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Articles from 2017 In April

The road to natural

road trip dash cam

In the glare of the overhead lights at Natural Products Expo West, there is no shortage of photos of farms, or farm logos or stage-set barns and farm houses.

But even in that bright light, it's not always easy to spot the farmer. The connection between American farmers and the natural products industry, particularly the dietary supplement industry, can be tenuous to the point of non-existent. To explore how that connection could be made stronger, Nutrition Business Journal Editor Rick Polito and organic farmer/activist Andrew Pittz climbed into Pittz's Ford Focus in early March and drove from Boulder to Anaheim—the long way—stopping to interview farmers, innovators and producers along the way.

They saw where the connection could be strengthened, and they saw where it has snapped. This is that story.

Follow their journey here:

Day 1: Finding a place for farmers in the nutrition industry

Day 2: Missed connections

Day 3: Past and future, challenges and solutions

Day 4: Understanding what's possible

Day 5: The end of 2 roads

Watch their from-the-road video diary here.

Read their pre-trip chat here.

See what retired Sen. Tom Harkin said about their trip here.

This series was underwritten by:



The road to natural, day 1: Finding a place for farmers in the nutrition industry

roadie truck

Nutrition Business Journal Editor-in-Chief Rick Polito and aronia berry farmer Andrew Pittz set off on a journey from Boulder, Colorado, to Anaheim, California, visiting farms and interviewing industry leaders and politicians along the way to explore the connection between American agriculture and the dietary supplement and functional food industries. This is part one of five. Read the rest here.

The transition between city and country never comes suddenly. It’s more a game of hopscotch. Agricultural plots are taken out, and housing developments crop up in their place, new sets of homes and cul-de-sacs skipping across pastures and orchards, creating an incongruous patchwork until the horizon opens up again and the farms shift the balance back to green.

Leaving from New Hope Network headquarters in Boulder, Colorado, the hopscotch starts almost immediately. It’s early March, and the fields are not yet green, but we can see the furrowed rows and then the pastures where cattle, seemingly stoic against late winter, chew quietly, ignoring the freeway rush. We’re speeding by at 65 mph, but farms, like these and others, are what we have set out to find. We are on our way to New Hope’s Natural Products Expo West 2017, where we will see thousands of booths showcasing ingredients raised by farmers facing challenges that the entrepreneurs and marketing reps in those booths cannot likely understand.

My colleague in this long-miles adventure is Andrew Pittz, an Iowan and an organic aronia berry farmer who wants to strengthen the connection between farms and the health-focused mission of the natural products industry. Andrew sees an urg­­­ent mission to support the American farmers who could play a bigger role in the billions of dollars that the industry represents.

The trip will end in Anaheim, but our true destination is every place we stop. We’re not just getting to Expo. We are seeing what’s in between and, hopefully, helping people to see the benefits for both ends of a spectrum that begins on a farm and ends in those many booths. Bringing the supply chain home, to American farms, could mean confidence for not just the consumers but the companies that source ingredients from around the world, especially supplement companies. Bringing the supply chain home could also spur economic development in rural areas so often left behind, if not completely forgotten, as a global economy speeds by them, the way we speed past the cattle, quiet in their pastures.

Andrew is behind the wheel on this morning, the Friday before Expo West, and we leave the New Hope parking lot not entirely sure what we will discover. We have a route. We have a car. We have an iPhone and a dash-cam mount to chronicle our adventure for a video diary. We have contacts with farmers and producers along the way.

And we have only the outlines of an idea for what we might find ahead.

Building an itinerary was more complicated than I’d imagined. We’ve sketched out a route that takes us across Wyoming, Utah and Nevada before turning south into the friendlier growing seasons of California. Early March is most of a year away from harvest season, and more than a few farmers along the more northern stretches have fled to warmer climates.

Our first stop, after arguing about Andrew’s radio choices, is almost obligatory. The supply chain for one ingredient is rather obvious, and it starts and ends, by law, in Colorado. Hemp is a state-sanctioned crop. Cannabis for recreational purposes is regulated and a significant income stream in some rural areas. Elite Botanicals in Berthoud grows in greenhouses and fields on the outer edges of the Denver Metro areas, fewer than 30 miles into our 2,000-mile journey. The company operates a pair of greenhouses, outdoor fields and a lab a few miles away where they make sure the marijuana plants stay in the “industrial hemp” category and don’t blossom into the higher THC content that would make it a drug, recreational but legal in Colorado.

We quickly learn how important that distinction, and the lab, can be.

Standing in the greenhouse, with the constant whir of the fans turned down for our amateur audio, Jason Brooks explains the difference between growing a weed and growing a crop. The lab makes that difference. “We opened the lab so that all these other farmers could have their product processed,” Brooks says. “You can grow as many bales of hemp as you want, but at the end of the season, if you don’t refine it into oil or something else, you’re pretty much stuck with cattle feed.”

The lab allows a relationship between the government and the grower that is productive and downright friendly. Hemp is regulated under the [Colorado] Department of Agriculture, says Trey Bonvillain, Elite Botanical’s director of operations. “It’s actually a very easy and collaborative process. They look at it as a cash crop.”

The relationship between growers in the burgeoning, if for some unconventional, industry is equally friendly. Bonvillain talks about neighboring growers by first name. Brooks puts it simply: “We all started the race at the same time. We all know each other. There’s a lot of love.”

But even in a supply chain as up-front and tightly bound to the market, there are challenges, the biggest being the legal status of CBDs, the non-psychoactive ingredient that Elite Botanicals processes from the hemp plant.

Hemp and recreational cannabis are a growing industry, growing an economy in largely stagnant communities, like Pueblo, 150 miles to the south—American products creating jobs in America. But the industry teeters on the uncertain whims of shifting politics. CBD was not a supplement in the eyes of the FDA even before the Trump administration put Jeff Sessions in the U.S. attorney general’s office. It’s been termed an investigational drug. It’s been called outright illegal. And people still depend on it for epilepsy, anxiety and a variety of conditions.

We will see many threats and obstacles facing the farmers on our journey but none so unique and foreboding as what glares down on a pair of greenhouses in Berthoud.

Back in the car, Andrew has relented on the radio. It’s not all country anymore. The satellite radio station offers something more like a mixtape.

But we don’t have a lot of time for the radio. There are many stretches on our route where farms fade from sparse to non-existent and we scheduled a series of phone interviews to break up the drive and explore the role of the farmer in the natural products industry. On I-25, approaching the Wyoming border, the supply chain is traced far from the freeway lanes. This is ranching country. We see more fireworks stands than farms.

Our first call is Barlean’s Organic Oils owner Bruce Barlean. He believes in our road trip. He believes in our mission. Every farm has a story that begins in the soil, he tells us. “Ask about their holistic processes and not just the end ingredients,” Barlean tells us. “What are they doing to help keep the dirt strong?”

Our next call is Jim Emme at NOW Foods. Emme grew up on a farm. He knew about our trip. He jokes that he’s worried about what trouble we’ll get into, but he thinks we have an important story to tell. Emme grew up on an Indiana farm. He knows the challenges. An alliance with the supplement industry would benefit both farmers and the industry. For his company, a supply chain that began and ended in the U.S. would be “a game changer.” “If the ingredients were domestically sourced, it would be a lot easier to educate the consumer about the safety of the product.”

