The high-profile TEDx talk by Myra Goodman had already been scheduled and the topic had already been set when news broke late last year that WhiteWave Foods Co.—the makers of Silk Soymilk and Horizon organic dairy products—was buying Earthbound Farm of San Juan Bautista for $600 million.
With the addition of the Earthbound brand, WhiteWave’s earnings from organic products are expected to surpass $1 billion this year. And that makes Goodman’s gutsy speech, “In Praise of Big Organic,” all the more timely.
Set to be delivered at a major TEDx event in Manhattan called “Changing the Way We Eat” and available for viewing on the Internet just as this issue of Edible Monterey Bay comes out on March 1, Goodman tackles critics of big organic head on.
“There’s this small is good, big is bad prejudice. A lot of misinformation has spread. Even amongst the thought leaders; it’s all very local, local, small, small, and I think that’s really incorrect,” she says. “The organic industry is not too big; it’s too small.”
Goodman points out that more than 99% of all farmland in the United States is still farmed conventionally, using an “arsenal of chemicals” that are toxic for humans and the environment. Only 4.2% of all U.S. food sales are organic. She urges viewers to keep things in perspective, saying that Earthbound, the nation’s largest organic produce company, is just 0.8% the size of food giant, PepsiCo Inc.
“People overlook the fact that when big growers transition big plots of land to organic, they’re making a very big impact in terms of avoiding all these dangerous chemicals. They’re also getting up to the scale where they can supply our nation’s supermarkets, which is where the vast majority of food in this country is purchased.”
Goodman and her husband, Drew, started Earthbound Farm 30 years ago, initially selling the heirloom raspberries they grew in their 2.5-acre Carmel Valley backyard at a roadside stand. But more than any other local organic farm, they grew their operation dramatically, coming up with innovations along the way in growing, harvesting and packaging that allowed them to distribute through the major grocery store channels, across the country and internationally. Today, Earthbound cultivates more than 33,000 acres.
Goodman strongly believes that the company’s growth has not compromised Earthbound’s aim to grow food in a manner that’s good for both people and the planet.
Countering critics who contend that big organic is industrial, that it’s mono-cropping and just input substitution, Goodman says: “That’s impossible! You can’t be an organic farmer and mono-crop. You have to rotate your crops. There are no organic herbicides; they don’t exist. Organic fumigants don’t exist, and organic insecticides aren’t close to as powerful as conventional ones.
“What we’ve learned at Earthbound over the past 30 years is that organic techniques are really scale neutral,” she adds. “The only way we can farm successfully as organic farmers is to have healthy soil, build a healthy ecosystem on our farms and rotate crops. There’s no other way to do it, and those are the same methods that work on small farms.”
Her third point is that just because a farm is small and local doesn’t necessarily mean its farming practices are ideal. Small conventional growers use the same chemicals as large conventional growers, she argues, so we should value organic more than we value local.
“We want local farms, but we want our local farms to be organic. We want our local wells to not be polluted by fertilizers, our local produce to not have pesticides. We want our kids who go to local schools not to live near farms using toxic chemicals.”
What about prices? Some argue that lower prices offered by big organic companies keep smaller, local growers out of the marketplace. Goodman responds: “Local farms are thriving in CSAs, farmers’ markets and delivering to local restaurants, but most supermarkets want national contracts with big suppliers, and these local farms aren’t going to do that.”
And what about lowering our carbon footprint by eating locally? Goodman explored this in her second cookbook Food to Live By, concluding that food-miles is a very flawed theory. “It’s like the carpooling concept. Shipping apples across the country in a semi-truck can use less fuel per unit than apples travelling 100 miles in a small pickup,” she says. “People assume that local distribution methods have a small carbon footprint, but that’s not true very often.”
A deeply committed environmentalist and proponent of healthful eating, Goodman concedes that there are at least two good reasons to buy local produce: less packaging—something that Earthbound has been criticized for—and in particular, better quality. “You get stuff that is picked more fresh and could have more nutrients. And you get more variety—varieties that aren’t bred to be shipped across the country and live in a supermarket—varieties that have better taste and appearance.
“My message is that all organic farmers are protecting the health of the people who eat their harvest. They’re protecting the health of the farm workers, the neighbors who live around them and the wildlife. So let’s stop this big is bad, small is good argument and unify our support for organic farms of every size,” she says.
Lastly, she addresses those who say that when organic gets big it loses its soul, by telling a story about an Earthbound employee named Otto.
Otto came to the company from a conventional farm and one day Goodman asked him what he liked about farming organically. Otto said he used to have to push his kids away when he got home from work because there were pesticides on his pants. Now when he gets home, Otto can let his kids run into his arms and hug them—a joy that no one can argue about.
Does Size Matter?
At a time when just a fraction of the food grown in the U.S. is organic, it’s hard to argue with Myra Goodman’s view that the health of both our people and our planet depends on farms of all sizes getting on board and adopting organic practices. But the finer points of the debate over big vs. small and local vs. national goes on and on. What follows are the diverse views of some of our local practitioners and advocates:
“I completely disagree,” says Jeff Larkey, owner of the 65-acre Route 1 Farms in Santa Cruz, referring to Goodman’s point that large organic farms should be valued as much as small ones.
“I think you can treat your land better in a small organic system. Small is better ecologically because you try to imitate nature, and
it’s really difficult to do that when you’re farming 100-acre blocks of the same crop.” “Also the use of fossil fuels is huge—the fuel when you are trucking things across the country and the plastics used in packing—the world would be a lot better off if food were consumed closer to where it’s grown,” he adds.
