.

Cream of the crop

The earliest written records on organic processed foods lead us to the story of Springfield Creamery, still well known for it’s Nancy’s Yogurt products. Springfield Creamery got its start in 1960, when Chuck Kesey (brother of legendary author and psychedelic pioneer Ken Kesey) and his wife Sue graduated from college and returned home to Springfield, Oregon.

By 1969, the dairy industry was in transition, yet the Sixties natural foods movement was in full bloom. “We needed something to niche us, so we could remain independent, to create a brand of our own,” says Sue Kesey. “One day the manager from Willamette People’s Coop called ‘give me some more of that Nancy’s Yogurt.’ We thought, well, that sounds better than ‘Chuck’s Yogurt.’” Nancy was the name of their bookkeeper who shared family recipes with the Keseys.

Nancy’s Yogurt expanded to the Bay Area through two young entrepreneurs—a University of Oregon graduate named Gilbert Rosborne and his partner, 80s rock star Huey Lewis. “They had an underground comic book route, delivering the Fabulous Furry Brothers and R. Crumb comics to natural food stores in San Francisco,” says Sue. “Once a week, they rented a U-Haul and packed it up with ice and Nancy’s Yogurt and drove it down to the Bay Area.” The year 1972 was hard financially for Springfield Creamery. Chuck went down to Marin County and talked the Grateful Dead into coming up to Eugene to do a benefit concert for the creamery. More than 20,000 people attended with tickets that were printed on Nancy’s Yogurt labels. Dead concerts became a tradition for the next decade. As demand for natural foods continued to grow, they expanded into the Portland and Seattle market. National distribution provided a more consistent market, and Nancy’s Yogurt was one of the first natural food products to be distributed far from its production location.

 “We had a lot of conversations with our smaller natural food customers in the late 70s, not wanting us to sell to mass market stores.” says Sue. “But our mission has always been to get the best food at the best price to the most people. When the Safeways and Fred Meyers of the world came knocking on our door and said we’d really like to stock your product, it completely blew us away. It was one of the first natural food breakthroughs into mainstream markets, and it’s been a wonderful relationship now for nearly 30 years.”

Following the stream of life

We need grains to go with our yogurt for breakfast, so in 1971, Arran Stephens and a business partner opened Canada’s first large organic supermarket, LifeStream. Founded on the “ideal of serving delicious, wholesome foods grown and processed in harmony with nature,” the store quickly expanded into processing foods through milling, baking, making muesli, granolas, nut-butters and energy bars. The company’s first organic product was stoneground organic whole wheat flour. LifeStream soon developed a line of sprouted Essene Breads, made according to an ancient recipe from the Essene Gospel of Peace translated by Edmond Bordeaux-Szeckely.

By 1977, LifeStream’s line had grown to include a wide range of products, including both natural and organic whole grain foods and soy-based vegetarian entrees. LifeStream sales approached $12 million, but an awkward partnership led to the sale of the company in 1981 to Kraft/Phillip Morris. Arran and Ratana Stephens started a new venture called Nature’s Path. The company’s first product, Sprouted Organic Manna Bread, debuted at the Natural Products Expo in 1985. Organic Multigrain, Multigrain & Raisin, and Millet Rice Flakes were the first Nature’s Path Cereals. Building on the success of its cereals, the company grew 800 percent in four years. To meet demand, more acreage was bought and a 54,000 square foot organic processing plant was built in Delta, B.C., Canada. This was the first third-party certified organic cereal plant in the world.

Fortunately in 1995, The Stephens family purchased back LifeStream from Kraft, 14 years after it was sold.

Early morning coffee

For most people, breakfast is not complete without a hearty cup of coffee. When Coffee Bean, International began roasting in 1972, most Americans had never seen whole bean coffee before. Coffee Bean’s founders got their start in Eugene where they were roasting beans for neighbors, friends and themselves. They soon grew from a small two-man storefront, into one of the nation’s largest wholesale specialty coffee roasters. They were one of the first to promote dark roasts, develop flavored coffees, and offer certified organic and certified fair trade coffees.

Jam with your biscuit?

Also in 1972, Cascadian Farm started farming organically on a few acres of land in the Upper Skagit Valley of Washington’s North Cascade Mountains. With the help of a small group of supporters, Cascadian Farm became a thriving organic food company, preserving and selling the bounty of their harvests as jams, frozen fruits and vegetables. By the late 1980s, demand for Cascadian Farm products grew so much, that the company began contracting with other organic growers in the Northwest. In subsequent years, Cascadian Farm worked hard to recruit and train hundreds of other organic growers, ensuring that the company’s products would include only the finest organic ingredients. With the addition of Muir Glen tomatoes in 1998, Cascadian Farm became part of Small Planet Foods. In 2000, Small Planet Foods was purchased by General Mills which broadened the distribution potential of Cascadian Farm products. Today, Cascadian Farm is still owned by General Mills, and is a manufacturer and distributor of a wide range of organic processed products, from frozen fruit to breakfast cereal.

Good medicine

When it comes to good health, we know that breakfast is one of the most important meals of the day. Another element integral to our health is access to quality herbs. In 1973, Trout Lake Farm saw an opportunity to organically farm culinary and medicinal herbs, “that would be far superior to the relatively poor quality of herbs currently in the market.” The Trout Lake Farm brand was also born in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state, a year later than Cascadian Farms. Trout Lake Farms founders selected the area for its “pure glacial water, its isolation from pollution, its climate and ideal soils for the cultivation of organic herbs.” Their first crops were mint, comfrey, catnip and red clover. Later they added a farm and milling operation in Eastern Washington, and Echinacea purpurea became a major crop.

In 1998, the Trout Lake Farm facility was purchased by Access Business Group, (ABG) a member of the Alticor family of companies. This allowed the Trout Lake Farm brand access to three additional organic farming facilities: one in Southern California, one in Central Mexico, and the “Nutriorganica” farm in Northeast Brazil. Together, these farms total over 6,740 acres of organic farmland in diverse climates, providing a variety of organically grown botanicals. Trout Lake Farm also uses the state-of-the-art processing facilities of ABG supply chain organizations to offer custom processing; like fresh herb juice extraction, leaf and stem separation, size reduction or just about anything else.

We’re having a baby!

Twins Ron and Arnie Koss recognized early that traditional baby food recipes included many refined and overly processed ingredients. 1985 witnessed the birth of their brainchild, Earth’s Best Baby Foods, a Vermont-based organic food company. Two years later, they had opened their first organic food processing facility. Soon, 20 employees were producing three fruit and two vegetable purees. Meanwhile the demand for safe organic baby foods was rapidly growing, and Earth’s Best stepped up its plans to service this growing need of concerned American families.

By 1989, Earth’s Best added eight more fruit purees, and several baby cereals to its product line. In 1995, their flavors expanded to more than 50 products including innovative dinners, breakfasts, vegetable blends, fruit blends, junior foods, and infant cereals. In 1996, the company was purchased by Heinz USA. It continued to launch new organic products including toddler whole grain bars. In 2000, Earth’s Best was acquired by the New York based Hain Celestial Group, Inc., where the product line continues to “grow-up.”

Lunch time yet?


The evolution of the organic processed foods continues. Consumer appetites have grown  beyond the ground breaking “breakfast” foods that started this industry trend.  Inventive packaging, like aseptic containers or cellulose, has fed the hunger for innovation well. Now, folks  can fill their cupboards with a healthy organic option for any meal of the day.


Erin Volheim lives in the Little Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon.

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