For smaller farmers attempting to compete in commodity markets, botanicals and other ingredients for supplements just make sense, Emme explains. “They need to be looking for other crops that could really have more of stable economic side to them, and I think our industry is a great opportunity for farmers,” Emme says. It’s a diversification proposition and a partnership. “Farmers need to understand that they can make a good living wage for themselves and their family by supplying natural products. We are a reliable industry. We are part of the supply chain that does have a mission to try and help people.”

Employing farmers helps people who live and work far beyond the gates of the farm. For every economic activity there is a “multiplier effect.” The dollars from one sale translate into jobs and transactions next door, or down the road, as each business requires a variety of goods and services to keep its business running. Agriculture offers a strong multiplier effect in areas that need every boost and advantage they can get. Bringing cultivation back to the U.S., or simply keeping it here, could have profound effects, especially considering the smaller farms that would supply ingredients to the supplement industry.

Smaller farms keep money in the community, building business for their neighbors as the multiplier effect ripples outward.

Leonard Mosher knows that dynamic well.

Mosher is a grain farmer and distributor in Wyoming. He reaches beyond his own prairie farm to work with organic farmers across the high plains. They need the help. Mosher knows the kind of help they need.

We meet him at the Little America Resort and Hotel restaurant, a collection of lobbies and banquet rooms squeezed between truck stops where I-25 meets I-80. There’s a lunch buffet in a sprawl of wood-paneled wall and deep carpet. We find a table away from the steaming pots and Technicolor Jell-O to sit with Mosher and his college, Robert Van Risseghem, who produces a line of mineral-focused wheat grass products.

Gray-haired, with a firm handshake, Mosher carries himself with a casual western friendliness, eager to hear about our trip, eager to share, and trade, stories with Andrew, who knows the farmer’s plight because he is a farmer himself, sixth generation. A “farm kid,” he says. So when Mosher talks about the challenges he faced, and still faces, as an organic wheat farmer, Andrew relates intuitively.

The challenge for Mosher was never growing organic wheat, he explains. The challenge was getting it to market. In the late '90s, Mosher knew there would be demand. The USDA organic standard had passed, and the idea was finding traction with consumers outside the natural co-op realm. He knew there was a demand, and one that would only grow. He just needed to get his wheat to somebody who could buy it. “I was sitting on two seasons of organic wheat,” he explains.  

So he got it to market himself. He got the rail cars, cleaned them to organic standards and started shipping his wheat. He saw potential beyond his fence line as other farmers came into the organic fold (Mosher says 60 percent of the farmers around Cheyenne grow organic), and he bought a grain elevator. He moved more wheat. Now the farmers can contract with buyers across the continent and get their wheat directly to the market with Mosher’s help.

“They can contract with the buyer before the grain leaves their farm.”

The challenges now have little to do with distribution and everything to do with competition. He was able to connect to a system that got grains to market in the U.S., but a growing system of global trade that includes more organic components every year threatens his business and the livelihood of the farmers who come to him. This is where a better connection between American farmers and the rows of booths we will see in Anaheim could be transformative.

It’s hard to imagine an industry where “American made” would matter more than in nutrition.

Forging the connection isn’t going to be as simple as buying some rail cars and a grain elevator. Mosher knows that.

We leave Little America with an appreciation of what it takes to make the system work.

And questions about who will step up to make the changes happen.

Back on the highway, our next interview brings us closer to an answer.

Kevin Kimle is director of the Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative at Iowa State University. The answer, as naïve is it might sound to say it, could be as simple as creativity. It’s an answer we will hear more than once on our trip.

Innovation can begin at the farm, in the dirt. It should begin there. It just doesn’t always happen that way.

“Being an entrepreneur in the food industry or anything else is about believing in your imagination,” Kimle tells us. “New ingredients and supply chains and functional foods should come from rural areas. We have the capacity to produce; maybe we just lack the imagination to know what to produce.”

Kimle and his son are not lacking imagination. They are growing salmon in Iowa. They had an idea and made it happen, but few farmers can create that kind of enterprise without outside assistance. University agricultural extension programs can help. Kimle encourages young farmers to ask graduate students and professors to test drive their new ideas on paper. “You create a wonderful opportunity for somebody at a university to create new knowledge. They can help make the business case for a new ingredient.”

Universities are fantastic partners for farmers, but the nutrition industry could be doing more. The farm belt isn’t always hearing the nutrition message that the natural products industry is trying to spread. The imagination Kimle talks about gets buried in a seemingly settled commodity-based system. Tradition discourages innovation. Andrew discovered the nutritional properties of aronia berries and is building it into a product category. But not every “farm kid” is going to find their way into a Whole Foods. NBJ covered that nutritional awareness deficit in a “Red State Retail” story in December.

If young people knew more about nutrition, they might create new nutritional niches, they could plug a value-added component into their family farms, Kimle says, helping their communities as they do it. “Maybe they haven’t been exposed to those opportunities,” he says.

Maybe the natural products industry can make that happen.

We are approaching Laramie, Wyoming, on Interstate 80 when we reach Michelle Simon. I-80 will be our home for the next 1,100 miles.

Simon knows the story the natural products industry is trying to tell, but she also knows that the story is not being heard in enough places, places like the rural communities that grow the ingredients, the places Kimle told us about. Simon is a naturopathic doctor and sits on the board of the Institute for Natural Medicine. Among the first things she tells us when we reach her at her office in Seattle is that the leading causes of death in the U.S. are lifestyle diseases. Americans spend more on health care than any other country “but health outcomes are among the lowest.”

She also knows something about the supply chain. She’d rather see it rooted in American farms. She had a patient who purchased an herbal supplement with dangerous concentrations of lead. It was not a domestic ingredient. She is aware of the issues. Her patients are too. “They are because I discuss that with them.”

Simon tells us she would have “a greater degree of trust” if she knew the ingredients were sourced domestically. She’d tell her patients that too.

“There’s a huge amount of money being spent in the industry. What it needs is guidance for those consumers to know how to spend those dollars on products that will truly help them and not cause harm.”

The industry has an opportunity to offer that guidance. There’s an opportunity to make American farmers a part of it.

Andrew graduated from Texas A&M, among the highest ranked agriculture schools, and when we walk past the greenhouses and into the beige hallways of a University of Wyoming botanical lab, he is instantly at home.

“All ag labs smell the same,” he announces as we approach Anowar Islam and his students. The teacher and his students are researching a pair of plants that fit well with what Andrew has started calling “the connection between food, farm and health.”

One of those plants is quinoa. Not so many years ago, quinoa was the super grain nobody had ever heard of. Now it is ubiquitous. There’s probably a quinoa product on the shelf in every aisle at most natural grocers. The United States is the number one importer of the grain, Islam tells us.

This creates both opportunities and challenges in countries like Peru.

Meanwhile, American farmers are left behind.

There is no reason quinoa can’t be grown in the United States, but there are reasons that nobody has grown it at scale, Islam explains. The professor and his students are attempting to take those reasons out of the argument with simple solutions. Weeds are a problem solved by cheap labor in South America. The professor and his students are working on growing techniques that could abate the problem without herbicides. Another problem is matching the variety and the agricultural process to the location. Wyoming with its cold temperatures and high elevations could be ideal.

