Reflections on my career with Organically Grown Company

On November 3rd, Organically Grown Company (OGC) celebrated its 40th anniversary, the retirement of several senior staff members, and my own semi- retirement. I gave a speech at that Hoe Down to reflect on our history, and on our current challenges with consolidation in the organic produce industry. I have adapted that speech for this article.

Organically Grown Cooperative, Inc. was established as a non-profit by a small group of local growers and environmentalists located in the upper Willamette Valley in 1978. Over the 4 decades since its founding, OGC has transitioned from that non-profit into the largest independent for-profit full- line organic produce distributor in the United States.

I moved to Oregon in 1979 knowing that I wanted to get out of Phoenix, that I wanted to live in a rural community, that I wanted, in the words of hippie spiritual leader Stephen Gaskin, to become a voluntary peasant as an act of salvation both for myself and the world. Marketer, Businessman, Board Member, Shareholder – these were not terms I would have considered for myself. In fact, three years later I put on a use three-piece suit and went forth on Halloween as a businessman, telling people, “This is the scariest thing I could think of.”

In the spring of 1980, two events set the direction of the life before me. First, Thistle Organics, a partnership of my brother Tom, his partner Kellee Adams and myself entered into an agreement to rent land from third-generation farmer Keith Walton of Riverbrook Farm. Second, I attended my first Organically Grown Cooperative meeting, which was attended by only 5 people that night: Tom, Keith, Richard Wilen, Tom Alexander and myself. Topics of conversation included muskmelon varieties, deer fencing and what crops might be grown in the upcoming months, but there was nothing said that might indicate where OGC would soon head.

One morning several months later, however, Tom and I stood in the Pritchett Field at Riverbrook Farm and for the first time discussed the potential for creating a growers’ cooperative that would market our crops. We were frustrated with competing in a too-small market against growers who were also friends and allies, and our goal was to better coordinate our approach to the market while remaining on-farm rather than using 25% of our energy on marketing; relying on OGC staff to market, sell and deliver our produce and collect afterwards. Ironically, we ended up becoming OGC employees ourselves.

Three years later, having run an obstacle course that required our brains, our wills, our goodwill, and considerable community support, growers from about a dozen farms and their supporters stood on the deck of the first OGC facility at 1153 West 2nd Avenue in Eugene. Lynn Crosby, a V.I.S.T.A. volunteer, had over a two year period facilitated the decision- making processes that had led us there. Our modest grand opening featured words from Lane County Commissioner Peter DeFazio, a garlic braid cutting, raspberry shortcake and Genesis juice.

We were just a bunch of mostly young back to the land'ers trying to learn farming, and in the process we managed to create an organization that has served as a continually innovative and inventive model, showing that it is not necessary to drop the culture from agriculture in order to do business. We set up and fine-tuned our production and distribution model from scratch with little support except from Eugene’s alternative community and our peers in the organic movement. We did this while holding onto our vision and values, and we have been rewarded as we have because we honored our culture and the community around us while working hard every day to live what we had dreamed.

It is at times difficult for some of us to appreciate that, as we move our business from one structure, one leadership, one initiative to another over the years, striving for a future where complexity and wholeness, justice and compassion, and clean and good food become more essential threads in the fabric of our societies, the work also gets done in the NOW.

As in, the efforts required to deliver food 7 days a week, 365 days a year to people across the Northwest and beyond. Since the grand opening in July 1983, we have supplied fresh produce for upwards of 38,000 breakfasts, lunches and dinners; many people in the Northwest have grown up eating organic produce that OGC has sourced and distributed. We now deliver over 2 million tons of organic produce to our accounts each month – more in a single day than in our first year operating as a distributor. That is a LOT of food, a lot of working with growers to plan and receive it, a lot of work in holding and moving and selling and delivering it, and all of that brain and brawn has been provided by an amazing community of growers, farmworkers and OGC employees that has made sure that our dreams and designs have a chance to manifest.

I put forth the first of three quotes from the Weinstein Manifesto, penned by David Weinstein of Los Angeles organic distributor Heath and Lejeune:

“The one innovation that is our legacy to pass on is the idea that local and regionally based businesses can be effective vehicles for large scale social change. We are not philanthropically funded NGOs. We are not in the street marchers. We do not do electoral politics. We buy things and sell things and provide services to our customers and by doing so we have enabled and facilitated a profound and enduring change in farming. By doing so, we have demonstrated the effectiveness of an overlooked model of social change. We must work to insure that this lesson is not lost on those who come after us.”

As much as we have accomplished and justifiably celebrate, I cannot fail to acknowledge the pain we have felt as OGC and our grower base have been severely impacted by the changes in the marketplace brought about by mainstreaming over the last year or two, and the need to make our adjustments and move on.

