1000 Friends Leadership Spotlight: Organically Grown Company

The largest wholesaler of organic produce in the Pacific Northwest talks farmland protection, industry changes and the future of farming.

As the state’s second largest industry, agriculture is an important part of life in Oregon. Up until recently, however, organic farming wasn’t a large part of the conversation. This is changing. Organically Grown Company, the largest organic produce wholesaler in the Pacific Northwest, is proof of the transformation. Started in 1978 as a nonprofit, OGC mostly supported small-scale organic farms. It transitioned to a for-profit company in 1982, with its first dock opening a year later. This catapulted the company from an agricultural marketing cooperative to a full-service distributor. Since then, the organic market exploded. OGC grossed more than $150 million in 2014—approximately 1,000 times more than it did in 1983.

“When we started, there were very few retail outlets moving organic and almost no farmers’ markets,” says vice president of sales and marketing David Lively. “Prices were very poor. No one made a real living at it. Organic farming today is typically more lucrative, and farmers are typically more stable. Some are larger scale and more sophisticated in many aspects. The market has grown tremendously. Not only retail, but also the farmers’ markets and direct marketing—those outlets really pay growers well and allow smaller scale farmers to operate successfully.”

A big part of this dramatic change has to do with organic products becoming mainstream. Look around a supermarket today, and you’ll be hard-pressed not to find an organic section.

 “Organic agriculture is not about growing the market, since consumption only grows as human population grows—a few percent a year,” Lively says. “It’s about transitioning the market away from conventional agricultural practices and products, and that growth occurs at a rate of close to 20% per year. I think we are on the verge of breaking through toward the creation of some accomplishments that move us ‘organic and beyond.’”

In order to achieve these goals, OGC remains a grower-focused operation. That means spending a lot of time in the field and working with farmers to make it easier for them to grow and ship their products. Supporting farmland protection initiatives also helps preserve the integrity of land needed to produce healthy organic crops.

“We not only function in the trade but in the movement as well, so we’re pretty political by nature,” Lively explains. “We’ve been concerned with labor issues, food safety issues, GMO issues, organic standards, and more. We advocate for the grower whenever possible. “

Although organic farming has come a long way, there are still challenges to overcome. One prominent struggle is that the average age of farmers in Oregon is nearly 60. Another is that certain people, such as historically disadvantaged populations, have fewer opportunities to enjoy the benefits of organic foods. OGC suggests tackling these issues in a number of ways.

“We are no longer a rural society, so it is imperative that we show urban dwellers the value of rural landscapes, the sustainable production that happens there, and the economic activity that flows from maintaining a strong agri-culture,” Lively says. “Food and water will always be very significant concerns for all life. We want to work with seed companies, farmers and retailers to show people the ways in which they can help create the foods that they buy and feed those foods to their families. We want to do this through greater interaction with those who are working to insure our access to excellent seed inventories in the future.”

Lively also mentions other ways people can promote the organic agriculture industry. Insisting that universities develop and foster organic agriculture programs, research and degrees is one option. Another is finding ways to encourage small-scale organic producers to expand to help meet the increased market demand. Vegetables, grains and beans that are less expensive than processed foods should also be a priority.

After all, Lively sees conventional farming playing a smaller role in the future: “A production system based on significant use of non-renewable resources and considerable toxic impact appears to me to be an unlikely option in a world struggling to attain sustainable approaches and outcomes.”