“Their conditions and our condition is very similar,” he says of the match between the high Andes landscape and mountainous Wyoming. Quinoa could thrive in areas of the West where other crops prove challenging. “That makes this a unique crop,” Islam tells us. “We can successfully grow and produce quinoa here in this environment.”

Islam shows us a greenhouse where, for the first time, I see quinoa that’s coming from the ground and not a box or a bulk bin. Grow it in the United States, at scale, at a lower price than imports and the enormous health benefits could be more widely shared in new products. Small farmers could trade corn for quinoa and put the multiplier effect into action.

One of his students is researching the potential for farmers to grow fenugreek, an herb that offers outstanding health benefits and another potentially lucrative niche crop for American farmers.

Again there are challenges, but Islam’s student is chipping away at them, fitting the best practice to best varieties and the best results.

India is the biggest producer of fenugreek. India is also second only to China as a least-trusted country of origin in NBJ consumer research. Quality fenugreek is in demand. Distributors are importing better grades into India. Islam heard from a Canadian company that wanted the fenugreek his students are growing. He laughs about it now. He runs a lab, not a farm.

“They wanted 4,000 pounds a month,” he says, smiling.

It’s late in the afternoon when we pull away from the lab and greenhouses. We drive west through a collection of hills and valleys, a lower-elevation break in the Continental Divide that allowed the first transcontinental railroad through. The sun drops low and then disappears. Tomorrow will be our longest day on the road, but this day feels long enough when we find a Best Western in Evanston, Wyoming.

We are 425 miles and two highways into our journey, but we’ve already learned more about where we are going than anything we could have seen on the map.

This series was underwritten by:

The road to natural, day 2: Missed connections

Roadie day 2 local

Nutrition Business Journal Editor-in-Chief Rick Polito and aronia berry farmer Andrew Pittz set off on a journey from Boulder, Colorado, to Anaheim, California, visiting farms and interviewing industry leaders and politicians along the way to explore the connection between American agriculture and the dietary supplement and functional food industries. This is part two of five. Read the rest here.

With the morning sun still low in the sky, the drive to Salt Lake City offers a rhythm of light and shadow. A lake broad, open and bright. A narrow canyon thrown into shade. The snow of Park City alternates between a glare of white and shaded gray. It’s fit for a symphony.

But Andrew wants to listen to country again. He explains to me that it’s "Outlaw Country," a satellite radio station that offers “Country with an Edge.”

I’m unconvinced, and turn the audio down so we can talk and chart out the day.

It will be our longest stretch—the western edge of Wyoming to Sacramento, with a whole lot of very little in between before entering California with the worrisome challenge of a winter crossing of Donner Summit. We have a schedule of dash-cam phone interviews to punctuate the 700-something miles, but I warn Andrew that Nevada will be our bleakest stretch. There’s not much agriculture in Nevada, and the only crop they’re raising along the I-80 route is inmates. Prisons are the only notable economic activity we will see.

But first there will be breakfast with Loren Israelsen in the Salt Lake City neighborhood near his home. Israelsen is the president of the United Natural Products Alliance and a veteran of the supplement trade. He’d promised to gather a group of industry executives who could talk about supply chain challenges and the business of ingredients.

We find parking across the street from the cafe, the only business on a tree-lined street, and meet Loren and his wife, Corinne. There is no coterie of industry heavyweights, no inside scoop on supply chain shenanigans.

There’s something, and somebody, much more important. There’s Avenues Bistro on Third and its owner, Kathie Chadbourne.

A beaming smile in middle age, Chadbourne has no history in natural products. She doesn’t go to Expo West. She knows Loren from the neighborhood, not the UNPA. But she understands an element in our mission that we could easily have forgotten.

Chadbourne understands community.

There is a simple something about food, where it comes from and how it is shared, that builds connections. Some of the food she serves comes from a garden behind the bistro. Some of it comes from neighbor’s gardens and fruit trees. The small wood-framed building dates to 1905 and has a history built into the wood plank structure by all the businesses it has housed—Chadbourne includes the story of the downstairs speakeasy in her enthusiastic tour of the grounds and the building’s numerous nooks.

In its current identity, the building is a focal point for the neighborhood, and Chadbourne happily calls out to families passing by. A sign looking over the dining room spells out her mission statement in bold letters: Community, Conversation, Cuisine. “In that order,” she says, emphatically.

Getting people to think about how they eat and to think about their connection to the farmers and the supply chain means getting them to think about community and connection. She gushes about the children who “get to see where food comes from for the first time” and tells a story about a group of teens who came for a tour, shuffling, shrugging and disinterested. Then she walked them through.

They saw the gardens. They saw the fruit trees, the bee hives. They saw how the food was gathered and cooked. The too-cool-to-care teens were transformed, she tells us. “They all wanted to hold the chickens.”

Food, when it’s connected to community, has that power, she tells us.

Local doesn’t have to be measured in the miles from farm to plate. It’s measured in connections, she tells us. “This is a restaurant where people in these apartments over there and these mansions over here can all come together,” Chadbourne says. “Everything is centered around food, but the essence of the bistro is community.”

At our table, after breakfast (all organic, all delicious) Israelsen reminds us that the nutrition industry, in its best moments, should be much the same as what we’ve seen in Chadbourne’s Bistro. “We are a community of people. It’s shared ideas. It’s a shared sense of common purpose that really holds us together,” he tells us. That community could be widened to include the connection to food and farmers, and it would be stronger. That’s what he wanted to show us with a simple breakfast instead of the executives roundtable we’d expected.

We drive out of Salt Lake City smiling. Chadbourne’s grin was infectious that way.  Andrew was exuberant about the power of “place-based businesses” and how farms can claim that identity. I was impressed to the point of jealousy. We all need connection and community, and we need the passion for creating it that Chadbourne exudes.

It’s most of what we talk about for the next 50 miles, as we drive into the two-dimensional expanse of Utah’s salt flats.

But of course we have phone calls to make, and a dash cam to use.

Kantha Shelke answers the phone as we cross the border into Nevada. She is a consultant to the nutrition industry, and she is always willing to take that industry to task. We reach her in our first miles into the bleak line I-80 traces across Nevada, an expanse of dirt and rock, punctuated by trailer parks, gas stations and the occasional penitentiary. We welcome the distraction and the conversation.

For Shelke, the story of transparency finds its opening chapters on farms and yet, she says, the relationships between the farmers and the marketers making the transparency claims can be tenuous to nonexistent.

There is no connection like the ones we saw Chadbourne draw for us 200 miles ago. Manufacturers and marketers might be many time zones and thousands of miles, entire hemispheres away from the farms that produce the ingredients in the products they sell, Shelke explains. “When you are that remote, you don’t have that connection. You don’t have that empathy, you don’t have that understanding.”

Consumers have an expectation of transparency. Food and supplement companies have an obligation to it, Shelke says.

That obligation cannot be answered without connection, and connection between brands and farmers is sorely lacking, she observes. A supply chain that begins on American farms and ends in American products could be part of an answer.

Connecting supplement makers with American farmers has always been a complicated proposition, but a convergence of forces could be making that connection stronger.  When we reach Council for Responsible Nutrition President Steve Mister, he tells us several of those forces should remain top of mind for more supplement companies. The Food Safety and Modernization Act, requiring more documentation of ingredient sourcing, is one. New scrutiny of ingredient identity, including industry-led programs, is another. 

