NRDC Honors Food Leaders at the 2013 Growing Green Awards
[All Photography: Chad Sawyer/The SAWYER Agency]
For the past five years, the Natural Resources Defense Council has sought out leaders throughout the food industry that are thinking differently and changing the face of the industry for the better. At the 2013 Growing Green Awards, the NRDC highlighted four individuals who are making a difference along every segment of the supply chain, from distribution and retail to the very soil where the crops are grown.
Russ Kremer | Heritage Acres
When the contraction of an antibiotic-resistant superbug from one of his hogs turned a routine farm accident into a two month near-death experience nightmare, fifth generation pig farmer Russ Kremer dedicated his career to raising his livestock naturally and drug-free. But once he found his calling, there was still the matter of putting it into action – for that Kremer had to look to foreign markets like England and Italy, outside the conventions of the local market where oppressive pork market prices were making it difficult for independent farmers to make a living.
“I’d traveled in Europe in 1999 to study the new trends in marketing food products that were happening over there,” says Kremer. “What I learned was that there was this movement for consumers to build relationships with the farmer, knowing how things were produced and where they were produced, and treating farmers like they were rock stars. I also learned that they were willing to pay a premium for the product that was safe, sustainably raised, and free of chemicals and antibiotics.”
In particular, it was a German cooperative run by a retired veterinarian-turned-homeopathic healer that inspired Kremer to come home and found the Ozark Mountain Pork Cooperative, a collective that is now 52 farms strong – all of them dedicated to raising all-natural heritage pork. Under brands like Heritage Acres and Fork in the Road, Kremer’s cooperative has formed supplier partnerships with major names from Costco to Whole Foods to Chipotle.
“We had raised quite a bit of money and hired marketing and sales people, and that part actually failed – and I came to the realization that what the customers wanted was to know the farmers and know our authentic story,” says Kremer. “So I started knocking on the doors myself. After about three attempts, finally [Chipotle Steve Ells] called and said he wanted to come out and visit, so he actually came out to our farm and was sold on the fact that we truly had this great story and are passionate about raising pigs the right way.”
Kremer sees the NRDC award recognition as a nod to not just him or his cooperative, but as a window to changing the industry for the better. “I was totally flattered and surprised, and of course honored,” says Kremer. “I don’t seek out awards like this. I have dedicated my life to this, especially since I had this near death experience and realized I had to be part of the solution to the safety of food and developing a model for farmers in the food system. I accept this award on behalf of a lot of the other sustainable farmers who work with me or have followed me into the system, because you’ve got to be courageous to go outside your comfort zone and really do what’s right. So I feel a sense of obligation, by winning this award, to continue this work and to continue to prove to the world that the sustainable way of producing food and developing a model and a system for this food is available and acceptable to the masses.”
Larry Jacobs | Jacobs Farm/Del Cabo/Farm Fuel Inc.
Larry Jacobs is an entrepreneur who wears several hats, but it all stems from the same source. “I had a really bad experience with pesticides when I was young,” he relates. “In the 1980s the wisdom for growing foods was that you had to use the pesticides, and I just had a strong urge to show that you could do it without all these chemicals – it was hard to find food that wasn’t grown with chemicals, and so there was an impetus to do it ourselves.”
That determination has led Jacobs to the vanguard of the organic agriculture movement on several fronts, from his organic culinary herb production farm Jacobs Farms to his work building the Del Cabo co-operative to support small farming communities in Baja California. Now Jacobs and his team are turning their attentions to another facet of the agriculture industry.
“We started [Farm Fuel Inc.] to help develop tools for farmers to help address some of the big problems we have growing food that up to now require some pretty heavy duty chemicals,” says Jacobs. The problem in particular that Farm Fuel is targeting is the use of methyl bromide, a soil fumigant with an ugly history of ozone depletion and toxicity that is nonetheless a crucial part of conventional farming. “Methyl bromide has become more limited in use, and the amounts licensed and permitted in this country has been increasingly restricted, yet there has been very strong pressure from the ag community and manufacturers to continue using it because they don’t have anything better – so we focused on trying to develop strategies for dealing with that.”
The answer appears to reside in the humble mustard seed – or rather the isothiocyanates that give mustard its heat and its herbicidal properties – and short carbon chain substances like molasses and rice meal that can quickly render soil to anaerobic conditions. Between EPA registration and rigorous testing in real life situations through established farms like Driscoll’s and Nature Ripe, Jacobs is confident that these organic techniques have bright futures ahead.
“We’re that finding yields are better and it’s working comparable to very strong soil fumigants like methyl bromide, and we’re very confident we have a replacement product that’s as good and is going to cost less,” says Jacobs. “When you put that combination in place, you obviate the need to regulate out the use: you don’t need to legislate that farmers can’t use methyl bromide any longer, because now they’ve got something just as good that costs less. Farmers are smart – they’re going to choose that because they’re going to get a better yield, save themselves money, and they don’t have to use this chemical that has setbacks and registration and all this regulatory stuff.”