Weinstein again:

“Remember that your businesses are invested not in how things are but in how they should be. Conventional agriculture is invested in how things are. Organic farming, and the distribution model that enables and supports it, is invested in how things should be. The aims of the conventional food system conflict fundamentally with the aims of the organic movement. Appreciating this fact must underlie all of the planning you do for your businesses. You must anticipate the point where the needs of your businesses and the needs of your conventional trading partners diverge.”

Our trade appears to be at that point. It has presented one of the greatest challenges OGC has faced, but it is not the first or only one. At least twice before, I have stood with a staff that wondered whether we would survive.

In the mid-1980’s Rebecca Willows and I were among employees who voted ourselves a pay decrease in order to help support the business as it went through several years in the red. Later, I was a member of a management team that had to deal with the loss of our two largest accounts, as both were purchased by Wild Oats and moved away from our services.

We struggled, but part of our make-up was always defiance, and there was never talk of responding other than with greater effort at performance and an eye on how we might reinvent ourselves. Which we now do again, a Rising Phoenix.

It is a moment where the need for efficiency, the examination of what really matters, the strengthening of that which remains all makes sense. But within that context, I believe it is critical that we hold onto vision, values, motivations and bonds.

The enormous creativity and work that has led us into our 5th organizational structure in large part was undertaken in order to better protect our core. That core consists of not only our daily workload, but everything OGC has been beyond the delivery of those 38 thousand plus meals.

To quote David Weinstein one more time:

“The key challenges we face moving forward are racism, class prejudice and economic concentration. An independent, regionalized, locally-owned food system is in the cross-hairs of every economic and political trend in the United States and around the world. If we are to survive we must fight. We must ally ourselves with every enemy of economic concentration and organize to defeat it.”

Or as Natalie Reitman-White, OGC’s Vice-President of Organizational Vitality and Trade Advocacy would put it, “You can’t fix a broken food system with a broken finance system.”

I have said that what is unique about OGC and must be preserved through our independence is our desire to live dangerously in the face of conventional wisdom. That does not mean living recklessly. It does mean that we continue to take the risks that lie between our reach and our grasp, the risks that must be taken to insure the health of this planet and all that live on it. This cannot be deferred until the odds are predictably better, because that day may not come or may come too late.

I have also said that the most important discipline is that which occurs when, traversing the side of the mountain, you come to the fork where one path leads up and the other down. Down is so much easier in so many ways and in almost all cases. But the path down will not get us where we want to be. To manage the transitions and achieve the outcomes that OGC was created to address, we must never stop searching, risking, failing, getting back up and achieving.

I have referred to the concept of relationship marketing. I see this as not just good business, but good building of culture. The idea is really pretty simple. It is based on treating the people you do business with the same way you treat people in your own life, assuming of course that your own life is fairly functional.

It involves creating mutually beneficial relationships based on honesty, transparency, and an understanding of shared ambitions for success. Looking at the long arc of interaction and not creating rules that may insure short- term security but unnecessarily inhibit the creation of prosperity. Addressing issues when they arise, and departing relationships on good terms when they fail to work for both parties.

I have referred to ripeness, a concept that should be appreciated by readers. Impatiently eating an apple that is not ripe will provide little satisfaction; neither will much be gained by waiting too long and missing the juiciest moment. Enjoying ripeness requires patient observation followed by quick movement when the moment is truly at hand.

It requires trusting time to move elements into position, so that when you take action it can be done as efficiently as possible, something that is critical in a movement and trade with limited resources and challenged by larger and richer forces.

And last, I have encouraged getting to and staying at the table. It is only through engagement that we gain an understanding of the persons, the environment and the circumstances around us. It is only through our presence that we have the chance to seize opportunity when ripeness presents itself. The ego can take great satisfaction in insisting that pride and self-certainty win the day, but it is not the day we look to win, it is the future.

Thirty-eight years ago, in the spring of 1980, the partnership that Tom, Kellee and I created, Thistle Organics, delivered our first box of produce to town with our label on it. We had our dreams, but how could we have imagined that we would one day enter coolers with thousands of such boxes waiting for their own moment of rack time?

It was a thrill for us to be visited by Mr. Robert Rodale, who as much or more than anyone, was the light showing the way forward for the organic movement. Tragically, within a year he would be killed at age 60 in an automobile accident in the Soviet Union, where he was working on setting up a Russian-language edition of The New Farm. With Robert DeSpain’s recent and unexpected death, all but Tom and I have now passed.

All true cultures experience the cycles of birth and death, and ours is no exception. Over the years we have at times experienced considerable sorrow and loss as we dealt with the passage of contributors to our work, our play, and our celebrations of life.

Over four decades, the crew at OGC and our partners in the organic community, have done what it took to get us where we are now. They stayed in the boat, rowed and bailed and never bowed to whatever storms we encountered. Together we will continue build the independent, regionalized, locally-owned food system Weinstein describes.

Thanks to Nick Andrews from OSU Extension for his help adapting this article.

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