But transparency may be the biggest one of all. People who want to know where their food comes from now have the technology to find out. Companies that don’t offer trace-it-back to the farm technology could be at an increasing disadvantage with those consumers. Tracing it back to an American farm might be even more important. “For that niche of consumers, there would be a greater interest in having U.S. farmers in there and competing,” Mister says.

That’s when the connection to farmers becomes practical, profitable and possibly essential.

The sun sets early at the eastern base of the Sierra, and we reach the outskirts of Reno at dusk. The gambling town that calls itself “The World’s Biggest Little City” isn’t very exciting to look at from the highway, but it’d be a place to stop after so many miles in the car.

Except we can’t stop. Donner Summit is ahead.

Donner Summit is not to be taken lightly. Anybody in Northern California who has held both a driver’s license and a lift ticket probably has a tale of traffic trauma to tell that begins somewhere near the summit and stays there, for hours. In this drought-busting year, the season’s snowfall in the area is approaching 50 feet by the week of our trip. Yes, feet. We’ve already rescheduled the trip specifically to avoid an impending storm, but we are still racing to get over the summit before that storm arrives.

We do, but barely. Visibility is in the cringe-and-hold-tight range. Fog and snow sweep across the highway, and the lanes are difficult to define.

Andrew leans forward over the wheel. I hold tight and double check my seat belt. But we make it.

And then it’s truly all downhill to Sacramento, a burger and bed.

This series was underwritten by:

The road to natural, day 3: Past and future, challenges and solutions

roadie herbs

Nutrition Business Journal Editor-in-Chief Rick Polito and aronia berry farmer Andrew Pittz set off on a journey from Boulder, Colorado, to Anaheim, California, visiting farms and interviewing industry leaders and politicians along the way to explore the connection between American agriculture and the dietary supplement and functional food industries. This is part three of five. Read the rest here.

We are backtracking some miles, heading back east on I-80 to meet an herbalist with a history in the industry as colorful as the garden she’s crafted across a terraced slope on the shoulders of the Sierra, but the freeway is blocked where the interstate cuts through the Gold Rush town of Colfax. Some miles and thousands of feet of elevation ahead, the winter storm we slipped ahead of in the night had hit the summit, hard. Nearly five feet of snow would fall in 48 hours.

Fortunately, we are turning at Colfax, this last possible exit, and winding north on Highway 174 to meet Kathi Keville, the herbalist.

Bethany Davis has joined us. Bethany is the director of regulatory affairs for MegaFood. Andrew calls her the "adult supervision" we’d been lacking. We both call her a friend. MegaFood is the underwriter for this project and a believer in American farmers to the tune of 650,000 pounds of ingredients grown on American farms, showcasing the individual farmers right on the product labels.

Bethany was part of the brainstorming that shaped this trip, but there has been no shortage of on-the-road improvisation and rethinking the route. None of us know exactly what we should expect at Keville’s hidden garden, or whether the visit was going to happen at all until that morning.

What we find at Keville’s retreat is something more than a garden: something like a time capsule, a library, a treasure and a teacher.

Keville has worked in herbs since 1974. She packaged, she claims, the first organic herbal tea in the U.S. She is the author of a dozen books on Amazon, and many more on the shelves in the cozy ramblings of a home built to the slope of the land. Vials of tinctures made with the herbs grown in the garden outside stand in queue on wooden racks. A library of encyclopedias and guides to the herbal tradition occupy bookcases throughout the house.

She knows her subject.

And she knows the limits of her expertise. She writes on herbs, not on business.

Years ago, Keville grew herbs for the industry. She still has scores of varieties growing in the ground in small pots outside. With the help of greenhouses, or perhaps Keville’s persistence of attention and faith, the plants adapt to the particular microclimate of the Sierra foothills.

Growing herbs and selling herbs, however, are two very different pursuits. Keville could not adapt to the shifting climates in the industry. The industry outgrew domestic suppliers like Keville decades ago. The supply chain swung outward to cheaper supplies overseas, and small U.S. producers like Keville got left behind.

"I was pushing paper more than I was selling herbs,” she tells us.

She didn’t leave herbalism. She left the supply equation.

Now she writes books, teaches classes and hosts students at her hillside home in the forest. She reads about the problems in the industry. She’s just not part of those problems. She has shown that all but a very few of the herbs used in the vast majority of supplements can be grown in the U.S. They can be grown right outside her home.

But the industry turned away from growers like her.

And she turned away from the industry.

Bethany was skeptical of our improvised itinerary when we’d pulled away from the Best Value Inn that morning in Sacramento, but leaving Keville’s mountainside sanctuary, we see her smiling. Bethany has been creating an archive of interviews with pioneers in the industry, capturing the oral history and the wisdom of the generation that built the supplement industry.

We’d visited a pioneer homestead of sorts that morning. We’d walked into a bit of magic there. We had one of the trip’s “this is what we’re looking for” moments.

California’s Central Valley is an agricultural experiment gone awry.

Giant stretches of monoculture crops dominate in every direction, not all of them suited to the fickle drought patterns. Almonds, peaches, plums and other water-hungry crops drive the regional economy, but always seemingly at the brink of catastrophe. The valley looked headed toward dustbowl status before an El Niño echo turned the faucet back on this winter, but with so many single-crop plantations, blight and disease are just additional risks lurking between the rows. The agricultural economy built a house of cards one orchard at a time, and yet no small tonnage of the ingredients in the natural products market come from that rickety structure.

Driving south to Modesto, we call Sara Newmark for her take on the equation between the commerce and ecology. Newmark is the director of sustainability at New Chapter and the daughter of regenerative agriculture pioneer/crusader Tom Newmark.

For Newmark, environmental practices have to be part of the price point for consumers. They have to know what those practices are and be willing to pay for them. For companies, such practices have to be part of the economic model. Sustainability is an imperative for the planet and, in the long run, the balance sheet. “I don’t understand why any company that sources food or sources live agricultural products wouldn’t be interested in organic, regenerative farming,” she tells us.

Teaching consumers about the consequences of their consumption could help better anchor that supply chain in American soil, on American farms. Not every American farmer can compete on price, but every American farmer should compete on sustainability.

The natural products industry sees that. Companies in the nutrition industry have taken the lead, Newmark says. “We were the kind of hippie-granola-type businesses, but we’ve turned it into a powerful worldwide movement to create change.”

And no class or community, she says, stands to benefit more from that change than farmers.

Of course, the point where that perspective meets price and profit is not something that any farmer should be waiting for. Andrew didn’t. The aronia berry is not a well-known ingredient in the supplement world. It might not be known at all if not for Andrew’s work. He’s sampled his product at independent and chain grocers across the Midwest. He buys a booth at Natural Products Expo West. He talks up the ingredient at every event and speaking engagement. He is an always-on outreach machine.

But he couldn’t do much or any of that by selling bags of aronia berries at farmers’ markets (though he’s manned the table many times).

The secret for small farmers to bring new products, or new twists on old products, to market is value-added processing: taking what they’ve grown and turning it into an innovation-ready ingredient or perhaps a finished product. "Value added" is a phrase that Andrew uses in almost every phone call we make.

Adding the value isn’t that simple. For aronia berries it meant making a dried powder that could be used in other products.