“Small and local is great, but there’s no way we can keep up with the growing demand for organics as young people start to come into the marketplace,” argues Dick Peixoto, who runs Lakeside Organic Gardens in Watsonville. Peixoto supervises planting and harvesting of 44 different organic vegetables grown on 1,200 acres in the Pajaro Valley and 700 acres in the Imperial Valley, near the Mexican border. “Even though we’re big, a lot of our crops are staggered and still grown in small half-acre plots,” he adds.
Lakeside started producing year-round at the request of its largest customer, Whole Foods, and over the past 18 years has become the largest family-owned grower/shipper of organic vegetables in the States. “I used to feel price pressure from the big guys,” says Peixoto, “but now our label is established and we’re bumping up against them.”
“I’m for a mix of large- and small- and medium-sized farms,” says Swanton Berry Farm’s Jim Cochran, who produces delicious organic strawberries on 90 acres north of Santa Cruz. “Drew and Myra Goodman brought affordable organic food to Iowa and that’s a good thing. They’ve opened up markets for small farmers and showed us a systematic way to do high-quality organic products.
“Managing a small farm is very complex, and it’s possible to do a crappy job of it,” he explains. “Earthbound produces beautiful stuff and has set the standard we all should aspire to.”
“There’s too much big organic bashing that goes on,” maintains Melody Meyer, president of the Organic Trade Association and resident of Soquel. Meyer founded Source Organic in Santa Cruz nearly 20 years ago and is now vice president of policy and industry relations for United Natural Foods, the country’s leading distributor of natural and organic foods.
“Both small and big farms should exist, and they need each other,” she says. “There are places around the world that can only buy from big growers during certain times of year, so they stimulate the market and stimulate demand from the small farms in season—both are good!” — DL
Myra Goodman has just released her third cookbook, this one written with her 24-year-old daughter Marea—an apprentice midwife in Oakland. It’s called Straight from the Earth: Irresistible Vegan Recipes for Everyone and serves up more than 90 delicious dishes made only with plant-based ingredients—no meat, fish, dairy, eggs or even honey.
The Goodmans, not vegans themselves, decided to write a vegan cookbook to entice people into eating less meat and more plant-based foods.
“Eating organic and eating lower on the food chain are the two main things we can do to protect the planet and protect our health,” says Myra. “You don’t have to be 100% vegan, but all of us can shift our diet to more plant based more often.”
Recipes in the new cookbook get surprising bursts of flavor from nuts, seeds and unusual combinations of spices, for instance, Butternut Squash Soup with Double-Roasted Maple- Spiced Hazelnuts or the Eccentric Caesar Salad, which uses curry powder, nutritional yeast and raw cashews to get a perfect vegan dressing.
“When I created this Caesar salad, I did a silly dance around the room. Seriously—it’s that good,” writes Marea.
While the cookbook started out as an intellectual pursuit, a year of creating and testing vegan recipes made Myra somewhat of a convert. “I realized that I feel better when I eat vegan food, and I realized that it’s easy and satisfying to cook vegan food. My diet shifted purely voluntarily,” she says.
As omnivores writing a vegan cookbook, the Goodmans are able to deal with many of the fears people have about a strictly plant-based diet: that it won’t be filling enough; that they won’t get enough protein; or it will get boring. Each recipe is accompanied by a nutritional analysis that shows how much protein, fiber and variety of nutrients the dish contains. They also include a simple 12-point list of reasons why, vegan or not, they choose to use organic ingredients in everything they cook.
Very Chocolaty Chocolate Brownies
From the cookbook, Straight from the Earth, by Myra and Marea Goodman (Chronicle Books, March 2014). Used with permission.
Yields 16 servings
This is husband and father Drew’s favorite recipe in the book. It uses ground chia seeds soaked in coffee to substitute for eggs and add another layer of flavor. Myra says the first time she made it, the batter looked like rubber cement and she nearly threw it out. But have faith, the finished product is delicious. Just be sure to make one day ahead or refrigerate for a couple of hours before serving or the brownies may be too soft.
8 ounces high-quality semisweet chocolate
1/2 cup melted coconut oil
3 tablespoons ground chia seeds
3/4 cup espresso or strong black coffee (regular or decaffeinated) at room temperature
1 1/4 cups packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2/3 cup chopped walnuts
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 350° F. Grease an 8-by-8-inch baking pan with coconut oil. Cover the bottom of the pan with a piece of parchment paper then grease the top of the parchment paper.
Chop 3 ounces of the chocolate into pieces no larger than chocolate chips. Set them aside. Break the remaining 5 ounces of the chocolate into pieces about 1/2-inch wide and put them in the top of a double boiler or in a bowl suspended over a pan of barely simmering water. Stir frequently, until the chocolate is melted and smooth. Remove it from the heat and transfer the chocolate to a large mixing bowl. Stir in the coconut oil, and let cool for 10–15 minutes.
Put the chia seeds into a small mixing bowl and whisk in the coffee. Let sit 5–10 minutes until it thickens (this is our egg substitute). Whisk again to make sure there are no lumps.
Whisk the sugar into the chocolate mixture. Add the vanilla and the chia mixture and whisk vigorously until blended.
In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, salt and baking soda. Stir the flour mixture into the chocolate mixture then fold in the reserved chopped chocolate and the walnuts. Do not overmix. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and bake for 40–50 minutes, until the top feels dry and the brownies feel firm when a toothpick is inserted in the center. Watch them closely during the final minutes of baking to make sure the edges don’t burn.
Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool. These brownies are best when they cool overnight or are refrigerated for 2 hours after they come to room temperature. When they are ready to serve, cut into 16 squares. The brownies will stay fresh at room temperature for about 5 days in an airtight container. They also freeze well.
Deborah Luhrman is a lifelong journalist who has reported from around the world. She returned home to the Santa Cruz Mountains a few years back and enjoys covering our growing local foods movement. She also edits EMB’s electronic newsletter.