For something fundamentally so simple—fruits and vegetables sown without manmade pesticides—organic produce can sure get complicated.
We've had a front row seat in Monterey County thanks to the sizable ag industry presence and the rise of Carmel Valley-born Earthbound Farm from roadside mom-and-pop raspberry stand to massive multi-multi-million dollar company—and the biggest organic providers in the United States. (More on the early days in a minute.)
As EBF announced its sale to Colorado-based milk producer WhiteWave Foods for $600 million this morning, that simple-complex paradox got new life. (WhiteWave's most famous brands include Horizon, Silk, Land O' Lakes and International Delight.)
Some of the many questions therein: Can true organic principles be maintained at such a massive scale? Can personal relationships with the soil and local ecosystems be trusted to a distantly located, publicly traded company? (WhiteWave stock was up 7.3 percent with news of the acquisition.)
I brought up similar issues when Earthbound quietly brought on cunning Dallas-based equity firm HM Capital Partners as co-pilot in 2010, with a piece called "Power Planting: Big changes appear to be emerging from the organic dirt at Earthbound Farm."
Organic going big business and mainstream is bittersweet not just because it raises issues about scalability and accountability, but because the origin story of EBF is so homespun and local: Fresh college grads Myra and Drew Goodman started a fruit stand out of necessity as much as anything else.
They found a house off Carmel Valley Road where they could work off the rent by improving the property while Myra prepared for grad school. They figured they could cover their expenses with Myra’s babysitting checks and by selling fruit from the property’s acre and a half of raspberries. But when the time came to apply the pesticides to the crops, they couldn’t do it.
And an American revolution was planted.
“I’d look right outside from the kitchen, see customers, dust off the flour and run out," Myra remembers. "I have friends that say, ‘I used to buy the corn muffins when you were 20. Remember me?’”
The cookbooks Myra wrote later remain some of my favorite and most-used.
We did a cover story on the first one, Food to Live By, called "Organic Evolution: In its remarkable new cookbook, Earthbound Farm takes healthy cooking one step further."
The second, The Earthbound Cook: 250 Recipes for Delicious Food and a Healthy Planet, came in 2010, and delved more deeply into Myra's processed-food childhood before unleashing still more organic insight.
Three decades after the roadside stand they were atop a dynasty that placed organics in roughly 75 percent of grocery stores nationwide. Seventy-five percent. From that perch Myra wrote a piece on the future of food for the Weekly's 25th Anniversary issue last month.
"My hope for the future lies in the fact that when we change what we eat, we change how food is produced," she writes. "In our free-market economy, consumers have immense power when they vote with their forks. The growth of the organic industry is a perfect example of consumer-driven change. In 1984, when my husband Drew and I started Earthbound Farm, organic was barely on the radar. Few retailers were eager to introduce organic foods, but they eventually did because of consumer demand. Now, organic food is available in almost every supermarket in the U.S., and 10 percent of produce sales in America is organic. Over the last 10 years, the organic food industry has increased from $8 billion to $29 billion, a growth of 360 percent."
Statements on the $600 million deal from the involved parties were less lofty and articulate and more predictable and problematic, at least for the hardcore organic crowd.
WhiteWave chairman and CEO Gregg Engles had this: “With Horizon Organic and Earthbound Farm, WhiteWave will now provide the two most popular gateways for consumers to enter into the organic category—produce and dairy. The acquisition is expected to be accretive to earnings per share in the first year after close and will add to our already-strong growth momentum.”
Earthbound Farm CEO Charles Sweat added that the sale is a harmonious one because both companies “believe in the importance of scaling the production of better food that makes for healthier people and a healthier planet.”
The statement also maintains little will change in the operation of Earthbound Farm, which will function as its own business unit when the sale is finalized next business quarter, including personnel.