Dryers are expensive. Really expensive. We’re going to see one at GW Dryer in Modesto. It doesn’t look like a lot to the casual eye. A white plastic conveyor belt squeezes the material very thin and heats it to flaky crystals across a dozen feet of almost imperceptible movement.

And it does it for several hundred thousand dollars per machine.

Farming is a play in risk. Betting the farm is both an expression and a reality. Seeds cost money. Equipment costs money. There are no certainties. Taking on a new crop with an unproven market for companies outside the system they’ve already settled into might pay off. Or it might not. Stepping outside a proven model becomes too big a bet.

These are some of the obstacles facing small farmers. A promising new ingredient might need the promise of the market before it can make a leap into the level of capital it takes to drop half a million on an industrial dryer.

Andrew might make it there on energy and persistence, but it’s easy to see where a natural products incubator approach could build a pipeline of benefits for brands, consumers and farmers, and the communities where those farmers work the land—the multiplier effect feeding innovation, and demand, back into the system. More companies in more communities creating more customers who not only know more about what they are eating but have the income and economies to eat that better food and live that healthier life. The land itself could benefit, as Newmark explained. One farmer on one farm might be one innovation away from creating a new business, or a new line of income, or a new category altogether.

We head west across the Central Valley with the sun long gone below the horizon and the enormity of the Big Ag monocrop calamity hidden beyond the headlight beams.

It’s not easy to envision that one farmer and that one idea out here, but tomorrow we will be at the coast and see how change becomes possible, profitable and, hopefully, inevitable.

This series was underwritten by:

The road to natural, day 4: Understanding what's possible

road trip to Expo West

Nutrition Business Journal Editor-in-Chief Rick Polito and aronia berry farmer Andrew Pittz set off on a journey from Boulder, Colorado, to Anaheim, California, visiting farms and interviewing industry leaders and politicians along the way to explore the connection between American agriculture and the dietary supplement and functional food industries. This is part four of five. Read the rest here.

Late in a season of historic rainfall on the typically fog-bound Northern California coast, the sun that greets us at Swanton Berry Farm seems disarmingly incongruous. The sun shines brighter than we expected, and colors echo that radiance.

The unexpected echo is the takeaway story of Swanton Berry Farm.

Just north of Santa Cruz, with only Highway One between the fields and the rhythm of the surf, Swanton Berry Farm stands as agrowing monument to that one farmer with one idea we’d talked about on our drive the night before, and to the rippling echo that can follow. For founder Jim Cochran, the idea was the first organic commercial strawberry farm in California. The echo that followed was exporting regenerative practices to other farmers and mixing social justice into the yield.

Cochran’s farm was also the first organic farm to sign contracts with the United Farm Workers. Now the farm offers the workers stock options, overtime pay, housing subsidies and health care, the whole package subject to audit by the Agricultural Justice Project. Farm manager Barrett Boaen describes the founding intentions as “a system that had dignity.”

He tells us it’s expensive, but it’s possible. And it’s been possible since the first berries were planted in 1983.

That’s what we want to hear about today—what’s possible, and how ideas, ideals and innovation echo across entire industries.

Walter Robb, too, has a wealth of experience with what’s possible. The former Whole Foods Market CEO saw 25 years of remarkable growth between his first Whole Foods job in 1991 to his transition out at the end of 2016. We reach Robb on a white-knuckle spin over Highway 17 to get MegaFood's Bethany Davis to the San Jose Airport. He tells us that change like we’d seen in the strawberry fields is more urgent and immediate than ever before.

The driving force is the farmer on the ground, but that farmer has partners by the millions—each of them marching down the aisles, smartphone in hand to research origin and ethics.

“We are seeing an activist customer who is armed with more information and more tools and platforms and is more interested in information and product than in any time since I’ve been doing this,” he tells us. Consumers aren’t just looking for information. They are looking for connection, demanding connection. “Look at the explosion of farmers’ markets,” Robb continues. “Look at the explosion of interest in small farms.”

This confluence of interest, awareness, connection and commerce is growing conscious economies. The journey from plausible to possible has never been faster, never more important, he says.   

“Business is the most powerful force for change in the world,” Robb tells us.

Farmers, consumers and retailers are components of that force. The story Robb believes we can tell from our moving vantage point on the road is one of “energy” behind that force. “You’re moving towards the giant energy ball that is Anaheim,” he reminds us. Natural Products Expo West is a “mass of energy towards changing the world.”

We are still a day away from Anaheim as we talk to Robb. We feel the energy at every stop. And with each of these phone calls:

Lisa Benson, director of rural development at the U.S. Farm Bureau tells us innovation isn’t lacking in rural economies. What is lacking is the access to capital that turns innovation into opportunity. Farmers and producers need resources “to take that idea and turn it into a full business,” she explains. And, as Robb had told us, one of those resources is the relationship with consumers. “Consumers buy what they care about, and one of the thing that they care about is the story that goes along with it.” They don’t just want to know where the food came from but who it came from. The story becomes a resource. “One thing we have in these rural communities is a good story. It writes itself.”

Ed Freeman, the man who created the “stakeholder theory” of business ethics and management, tells us about growing up on a “dirt farm” in Georgia. “I don’t think my family had much of an idea of what we were doing. If we had an idea of what we were doing, we might still be doing it.” The idea his family was missing, he tells us, was that they could be part of a more benevolent system by helping build that system. Farmers need to see that. “They need to remind themselves that what they are doing is more than just trying to scratch a living out of the dirt, that there is something noble in figuring out how we cooperate to create value for each other. That’s what business is.” At least that’s what business should be, he explains. The natural products industry can help it become that, he tells us. Consumers are already demanding it. “The dominant narrative is being questioned.”

Bill Chioffi is vice president for global sourcing at Gaia Herbs, but many of the ingredients in Gaia products are grown at the company’s farm. More American farmers are climbing on board, and requirements being phased in with the Food Safety Modernization Act could make American ingredients more attractive to supplement makers. Gaia is helping grow a network of farmers, many of them young, who could supply domestic-sourced ingredients. Working with the Appalachian Beginning Forest Farmer Coalition, Gaia, university extension programs and other supplement companies are teaching farmers how to participate in the supplement economy. Small farmers can build an income stream outside of the commodity crop markets where small operations are at a disadvantage. In botanicals, the equation is weighted more toward quality. That’s what Chioffi tells the young farmers. They’re listening. “We’ve had up to 150 different farmers at events we’ve organized,” Chioffi says. “There’s a lot of traction.”

We’re not sure what to expect when we pull into the gravel lot outside battered sprawl of greenhouses at Whiskey Hill Farm. We know they are growing organic turmeric. That’s impressive enough, considering the soaring demand and the sometimes questionable supply. Nearly all the turmeric sold in supplements on the U.S. market is imported—too much of it adulterated with synthetic curcuminoids.

But Whiskey Hills Farm is also home to Blume Distillation, a biofuels operation. We are in Watsonville, at the southern fringe of the Bay Area, and I’d pictured a greasy tank of biodiesel and the digestive stench of food waste. But we walk in and see rocket science.

It’s not an actual rocket. It’s an alcohol still shaped like a rocket. But it’s actual science.

And David Blume is the actual scientist, a man who has taken a passion for turning food waste into fuel and made it into a holistic closed system of horticulture and fuel production that scoops up every outflow of energy or material and routes it back into the system to build more energy, more material.

