The fearless leader of Stonyfield Farm talks with us about profitablity, GMOs and soil.
Gary Hirshberg, CE-Yo of yogurt company Stonyfield Farm, is coming to the Rodale Institute’s Organic Pioneer awards September 16th to talk about the humble beginnings of the organic community and what the future holds for our food and our farmers. We caught up with him to get a sneak peek at some of the issues he’ll be addressing in his keynote and to learn a little bit more about what makes this organic superstar tick.
Tell me a little bit about your back story. What lead you to Stonyfield?
In the late 1970s I became the executive director of the New Alchemy Institute, an ecological research and education center that focused on organic food production. Bob Rodale provided the very first grant that got them off the ground and I got to know him very well.
When Ronald Reagan came into power in Washington, he slashed all funding for organic research. Anything having to do with organic was dead on arrival. Most of us working in this area were desperately trying to come up with strategies for self-support. While still serving as Executive Director of New Alchemy Institute, I also became a Trustee of The Rural Education Center, a small school for organic farmers where Founder Samuel Kaymen made delicious yogurts for the students and visitors. We decided to start Stonyfield as a way to use the sale of his yogurt to fund our initiatives without being dependent on grants or donations.
In the same way Rodale Institute set out to prove the science of organics, we set out to prove the profitability—that the business case could be made. Ultimately the yogurt company became far more successful than the farming school and so we eventually closed the school to concentrate on the business.
Of course, we started out small. It all began with seven cows on hilltop farm in New Hampshire. We hail from entrepreneurial roots so we brought a real can-do attitude to our dreams of making a difference. And today we support thousands of organic family farmers and over 200,000 acres of chemical free agriculture. That’s what happens when you dream big.
What was the biggest challenge you’ve faced leading Stonyfield to where it is today and what was the key to overcoming that challenge?
I would say it is explaining the difference between organic and natural to a lay audience. People are really confused. Large food companies who aren’t committed to the value of organics, who want a piece of the market without going the distance, have worked very hard to create a mythology around natural. It really doesn’t mean a darn thing. Yet they spend millions if not billions to make natural like it means something. So consumers don’t understand why they have to spend more for a certified organic product when they can get a so-called “natural” product for less.
The good news is the job is getting easier all the time. I jokingly call Stonyfield a 28-year overnight success. When we first started virtually nobody knew was organic meant. Now it is largely seen as gourmet – better tasting as well as better for you.
How has the agricultural community changed over the last 10 years?
The threat of genetically modified [GM] foods has now become an absolutely black or white situation. Ten years ago there were only two GM crops out there, now there are hundreds and many more being approved. This is a poignant moment. The science that would argue for GM foods is pretty weak and fraught with holes but, at the same time, they’ve done such a good job with the PR. Large groups of people who wouldn’t have known what GMOs [genetically modified organisms] were a decade ago, now believe they are absolutely necessary for our food security.
We saw this coming way back when, but now the time is here. The policies of the 2nd half of the 20th century failed to recognize the value of promoting healthy soils, the value of giving farmers an adequate income, and the value of not poisoning our land, water and air with toxins. A million farmers have gone under, and we have enormous water depletion and toxification issues. The bad news is we’ve dug ourselves a deep hole. The good news is there is much broader understanding and it is time to rethink. Everyone agrees the system is broken now. Ten years ago you couldn’t get much consensus on that.
What do you think is the most important thing for consumers to understand about where their food comes from?
It sounds trite, but we really are what we eat. How our food is produced determines to a large extent its impact on our health. Not just the kinds of food, but how they are grown. The president’s cancer panel predicts 41% of us will get cancer. That is an absolutely devastating statistic. The number one recommendation to change this statistic is to choose foods without the chemicals that are believed to be the causes. You have to eat defensively—you have to have your eyes open.
And cheap food is not cheap. You’re paying for it somewhere—maybe not at the checkout counter, but in your healthcare bills. Those 41% will cost trillions. There are moral and ethical ramifications, of course, but just thinking about the financial ramifications—they are just not affordable.
The current locavore movement is something to behold. It is an expression that people would like to know where their food comes from. The funny thing is they don’t always want to know how it was grown, and certainly being local does not mean anything about being ecological or healthy, but it reflects people’s desire to know more about our food. It is a start.
We’ve become divorced from nature and how we produce our food, but people are starting to understand they can have an impact. We’ve got a whole lot more power than we know. And that really is the greatest lesson I’ve learned after all these years. I used to say those words “vote at the checkout counter” all the time. Now that I’ve become the direct beneficiary of those votes and the curtain has been pulled back, I have zero illusion—that is literally how the market works. The act of shopping really is a political act.
What is your personal vision? What drives you—gets you out of bed every day?
I see every single day that what I’m pushing for isn’t theory, it is fact. I see farmers making more money, building topsoils and improving water quality and biodiversity. This is not some esoteric science to me. It is tangible.
I was with a dozen farmers in Vermont the other day and every last one of them tells me they would not be in business today without Stonyfield. And they’re not just surviving, they are thriving. They’ve got kids and grandkids they figured would be off working in some city who are, instead, taking over farms.
