Natural Foods Merchandiser

Spirit of Organic Awards winners bring excellence to industry

by Chris O’Brien

The Natural Foods Merchandiser Spirit of Organic Award, presented at the Organic Harvest Festival by New Hope Natural Media, honors unsung heroes of the organic movement. The award ceremony will take place in Boston at Natural Products Expo East, Wednesday, Oct. 15, at 5 p.m. at the Seaport World Trade Center.

The award recipients are peer-nominated and have all demonstrated long-term commitment, innovation, entrepreneurship, passion for organics and a determination to change the way we farm, eat and live. This year’s recipients exemplify the power of individuals and communities to create positive change through the principles and spirit of organics.

Anthony Rodale, former CEO of Rodale Institute based in Kutztown, Pa., is the grandson of Rodale Institute Founder J.I. Rodale and the son of Robert and Ardath Rodale. From 1992 through 2005, he served as vice chairman and then chairman of the Rodale Institute’s board of directors.

Under Rodale’s leadership, the Institute renewed its commitment to the founding theme of Healthy Soil = Healthy Food = Healthy People. The Rodale farm became certified organic and the long-term Farming Systems Trial celebrated its 25th anniversary. The New Farm magazine was launched online and a successful youth-education program and Web site were created.

Rodale received international recognition for leadership work with farmers in Senegal, West Africa. He has also published and exhibited many of his photographs on food security and cultural change in the U.S. and abroad. In 2005, Rodale left the Institute to focus on his photography and passion for competitive sports.

"Let’s just say I am very diversified in my approach to life," Rodale says. "I describe myself now as a photographer, triathlete and organic activist. I really like to inspire people to live a healthier and more active life in whatever way they choose. The organic idea and way is a great place to start."

Rodale continues to advocate for organic farmers and serves on the board of the Rainforest Alliance and the Appeal Board of the Soil Association in the United Kingdom.

Kelly Shea is vice president of government and industry relations at WhiteWave Foods Co., and has earned every syllable in her title.

Shea joined Horizon Organic in 1999 as director of organic agriculture, and subsequently White Wave Foods through the 2004 company merger.

Currently, Shea is responsible for planning and directing the organization’s policies, objectives and initiatives on organic and legislative issues as well as building relationships with state and federal government.

Previously, Shea served as vice president of marketing as well as vice president of purchasing at Northland Organic, based in St. Paul, Minn. In 1994, representing the Mid-America International Agri-Trade Council and the Minnesota Trade Office along with the Western United States Agricultural Trade Association and the Colorado Department of Agriculture, Shea organized the first-ever Organic Foods Educational Seminar in Japan. This led to a four-year U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service-sponsored niche-market promotions program in Japan that was aimed at increasing exports of U.S. organic food to Japan.

Shea is the leader of the Horizon Organic Producer Education program, which sponsors research, offers expertise and provides education for current and future organic partners.

Shea has also been a committee member of the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association, a board member of the Minnesota chapter of the Organic Crop Improvement Association and a board member of the Organic Growers and Buyers Association.

"This is quite an honor," Shea says. "I have only been in organics not quite 20 years and still regard myself as one of the youngsters."

Shea, who grew up shopping at the local co-op and fertilizing her parents’ garden with river-caught carp, later found heroes in organic pioneers such as William Albrecht and Lady Eve Balfour.

"Don’t think about what organic isn’t," Shea says. "Think about what it is. Back then and today organics is healthy soil properly mineralized, with earthworm activity and super compost that produces the healthiest plants that feed the healthiest animals. Then you don’t need the insecticides, the fertilizers and the medications."

Shea serves on the Organic Materials Review Institute’s board of directors and has been chairwoman of the Organic Trade Association Quality Assurance Council Livestock Committee and co-chaired the OTA’s GMO task force.

LaRhea Pepper, executive director of Organic Exchange, based in O’Donnell, Texas, is a fifth-generation farmer with a long history of leadership in the sustainable farming movement. She is a founding member of the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative, and founded Organic Cotton Plus and Organic Essentials—farmer-owned companies that take the cotton from field to finished product.

In 1995, Pepper served on the Administrative Council for Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education and two years later began working with the OTA’s Fiber Council. She joined the OTA board in 1998 to work on organic fiber standards for the industry and, in 2002, became a member of the Advisory Council of Organic Exchange, then chairwoman of the board.

Under Pepper’s leadership, Organic Exchange has doubled its membership; established satellite offices in Africa, Europe, India and South America; issued the world’s only comprehensive reports on organic cotton production and the global marketplace; and helped coordinate the growth of the global organic-cotton market.

Pepper says she wants agriculture to move from an industry in which farmers are typically invisible, often impoverished and dependent on others for seed, fertilizers and other inputs, to a system where farmers are celebrated stewards of the land. She would like to see farmers profit from the sale of their crops and generate wealth through ownership of their seeds and soils, water filtration and storage.

Pepper envisions the return of farm fields as safe places to work and play in and live near, and rural communities as renewed magnets for economic activity and innovation.

Kevin Brussell is president of Ag Organics, an organic-grain consulting and marketing firm that seeks to make connections between organic farmers and organic food and feed producers.

Brussell has also recently taken the position of superintendent on the Organic Dairy Research Farm at the University of New Hampshire. Funded by Stonyfield, it is the first certified organic dairy-research farm at a land-grant university designed to "emulate the typical organic dairy farm in the Northeast, and then research the questions and challenges that the farm and the farmers present," Brussell says. "We want to address dairy farmers’ most pressing needs and find ways to help them optimize productivity and improve profitability."

Brussell, who still works on his family’s fifth-generation farm in southeastern Illinois, has more than 30 years of organic-production experience. In 1978, Brussell became a representative for the Wonder Life Corp. and raised his first crop of organic soybeans. He spent the next 15 years attending biological-farming workshops throughout the Midwest and conducting extensive production research experiments on his own farm.

Later, Brussell took leadership roles with the Illinois Sustainable Agricultural Society, the Southeastern Illinois Sustainable Agriculture Association, the Illinois Stewardship Alliance and the Midwest Sustainable Agriculture Working Group. While president of the Illinois Sustainable Agriculture Society, Brussell helped coordinate on-farm research with the University of Illinois Agro Ecology Program. Brussell also served on the research committee for the Illinois Council on Food and Agricultural Research, and as co-chairman of the CFAR Rural Economic Development working group.

Brussell is a founding board member of the Illinois Chapter of the Organic Crop Improvement Association as well as a certified organic farm and processing inspector through the Independent Organic Inspectors Association.

He was also a founding member of the Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing, a marketing agency-in-common for organic-grain farmers, and served as general manager and marketing director for the Midwest Organic Farmers Cooperative. He served as a nonproducer board member for the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance. Brussell has taught "Transitioning to Organics" seminars at major organic conferences such as the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference and the Indiana Horticultural Congress.

Although hesitant to call for a "return to the past" in the face of organic progress, Brussell is a champion of localized processing and farming methods that best support organic production. "Over the next decade, I would like to see as many conventional acres as possible converted to organic production, both for the health of our environment and our food system," Brussell says. "Industrial agriculture has eliminated the presence of local and regional processing facilities, and with the adoption of the once-niche organic farming into conventional agriculture, many of the opportunities for fair price and distribution for organic farmers are disappearing. I think we need to rebuild the local and regional food processing and distribution infrastructure that compensates and treats farmers fairly and provides healthier food."

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 10/p. 34,36

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