The bulk of the material Blume and his crew are distilling into lab-grade alcohol that could be used in ingredient extraction, or burned as fuel, is waste from industrial food processing in nearby Salinas. That’s a nice piece of resource recovery, but, as Blume tells us every few minutes on his tour, “And there’s more!”

The effluent from the food waste left over from the distilling process goes into a methane digester built from pipe and pond liner for a cost Blume estimates at $2,500. The methane is then burned to provide the heat that is the essential energy input in a distillery.

And there’s more.

The CO2 from the burned methane is piped into the ground in the greenhouses where it feeds the turmeric and the photosynthesis process. The wastewater from the methane digester is processed through a series of ponds. The algae in the ponds pulls the nitrogen out of the water and purifies it, and then becomes fertilizer for the turmeric and other plants in the greenhouses.

And there’s more.

The last of the ponds provides homes for small frogs that provide the night crew in the Whiskey Hill pest control operation. Lizards patrol the greenhouses during the day. Both crews digest the millions of bugs and their droppings become more fertilizer.

And there’s more.

Greenhouses in the coastal fog belt require heat. They also generate compost by the ton. At Whiskey Hill Farm, water pipes running through the mounds of compost picking up the heat generated by the decomposing material. Every night the mounds are "turned" by high-pressure blasts of CO2 from the distillery.

The product might be lab-grade alcohol and organic turmeric that sells faster than the CO2-charged greenhouses can grow it, but the value proposition is in the trial and error, tinker and tweak Blume designed into the system.


Blume has worked with NASA. Buckminster Fuller called him for ideas (and wrote the forward for Blume’s book). He wants to see smaller refineries scaled up from his technology make sense of biofuel in a way that the Big Ag corn ethanol processing industry doesn’t. He wants to grow organic turmeric, but he also wants to grow ideas that could change farming, change fuel production, change the world.

“We don’t expect anybody to do everything we’re doing here,” he tells. “But they don’t have to. They could take any part of this and make it work.”

Andrew is having a one-degree-of-separation fanboy moment. His hero is Buckminster Fuller. The license plate on Andrew’s Ford Focus, the set of wheels we’ve lived in since leaving Boulder three days earlier, is “TRIMTAB,” referring to the smaller fin on the end of a larger rudder that helps steer massive ships. The trim tab was a central metaphor in Fuller’s philosophy of designing change.

Andrew just met a farmer who knew Fuller, who wants to create opportunities for farmers in environmentally conscious way that’s plug-in ready for the natural products and dietary supplement industries.

Andrew is a kinetic bolt of energy in his calmer moments. He’s fusion reactor arc of blinding excitement in this moment.

Of course, Blume’s closed loop system isn’t entirely closed.

In addition to the food waste from the processing plants in Salinas, he uses blocks of wood pulp left over from an organic mushroom farm in Moss Landing a few miles away. The fungus eats through the blocks, and when the block is used up, Blume adds it to the compost piles.

We are on our way to the mushroom farm when we leave Whiskey Hill Farms.

It’s a short drive into a long story.

John Garrone didn’t start his mycological adventures as a mushroom farmer. He began as a mushroom lover, fascinated by the fungi and their properties, both culinary and medicinal. When he found he had a talent for growing them, he began a business in a warehouse in San Francisco, When he found he had a talent for selling them, he moved to the larger operation of Far West Fungi, a collection of buildings and shipping containers south of Watsonville and not far from the Elkhorn Slough where the Carneros River greets the Pacific in a vast estuary.

Whatever fascination drew Garrone to mushrooms has not faded with the decades. This is a family operation, and it seems at times on our tour that fungus is part of the family. He heaves open the shipping container doors to reveal tree oyster, lion’s mane, maitake and a dozen other species, each with its own ornate structures and colors, each with its own particular properties. He has a palpable affection for them, and he can list off the medicinal qualities of each—qualities explained on the company website.

But he knows that the vast bulk of the mushrooms the Garrone family raises will end up in cooking pots, not healing teas or formulas. He is aware that there are supplement companies selling medicinal mushroom products, but those companies aren’t approaching him. Days later, I will see several brands and a number of products based in mushroom medicine, but the supply chain is traced to China every time. “The strength of my business is I’m not from China,” he tells us. Garrone is growing organic mushrooms with unquestionable family-farm transparency. He could grow the business and create more jobs, more opportunities, more confidence for consumers, if the supplement and functional food companies bought those mushrooms.

But the phone doesn’t ring. You can find Garrone’s mushrooms at the farmers market at the San Francisco ferry building. You can’t find them in the supplement aisle.

Five minutes in the car and only a slight rise of dunes separates us from the beach. At this hour, the shore sprawls almost deserted, and the sun lets loose the best light of the day. The high tide wipes the slate clean, and our footprints are already gone when we turn to walk back to Andrew’s car.

At the beach, every day is a fresh canvas for new footsteps and new castles in the sand. Every day is a do-over. In natural products, some ideas disappear with tides and trends, and some, like agricultural justice or biofuels, find an echo that resonates across decades.

But every day is a day for a new idea, a new ideal, a new echo.

This series is underwritten by:


The road to natural, day 5: The end of 2 roads

roadie cafe

Nutrition Business Journal Editor-in-Chief Rick Polito and aronia berry farmer Andrew Pittz set off on a journey from Boulder, Colorado, to Anaheim, California, visiting farms and interviewing industry leaders and politicians along the way to explore the connection between American agriculture and the dietary supplement and functional food industries. This is part five of five. Read the rest here.

We never saw the miniature horses Caroline Duell told us to watch for. We had driven by several red fence posts, and more than one steep driveway. We ignored the admonition in her texted directions that “when you think you’ve gone too far, you’re not there yet,” and called her anyway.

She was right, we were not there yet.

When we do get to the end of the muddy road in the hills just inland from Morro Bay, she is standing at the top of her steep driveway and smiling.

We quickly get the impressions that she smiles a lot.

She should.

Duell lives at the end of a small valley, a geographical cul-de-sac folded into the hills and pulsing in green. The sun is out, but the drenching of a historic rainy season is evident in every puddle. I was once told by a photographer that in a good year, the coastal hills of California “define green.”

And this has been a very good year.

That isn’t the only reason Duell is smiling. She has created a life for herself and her family at the end of this muddy road, and she has invited others into it. Permaculture classes get taught at the farm. She hosts meditation retreats. A builder taught a course in tiny home construction.

The fruits of Four Elements Farms go out to farmers markets in the Paso Robles area.

She shows us the orchards, the composting toilet, the greenhouse and drying room made with lumber and windows recovered from construction projects and demolition. She describes her home and her farm as a kind of laboratory for “anything and everything that relates to sustainable living.” She is living the hippie paradise dream.

That’s obvious from the smile she offered when we got out of the car. What is not obvious is the entrepreneurial dream she and her husband, Ryan Rich, have made real.

It wasn’t until we walked the grounds with Duell that we learned the extent of that dream. She had told us she rents a commercial grade kitchen nearby to create a healing balm from the calendula she grows, and we’d envisioned a table at the local farmers market, ointments sold with the pears and mandarins harvested up the hill from the calendula patch.

We were thinking small.

