The Organically Grown Company - The Link from Farm to Fork03/31/2006
by Andy Parker
For many Tilthers, appreciating and applying ecological principles is standard practice for daily life. Ecology (i.e. relationships) is the life force of natural systems, linking individual elements to form cohesive and productive wholes. Anyone involved in gardening, farming, holistic health-care and business comes to understand the importance of these relationships in achieving success. Innovative companies around the world are applying principles of ecology to their business practices and gauging success based on a variety of social, economic and environmental indicators.
One of these pioneering companies is the Organically Grown Company (OGC). Formed in 1978 as a non-profit organization of gardeners, small-scale farmers and activists, OGC became a farmer-owned cooperative in 1983. From the beginning, OGC’s central purpose was to “assist farmers in marketing, packaging, and interstate shipment of their products.” Additionally, a cooperative decision in the mid-1980s, requiring that all members achieve organic certification, furthered the growth of organically certified farms and complimented the work of certification development by Oregon Tilth. This vision and synergy is a fundamental theme running through OGC.
Now, as an S-class corporation with 22 employee and 18 farmer owners, OGC fruitfully performs many essential and complimentary roles in our regional food system. While distribution of fresh organic produce is their primary function, education, community service, sustainability and an extraordinary staff are pillars of their innovative business. For almost three decades, OGC has steadily pioneered model practices based on their company values: health, sustainability, partnerships, and integrity. All the while, they have evolved into the leading western purveyor of supreme quality organic fruits and vegetables.
Sustainability Means Business
“Promoting health through organic agriculture as a leading sustainable organization,” is the OGC motto and mission, influencing the company’s attitude towards everything. Tyson Haworth, Portland Operations Manager, explores the inherent conflicts with this mission on a daily basis. “Claiming to be a leading sustainable organization is very different from claiming to be a following sustainable organization,” Haworth says proudly, “But I’ve realized we don’t have to be leading all the time.” Sustainability and growth are a balancing act, especially when OGC’s sales have been growing exponentially for over a decade. Managing this kind of growth responsibly becomes a worthy achievement.
Haworth is a sharp entrepreneur whose experience greatly overshadows his young age. He’s managed operations at the Portland warehouse for over six years and is also a partial owner of the cooperatively minded OGC. “Our financial success enables us to push our own agendas of sustainability,” Haworth explains. “It (financial success) also allows us to be creative, providing our community network and OGC employees benefits and services that aren’t normally part of a conventional business model.”
These services include the distribution of high-quality, in-season produce, picked and delivered at peak ripeness purchasing over 90 percent of products direct from growers (See page 6); implementing sustainability practices such as the use of wind energy and biodiesel, composting, reusing and recycling; and developing progressive employment policies such as the 4-R component of their “Compensation Philosophy” which seeks to “Retain, Reward, Recruit, and Retire” stellar employees through exceptional benefits. Equity is priority at OGC, where employees are paid at or above market for similar jobs in Oregon.
"What we do, promoting and supporting organic agriculture, is unique and progressive. How we do what we do, though, has not been so different from the other guys. We want to focus more on how to be truly sustainable and do more with less as we grow.” To the credit of everyone at OGC, this how-to intention has translated into some remarkable actions and accomplishments for the company.
Among the many progressive policies and practices at Organically Grown is a “sustaining” membership to the Oregon Natural Step Network. Founded by a Swedish oncologist in 1989 to address systematic causes of environmental problems, The Oregon Natural Step Network organization (www.ortns.org) promotes the adoption and application of four basic principles related to social and environmental sustainability. These principles address the reduction of consumption, waste, and destruction, while supporting the needs of all people worldwide. The Natural Step is internationally recognized as a leading verification for sustainable business practices and, as Haworth puts it, “provides a tangible framework that can be used to determine how activities are contributing to sustainability”.
Haworth and OGC helded set up a Natural Step summit at the World Forestry Center in Portland to discuss sustainability as it relates to the expansion of OGC’s Portland warehouse. Haworth brought a diverse array of contractors (electrical, refrigeration, builders), county planners, OGC staff members, and Natural Step specialists together to explore concepts and practices in sustainability. “Our society often isolates people in its approach to development. We’re trying to figure out how to best integrate the planning and development process with community efforts toward sustainability.”
Another effort towards this end was the OGC sponsored “Sustainability Summit”, held in Portland on March 12, 2005. The summit included 150 growers, retailers, wholesalers, home delivery groups, and community organizations from Oregon, Washington, California, Arizona, and Mexico. The Summit presented and encouraged strategies for creating a more sustainable produce industry and inspired a diversity of on-going efforts across the west.
This year, OGC’s main focus is managing its growth. With a 30 percent annual growth rate, they are keeping busy refining activities for increased stability, success, and sustainability in the demanding world of interstate commerce.
For information on OGC’s sustainability efforts contact Natalie Reitman-White, OGC intern, (541) 461-6458, firstname.lastname@example.org, or David Lively, OGC’s Marketing Director, (541) 689-5320, email@example.com. Visit www.organicgrown.com.
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