Natural Foods Merchandiser

DiMatteo rallied organic growth

Many people have influenced the growth of organics in the United States. But perhaps the most unheralded is Katherine DiMatteo's high school guidance counselor.

That counselor unwittingly sowed the seeds for DiMatteo's 16-year stint as executive director of the Organic Trade Association and founding board member of the Organic Center for Education and Promotion. Had her counselor not given her questionable career advice, DiMatteo might be toiling in a laboratory rather than serving as a public face of the organics movement and an influential lobbyist for government approval and mainstream acceptance of organic food.

DiMatteo was the top student in her New Jersey high school physics class, but no one encouraged her in a math or science career. Instead, her guidance counselor recommended a traditional job for women in the mid-1960s: teaching. So DiMatteo graduated from New Jersey's Trenton State College in 1971 with a degree in education, prepared to enter the work force as a junior high and high school social studies teacher.

But DiMatteo soon discovered thousands of her peers had received the same advice from their guidance counselors. The market was flooded with teachers, and DiMatteo couldn't find a job. So she took a bookkeeping course with the idea of working in financial management. She also moved to western Massachusetts, where one of her housemates introduced her to organic gardening.

"We would spend hours talking about and planting our tiny little garden plot," DiMatteo says. It was a new way of thinking for a New Jersey girl who had never really been exposed to organics or farming. That experience, combined with reading Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1962), Rachel Carson's seminal book about the perils of pesticides, piqued DiMatteo's interest in environmentalism and sustainable agriculture so much that she decided to work in the natural foods industry.

"All of those things came together and shaped who I am as an individual and as a professional," DiMatteo says. "My personal and professional life has been mixed and intertwined so much."

DiMatteo began her career as a food co-op employee and then became manager of a small natural foods store in Greenfield, Mass. She learned how to combine a cooperative structure with the business side of natural foods by working for a distributor, Western Massachusetts Food Co-ops. Subsequent jobs as development director for the Peace Development Fund and executive director of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association taught her about community organization, empowering volunteers and the value of mediation.

In 1990, DiMatteo was working for the NESEA when OTA members approached her about becoming their organization's executive director. Although the OTA was 5 years old at the time, it was what DiMatteo calls a "clutch-and-grab startup" without a staff, a clear mission or even a tax-exempt, nonprofit status. Still, DiMatteo liked its potential.

"Organics was a very exciting and emerging alternative food sector," she says. "I thought I would have more fulfillment working with food than sustainable energy. Food is easier to understand and relate to, and I had more background in it." She also saw a chance to put her organizational skills to work. "I liked the idea of coming in at the beginning of an organization and doing a lot of startup work, developing the structure and helping the organization form itself," she says.

DiMatteo worked with OTA board members to increase membership and improve awareness of the organization. She attended trade shows, spoke at conferences and worked with farmers and sustainable agricultural associations. Throughout the process, she was "assessing what a trade association for organics should be, where we sat in the naturals world, the organic world, the farming world, the sustainable and eco-label world." This was key, DiMatteo says, because Congress passed The Organic Foods Production Act in July 1990, a month after she joined the OTA. "It was like this big elephant had landed, and we had to figure out what our role was, how we were going to play in getting this implemented. We had to become a political voice."

DiMatteo's task was difficult. "Most people thought organics was one of those fringe ideas—here one day, gone the next—so they didn't have to pay attention to it," she says. "Getting any respect was part of what I and our board and our members had to do—building a professional perception of our association and our members and their business of organic farming."

Her strategy was to "just keep talking about organics." She was so successful that not only was OTA a key player in the implementation of the U.S. organic standards in 2002, but DiMatteo has also received a cornucopia of awards, including the 2001 National Nutritional Foods Association's Rachel Carson Environmental Achievement Award. Organics became so mainstream that other industry associations sprouted. Some of the new groups took on DiMatteo herself, charging her with being a lackey for OTA's increasingly corporate membership. Others challenged OTA's commitment to locally produced organic products and the purity of organic ingredients.

All along, DiMatteo has encouraged OTA to stay true to its mission: to promote and protect the growth of organic trade to benefit the environment, farmers, the public and the economy. "That doesn't discount other values [some organizations associate with organic agriculture]," she says. "But the layers of value systems that can be added to a particular label are endless. To succeed in being respected, one has to choose carefully what you're going to take on. Other values are important, but there should be other avenues to market those values.

"It's evolution rather than revolution. We need to talk about values in ways that don't drive down the value of another system." For instance, she says, those in favor of locally produced organic foods could "promote and use that as a market value without finding ways that run down conventional or organic foods that aren't local."

DiMatteo says, in some cases, the clash between opposing groups can be described as "setting the bar at the bottom and moving up rather than setting it at the top where only a few can achieve it. OTA wants a high entry level for organics but not an impossible one. We're always talking about continuous improvement for farmers and business.

"It's a half-full versus half-empty approach. We don't want to manage to the negative exception; we want to work to the positive majority. Some other organic missions and approaches point out the negative [or half-empty approach, or] point out the failures, and that's OK. That's what makes them a success at what they're doing. We all have roles to play, and we will find what those roles are. OTA envisions we will continually try to find the common ground."

In the future, DiMatteo will have less of a role in forging that common ground. She resigned as OTA executive director in March and will serve as senior adviser through June, smoothing the transition for her replacement, Caren Wilcox. DiMatteo will also remain a board member of The Organic Center. "It was just time to move on, time for me to see if there was another kind of chapter in my professional life," she says.

The hiring of Wilcox, who has extensive government experience, may signal that OTA's future emphasis will be on political lobbying. DiMatteo says she would like to see OTA continue to build on its strengths: "More collaboration and alliances with trade associations and farm organizations; working to ensure conversion of farmland to organic to ensure our organics supply is largely from the U.S. and Canada rather than from other parts of the world; and advancing the understanding of the role of organic farming in environmental protection, sustainability, public and personal health."

DiMatteo says she's mulling over ideas for her own future, and plans to take the summer off and "reflect on what would make me happy."

"It's been an honor to be involved with all kinds of individuals and all kinds of organizations through OTA," she says. "Life has unfolded for me in wonderful ways. If I had tried to plan it and force it, it wouldn't have turned out as well."

Vicky Uhland is a Lafayette, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 5/p. 14, 16

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