Duell is the founder and force behind a $2.5 million brand growing at 40 percent year over year. We will see her booth at Expo West a few days later. We were standing in a hippie paradise and on the grounds of a B-Corporation enrolled in 1% for the Planet. That modest stucco home we walked by is also the headquarters for Duell’s efforts to promote Reef Friendly, a program educating consumers about the commercial sunscreens’ harmful effects on coral reefs.

Duell settles into the story of how she made the dream come true.

She talks about calling the every Whole Foods in northern California and delivering tubs of her All Good balm. She talks about the frustrations of dealing with distributors and the challenges and obstacles that might keep too many natural products entrepreneurs trapped in the dreamer stage.

“The business side of it is really learning by doing it, constantly learning by doing as we go.”

Right there, in that fold of hills, the green geological cul-de-sac, the why of our road trip comes into focus.

Duell is what we were looking for. This is an organic farm, small, family-owned, creating a value-added product in a balm, and creating opportunity and economic development for the people who work the warehouse in a converted newspaper building, and the “Goop Day” team. “Every Tuesday we have a team of six women who go into the solar-powered community kitchen in Morro Bay and produce the healing salve we make with the calendula flowers,” Duell tells us. “So that’s the straight seed-to-shelf story.”

Duell and her husband created a living example of best practices that stretches beyond the boundaries of the Four Elements Farm to touch coral reefs an ocean’s breadth away.

This is an organic business that grew organically. Consumers can buy All Good Goop on Amazon, but the money is going back into everything Duell holds dear.

There is no mansion at the end of the muddy road, past the red fence posts and the point when you think you’ve gone too far.

There’s a farm.

Of all the “this is what we’re looking for” moments from our trip, the morning at Duell’s farm is the one that best makes clear the statement we sketched across the map when we planned the trip—a farmer helping build the better world where more farmers could see more of their own products to market. It’s what we set out to find. It’s what people like Duell set out to build.

Back on Highway 101, we call Jim Hightower, the columnist and former Texas agricultural commissioner. American farmers, he says need to be set free. “The ‘free’ in ‘free enterprise' is not an adjective. It’s a verb,” he tells us. The natural products industry can “free” up farmers to create enterprises like Duell has done, he says.

In Texas, all that took at times was a nudge. “Give them a chance by helping plug them into the marketplace, they’ll take it and go from there. Government doesn’t have to own anything. It doesn’t have to run it. But it can be a catalyst for value-added products and diversified agriculture.”

Much of the work Hightower did in Texas happened in the 1980s, but connections are easier to come by now than they were when farmers were isolated from the worlds of retail and commerce. A farmer can create a sales contract on a smartphone without climbing down from the tractor. New products can launch online and find their way to retail later. Crowdfunding can get a farmer and his value-added product a head start that was never going to come from selling eggs at a roadside table.

We reach Annie Brown at the Rodale Institute who tells us that organic is just getting started. “I feel like there are so many avenues out. There are avenues that haven’t even been tapped, and more than ever, farmers are looking for ways to connect with the industry on different paths that haven’t been explored in the past.” A newly formed Organic Farmers Association is adding a collective heft to lobbying and marketing efforts, she explains.  

“We’re just beginning.”

We reach American Botanical Council founder Mark Blumenthal, who says the connection between American farmers and the supplement industry should and could be nurtured. The farmers we are meeting, he says, are “people who have their feet on the ground and their head in the stars.” ABC’s efforts to identify and combat adulteration could help farmers, American farmers, who are doing it right. “What we are doing has multiple benefits for multiple players up and down the value chain.”

“There are,” he says, “plenty of options for farmers to get in the game.”

But all the way down Highway 101, every phone conversation echoes back to what we saw on Duell’s farm: an idea, and a patch of ground to plant it in.

It’s late afternoon when we encounter the first clots and snarls in the failed experiment that is southern California traffic. We are far from anything that looks like a farm, and closer with every stop-and-go inch to Anaheim and the frenetic immersion of Expo West. Our last stop will be a garden in Venice Beach, and we arrive in time for sunset, wine and Dylan on vinyl. Our host, the gardener, is Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association.


McGuffin has coaxed all manner of growth in a small lot at the cusp where the urban bulk becomes more beach town and less city with every block. Figs, flowers and a curated selection of herbs find root in McGuffin’s garden. He smiles and pulls and picks, enthusiastic to reveal the names, qualities and histories of every plant. He invites us to experience them by touch, smell, taste. In the Expo halls we will see elaborate installations built on marketing the promise of health. In this garden, we see the magic of the plant. “We forget,” he says. “That it all comes back to the plant.”

McGuffin joins us for the last 40 miles to Anaheim.

He brings two small piece of luggage, but his more important cargo is the bag of herbs and greens he has harvested from his unlikely garden. He is making a salad, he explains, for the APHA board of directors, and he has gathered 23 different ingredients he grew himself. He appears more excited about the salad he is making than whatever he expects to see at Expo West. McGuffin never loses sight of the essence as it comes from the soil.

Our last miles, an intricate turn-and-merge navigation through the rush hour complexity of freeway and carpool lanes, includes a spirited conversation between McGuffin and Andrew. Across half a continent, we have chased the idea of supplement companies partnering with American farmers to shore up a sometimes shaky supply chain and root a share of the prosperity in rural communities. Andrew, a young farmer, is committed to seeing that idea realized. McGuffin, an industry veteran, has seen too many companies in the industry he helped build look past origin and quality to work on price and margin. It is not an argument, but the discussion is spirited.

Andrew believes a confluence of forces that include growing consumer concerns about where their food comes from and new technology and tools to trace and tell that story is building momentum toward the paradigm transformation he wants to see. He speaks of that paradigm while McGuffin worries about the pressures of price and the lure of profit. McGuffin can name only a few companies that are holding the line. But by the time we see the exit for Anaheim, the young farmer is closer to convincing the trade association president that the hope they’d shared in the garden could be scaled up to match the spirit of the industry the veteran insider remembers from earlier years.

We pull up to the Anaheim Hilton with more than 2,200 miles on the odometer. We step out of the car. McGuffin grabs his luggage and 23-ingredient salad, thanks us for the ride and slips into the it-hasn’t-even-started-yet spectacle of Expo West.

It’s been a long trip. We should be exhausted. Instead we are energized, even invigorated.

We weren’t sure what we were looking for when we left.

And then we found it at every stop along the way.


This series was underwritten by:

[email protected]: A natural way to slow spoilage? | Whole Foods opens 365 'version 2.0'

Thinkstock Apeel Sciences

This startup has a natural solution to the $2.6 trillion food waste problem

Apeel Sciences is taking a shot at reducing food waste by trying to prolong the shelf life of produce. Apeel's approach is to create an edible substance that's applied to the outside of produce to create a barrier. It's a spray, and it's made from lipid molecules taken from plant material left behind on farms, like banana peels. Most surprising of all? It just got certified for use on USDA Organic produce. Read more at Fortune...


Whole Foods' latest gamble? Go after Trader Joe's in a big way

Key to the retailer's growth strategy is its 365 chain of stores—pared down, lower-priced stores that cater to a more urban millennial crowd. This week it unveiled its fourth store, in Austin, that's design incorporates learnings from the first three stores. Read more at Inc...