I see the direct consequences of every pound of yogurt that gets bought and sold. Despite the scale and weight of the problems we face (and they are both enormous and heavy), I see how solvable they are. There really is hope.
I actually had a meeting with the President last week with a group of fellow CEOs to describe for him what is happening with defoliants. President Obama, by his own admission, is a city boy and this is the first time he has heard this stuff. We explained why we need a GMO labeling law and why consumers deserve to know what is in their food. Of course, that doesn’t mean it will happen, but the inherent sensibility not toxifying our planet, of supporting farmers and promoting organic alternatives is not lost on our political leaders. I can see a political pathway where this could happen. That gets me up every day. I feel our power and the correctness of it.
Were there any organic pioneers that inspired you when you were starting out?
For sure Bob Rodale was one of them. We became very good friends early on. We visited each other on numerous occasions, and when I worked on organic and renewable energy issues in China, we exchanged contacts there. There were also wonderful inspiring mentors like Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson. But what was powerful about Bob and the early team at the Rodale Farm like Dick Harwood and Bill Leibhart was the work they were out there doing. They didn’t just talk about these issues, they asked the hard questions and did the hard work of setting up rigorous comparative trials. There is power in doing.
What do you think is standing in the way of organic being our primary agricultural system?
Price. And just to be more precise, a failed subsidy system. The playing field is not level. The good news is this morning I went to look at a piece of farmland with an investor who is a very strong republican—never voted for a democrat in his entire life. But we discovered we agree absolutely on a lot of things. One of them is that the subsidy system has got to go. We are underwriting the very things that are undermining us.
But I think in this austere environment we will see a lot of these subsidies backing off. It will move the needle quite a bit. Then combine the results of that with the growing and increased demand for organics, and you have a very interesting synergy. One interesting stat is that during this recession, organic sales, despite the higher price of the products, have grown 5 to 6 times faster than conventional sales. Health considerations are weighing more than price for people.
The number one thing we can do to reduce or eliminate the higher premium/cost for our goods is not to pay the farmer less. All that does it put our supply at jeopardy. The number one thing we can do is grow volume. Scale brings efficiencies in our system that help to narrow the price gap over conventional foods, without penalizing the farmer. We can fill tanker loads full, thus yielding less trucking costs per gallon shipped, etc. The combination of rethinking subsidies and our increase demand is very hopeful.
Do you think exponential growth in the organic industry is sustainable?
To be honest, it is not exponential anymore, it is double-digit growth. We’ve emerged from the period of exponential growth already. We are now in the cycle of sustainable growth. Largely speaking supply is keeping up with demand and demand is taking increased share in almost every category. The organic sector could actually grow faster if we could resolve the subsidy issue. Supply starts to become a problem as growth increases, but at the moment that is not our biggest problem. The unfair competition with subsidized conventional crops is really what is holding the organic sector back.
Can organic feed the world?
There is actually no question. The FAO [Food and Agriculture Organizations] is showing that for subsistence farming it is the only hope. Rodale Institute and the University of Michigan among others have shown that yields are comparable, and over time, organic produces more especially when you factor in the energy and other inputs.
And, as a processor who buys a lot of goods, I see the evidence in every single area of our purchases. For every single commodity we buy, the yields over time with organic become either equal or higher than with conventional, and the soil building is phenomenal. There are 40,000 acres in Brazil where we buy our sugar. When we first visited the area, the topsoil had been weakened by the industrial farming methods and soil erosion. Now, 15 years later, topsoil under these fields has just about the same carbon content as it did when the colonists first took the trees down and started farming. These folks are actually restoring the carbon content of topsoils while producing a highly valuable cash crop. And as a testament to the health of this agroecosytem, 312 species of birds and wildlife have recolonized these 40,000 acres.
We can’t build topsoil or biodiversity with oil. There is no doubt in my mind that organic and ecological agricultural strategies that restore healthy ecosystems is the only way to feed 9.2 billion people.
What is the most important issue you’re working on right now?
I’m spending about 90% of my time on GMO issues. This is the moment where we must and can have a national labeling program. The advocates for biotech do a lot of elegant scientific dancing and can tie you up in knots with data. What they don’t have any arguments against is that consumers really do have a right to know what is in our food. I have yet to meet a consumer who says “Yes, give me the yogurt with synthetic growth hormones.” As soon as we get labeling, they are in big trouble.
This is the time, this is the administration, this is the climate. People are interested in knowing about their food system. If we don’t push for labeling laws now, we’ll find we’re going to be 100% GMO. A lot of people say the genie is already out of the bottle with GMOs, but we do have a very real chance of getting meaningful regulation right now.
What tool couldn’t you live without?
I probably use my cordless drill five times a week. I can do anything with that thing! And I have sort of a guilt-free charging system in my basement since our house is powered 50% by solar. But, I have to admit, the iPhone has become pretty indispensable too. And the iPhone gets more of my time.
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