December 17, 2013 – The upcoming sale of Earthbound Farm to Colorado-based White Wave for $600 million and the recent purchase of Santa Cruz’ New Leaf Community Markets by Portland’s New Seasons grocery chain raise some fundamental questions. Can big be beautiful when it comes to buying organic, sustainably produced foods? How important is buying locally? And does a local company that now belongs to a larger entity still count as local?
New Leaf founder Scott Roseman—an EMB local hero in 2013—just resigned from the board of Santa Cruz County’s Think Local First business group because his company no longer fits its definition of local. He’s promised that the markets won’t change under the new ownership and so far customers seem to have accepted that pledge without a fuss. Not so with the Earthbound sale announced last week and expected to be finalized in January.
Over the past few days consumers have laid siege to the organic produce company’s Facebook page, blasting Earthbound for “selling out” and slamming the new owners for being in bed with Monsanto—in sometimes vicious words not often seen on the FB pages of vegetable growers.
“It’s so toxic. I was really shocked and find it so disturbing,” said Myra Goodman, who founded Earthbound with her husband Drew in Carmel Valley 30 years ago.
The frenzy was sparked by two blog posts, one a quick smear piece that has now been corrected and a second more factual story looking back at the history of White Wave—which makes Silk Soymilk and Horizon Organic Dairy products—discussing mistakes that were made before spinning off from Dean Foods last May. You can read it here.
“People don’t realize that White Wave has donated $1 million to anti-GMO causes,” Goodman explained. “Lots of things happened under Dean Foods, but they broke away and now they can have the culture and commitment they want.”
“I think when you break away you are kind of wiping the slate clean and they are certainly putting their money where their mouth is,” she added, promising that Earthbound will remain 100% organic and GMO free.
Earthbound spokeswoman Samantha Cabaluna has been working overtime answering each one of the angry Facebook posts with aplomb. “I hope you’ll keep an open mind and see that we’re the same company we’ve always been…only we hope to do more of it,” she pleaded to one customer who wrote that she would never buy Earthbound products again.
Certainly the 53,000 organic acres farmed by Earthbound and their 1,200 employees—based mainly at its San Juan Bautista HQ—will remain more or less unchanged. They aren’t about to start growing baby lettuce in Colorado.
But in a way it feels like “our” Earthbound and “our” New Leaf are no longer entirely ours. Myra Goodman says it feels to her as if Earthbound were a child who has now grown up and left the nest. It’s a little bittersweet, but we can also be proud that the Monterey Bay area has bred and nurtured such important companies in the organic movement.
Of course, Earthbound Farm has not been small for a long time and makes no apologies for its massive scale. Goodman is tackling criticism head on by giving a gutsy TEDx talk in Manhattan on March 1 next year entitled “In Praise of Big Organics.” Read a preview of her talk here.
“Everything is buy small, buy local. There’s a ‘big is bad’ prejudice, but organic is not too big, it’s too small,” she contends, pointing out that less than 1% of U.S. cropland is now under organic cultivation, meaning the rest contributes to pesticide and chemical fertilizer-related pollution.
In her 12-minute presentation to be broadcast over the Internet, Goodman will argue that organic farming techniques are scale neutral and talk about the sustainability of large-scale produce packing and distribution.
“I love going to the Farmers’ Market and it’s wonderful to be friends with your farmer, but let’s unify our support for organics of every size,” she says.
Deborah Luhrman is publisher and editor of Edible Monterey Bay. A lifelong journalist, she has reported from around the globe, but now prefers covering our flourishing local food scene and growing her own vegetables in the Santa Cruz Mountains.