How U.S. rice farmers could slash their emissions (and costs)

The common practice of flooding fields makes rice the biggest crop contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. A technique called Alternate Wetting Drying could help reduce those emissions, as well as water and fertilizer use. It's been in use in parts of Africa and Asia for decades, and is now being used on 35,000 acres in the U.S. by a group called Nature's Stewards. Getting more rice cultivators on board, though, is challenging absent larger incentives. Nature's Stewards is using grants to try to provide evidence that the technique makes economic sense for farmers. Read more at Bloomberg...


Nutrition label readers favor food quality over quantity

A new research paper out of the University of Illinois explored the relationship between attention to the nutrition label and food selection, servings and consumption. They combined survey and photographic data of college students' lunch plates, and observed that those who did look at nutrition labels and those who didn't consumed roughly the same amount of food, but the types of foods plated and eaten were different. The label users overall selected more fruits, vegetables and beans, and fewer fried foods and refined grains. Read more at Feedstuffs...


Blue Apron is pushing back against proposed food safety regulations

A California State Assembly bill calls for state-mandated food safety training to extend to employees in the meal kit delivery space, in addition to those in restaurant and in other food preparation positions. But Blue Apron has "concerns" about the bill and hired a lobbying to represent it at committee hearings. Read more at BuzzFeed News...

Natural Products Expo

Finding success on both sides of the aisle

Sheryl O'Loughlin Rebbl super-herbs

It’s one thing to get the core natural food shoppers to buy your product; it’s another to get everyone else to.

Sheryl O’Loughlin—CEO of REBBL, former CEO and cofounder of Plum Organics, and former CEO of Clif Bar—shares insights on how to build a brand that is successful in both the natural and conventional channels.

Watch O'Loughlin's keynote at Natural Products Business School 2017 here. (Find it at 12:00)

This week: NurturMe unveils ancient grain-based cookies with probiotics | Vital Farms bolsters leadership team

Nurtur Me ancient grain cookies

Pasture-raised egg producer Vital Farms announced the appointment of Tricia Clark to the role of vice president of operations, in which she will lead the company's operations network and focus on the start up of its new processing facility. Prior to joining the Vital Farms team, Tricia spent over 20 years at the Kraft-Heinz Company.

NurturMe, known for its quinoa baby food and toddler snacks, unveiled the first ancient grain-based cookies with probiotics. Ancient Grain Cookies are free from gluten, dairy, soy and egg, and combine ancient grains with a dose of GanedenBC30 probiotics. Starting this spring, the company is also removing common allergens from its full line of organic meals and snacks.

Jarrow Formulas announced the release of a new 3 mg Melatonin Quik-Solv Lozenge. The new product gives consumers a higher amount per serving than the initial 300 mcg formula released previously. The 300 mcg and 3 mg Melatonin Quik-Solv Lozenge products are available in 100 count bottles.

On the heels of its nontoxic sunscreen, Thinksport recently released its natural deodorant made of all ingredients rated "1" by the Environmental Working group.

C.A. Fortune, a sales and marketing agency dedicated to the natural/organic, specialty/conventional and bakery/deli retail trade channels, continues its national expansion in a transaction with California-based Dan Mullen & Associates. C.A. Fortune, headquartered in Chicago, has been steadily expanding and now serves 46 states. Combined with the recent transactions of Arizona-based Integrity Sales & Marketing in March 2017 and Northern California-based CSW Brokerage in October 2016, Dan Mullen & Associates brings C.A. Fortune one step closer to offering complete national coverage.

With the launch of its first collection of products, Aetos Essential Oils is poised to make a name for itself. The company's USDA Organic and Non-GMO Project verified products are available on Amazon.

Nurish Brands launched a new and improved formulation for its Non-GMO Project verified FEEL caffeinated beverage line. It's formulated with a plant-based sweetener blend that allows for only 4 grams of sugar and 15 calories per 12-ounce serving. FEEL comes in four flavors: Dragonfruit Lime, Blackberry Pomegranate, Raspberry Lemonade and Mango Passionfruit.

Mongibello will launch a new line of functional coffees containing the Mediterranean ingredient NutraT. The nutraceutical coffees are designed for use in ETNA coffee machines. Four coffees make up the launch: Detox—coffee containing CynaxT artichoke extract; Cardio, with OliveT olive extract; Relax with RosT, a lemon balm extract; and Mental, with Ginseng EFLA913, a unique ginseng extract produced using Frutarom’s HyperPure proprietary technology to ensure pure and safe ingredients.


How Klean Kanteen makes the most of its nonprofit partnerships

Klean Kanteen

Caroleigh Pierce knows a thing or two about corporate giving. A former educator, Pierce has held the unique position of nonprofit outreach manager at Klean Kanteen, makers of stainless steel personal water bottles, for over four years.

At the inaugural 1% For The Planet "Give Back Gathering" held in Boulder, Colorado, earlier this month (hosted by 1908 Brands), Pierce took the stage to share how she builds smart, strategic relationships with environmental nonprofits that Klean Kanteen helps finance. Rather than just providing a check in the mail, Pierce is passionate about making nonprofits true partners to position Klean Kanteen as a conscious brand, and to further environmental stewardship. 

Employ these tips shared by Pierce at the "Give Back Gathering" to make your brand’s donation dollars do more.

Choose nonprofits that are doing work important to your brand

While Klean Kanteen partners with dozens of nonprofits, the company donates to organizations that fall within four pillars that reflect the ethos of the brand and its products: mitigating plastic pollution, supporting safe consumer products, conserving land and water and protecting wild places.

Engage your nonprofit partners

Avoid just being a financier by scheduling regular check-ins with the nonprofits your brand supports either quarterly or monthly. Such communication will keep your company up-to-date on nonprofit initiatives or new areas of focus. If possible, invite a representative to your office to present their research or work. 

Connecting your employees with the organizations you support will get them excited about working at your company. Trying organizing a paid volunteer day with your staff and a nonprofit to inspire.

Reference nonprofit partners as resources and experts

When launching a new product, line or redesign, call upon the organizations you support to offer input. What solutions are out there to reduce packaging waste? Are there any best sourcing practices when it comes to your product’s materials? Can a nonprofit provide an impact report, such as carbon emissions saved, by doing better business? It’s up to your brand to reach out.

If you have the resources, invite experts from nonprofits to participate in trade shows and client-facing presentations. For example, Klean Kanteen, allocated a footprint in its Expo West booth to members from The Five Gyres Institute to answer questions from retailers and explain why solutions to plastic bottle waste are important. 

If retailer end-caps are a part of your merchandising strategy, include information about the organizations you support.

Stand beside nonprofit partners in Washington, D.C.

Many organizations are working to incite change at a legislative level. When possible, sign letters of support, back petitions to politicians and focus social media marketing power to extend the reach of their initiatives. Use the bulk of your business to show your commitment to the cause. 

Play matchmaker between your nonprofit partners

Connect the organizations your support by sharing the experiences of partners with other partners. Facilitate collaboration through fundraising partnerships. "We like partners that play well together, and pool their resources," says Pierce. "It’s really the only way to get an outcome that they seek."

Say no … but yes

Even if your company cannot donate funds to nonprofits that reach out seeking financial support, help in other ways. Can you partner with them to do a social media giveaway? Can your marketing team write and promote a blog post about the organization? Can you offer discount codes or donate product? Remember that money isn’t the only way to help a worthy organization reach its goals.