The NRDC Growing Green Award can only help in getting Farm Fuel’s new ideas the recognition they need to take off. “It was a huge surprise and an enormous honor to be singled out for this award,” says Jacobs. “Those of us growing food work really hard, and the public recognition goes a long way to making us all feel encouraged about all that we do. We’re all putting food in our mouths and our bodies every day – it’s our nourishment, it’s a great source of enjoyment, it’s as basic a human need as you can get. So NRDC recognizing and acknowledging those of us in the food growing world that are pushing the envelope and pushing our industry to grow and create food in a more sustainable way that’s healthy for all the participants – from the workers on the farm to the farmers involved with growing the food – is really important.”
FOOD JUSTICE LEADER
Tezozomoc / South Central Farmers Health and Education Fund
“The way that employment is these days, where it’s hard to even have full time employment even if you want to be employed, and we’ve entered a new form of work – it’s kind of nomadic employment, with a constant unknown, and it’s not guaranteed that you’re going to have employment even if you want to,” says Los Angeles local leader Tezozomoc. “So having those kinds of policies and concepts that allow people to feed themselves, it’s a new form of adaptation to not only living in the city but also creating meaningful subsistence living through agriculture.”
This is the philosophy behind the South Central Farmers Health and Education Fund, a nonprofit project grown out of a 14-acre community farm in L.A.’s South Central district. Though the farm was closed and destroyed in 2006, its spirit lives on through numerous SCFHEF projects, the largest of which is a new 85-acre community farm in Buttonwillow. But that is only the tip of the iceberg.
“We are looking into resources, land, water, capital for equipment, and operating capital to do another farm – that’s our next goal,” says Tezozomoc. “Additionally we’re providing distribution services and marketing services for our existing coops and any future ones, and we’ve started a commercial kitchen that does co-packing and co-processing. We’re working with the cooperative to create a different way to get food to people, trying to create healthy organic and ethnic product lines. These are real things that are happening now – our future is looking at how do we create more of these equity programs where the participants are co-owners in their work? So like the worker-owned cooperatives, distribution as a service rather than an independent vendor – these are the kinds of real things we’re working on, and hopefully with the NRDC Going Green award we can highlight some of these and get some of that support to happen our way.”
Support for the SCFHEF translates directly into support for the farmers and workers that participate in the project – and the opportunity that the community farm provides is a powerful thing. “We believe that agriculture is one of few things that allows you to scale up a way to make a living,” says Tezozomoc. “That’s what we’ve been trying to show. Even if you have people who are marginalized, people can still feed themselves whether within the infrastructure of cities or outside of them.”
YOUNG FOOD LEADER
Brianna Almaguer Sandoval | Healthy Corner Store Initiative
Known for being stocked with heavily processed nonperishable snacks and junk food, a prevailing school of thought paints corner stores as a villain in the fight for access to fresh and healthy food in low-income food deserts. But Philadelphia’s Food Trust nonprofit asked the question: what if corner stores could be converted into willing allies?
That’s the idea behind the Healthy Corner Store Initiative, a movement led by Food Trust employee and NRDC Young Food Leader award winner Brianna Almaguer Sandoval.
“We did a lot of research and found that 53 percent of kids were shopping at corner stores at least once a day,” says Sandoval. “We thought: if they’re already going to the corner stores, why don’t we just work with them to bring healthier snack options to kids – and why aren’t they offering healthier options? Through that sort of question and answer and trial and error, we developed this model for change in stores where we are providing them with training and technical support around selling healthy perishable products, improving overall store operations, and then also providing them with equipment and other resources they need assistance with in order to get started with selling healthy.”
Sandoval identified three key points that tend to keep healthier offerings out of corner stores – skills, space, and sourcing – and from there the Healthy Corner Store Initiative has set out to help stores overcome those points through employee training and equipment upgrades. Most importantly, the Initiative helps connect stores with quality suppliers who can offer healthy and fresh products at competitive prices. “The idea is really to provide them with that initial support to begin implementing these new healthy options, and then let them continue that through their normal business operations,” says Sandoval.
While the project is already seeing success, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. “We are continuing to develop new ideas and strategies around not only getting healthier products into stores but getting customers to buy them,” says Sandoval. “The next phase that we’re working on is the Healthy Corner Store Certification Program – we’re doing that in partnership with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and their Get Healthy Philly initiative. We’re actually certifying a store as being healthy, and we look at a number of different food categories like dairy, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, snacks and beverages. For each of those categories we have a certain amount of products that the store must carry, and nutrition standards with that. We’re also requiring stores to implement a promotional requirement. Instead of just stocking those items, put them at eye level in a high traffic location.”
Sandoval notes that it’s all part of the plan to keep moving corner stores – and the city of Philadelphia in general – toward better health and respect for the food system. “Over time we’ve been getting them to do a little more, and this is the next step. So again we’re still trying to push stores to try a little harder and add a little more.”