Originally appeared in New Hope Network’s IdeaXchange, May 2019
By Steven Hoffman
In which the author spends the month of May visiting Whole Foods Market Global Headquarters in Austin, TX; EARTH University in Costa Rica, the world’s leading university of sustainable tropical agriculture; and Washington, DC, lobbying at OTA’s Organic Week on behalf of organic agriculture, industrial hemp and CBD.
Boulder, Colorado, is a pretty great place from which to run a public relations, communications and brand marketing agency dedicated to natural, organic, eco-friendly, hemp-centric and other mission-based brands. For a relatively small town, the concentration of natural products entrepreneurship and resources available for both startups and established businesses is like few other places (see Naturally Boulder).*
Yet, after a long winter, and having received a small handful of unexpected invitations, I packed my bags for a nearly month-long road trip that began with a visit in early May to Whole Foods Market’s global headquarters in Austin, TX (another “epicenter” of natural products; see Naturally Austin), to attend a unique brand innovation summit; and ended by participating in the Organic Trade Association’s Organic Week in Washington, DC. There, yours truly served as a speaker and sponsor of OTA’s annual policy conference, which included visits to congressional offices to lobby on behalf of organic agriculture and industrial hemp and CBD.
In between, I took advantage of a unique opportunity to travel to Costa Rica – a country in which I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1970s – to visit and learn about a number of permaculture, regenerative organic and sustainable agriculture operations and educational institutions in a country that has taken the lead on sustainability and climate change in Latin America.
From Punta Mona, an educational permaculture farm reachable only by boat or hiking trail where the Caribbean Sea meets the coastal rainforest, and EARTH University, the world’s leading sustainable tropical agriculture institution drawing more than 400 students and researchers from over three dozen countries, our Costa Rica tour also took us to Finca Luna Nueva (New Moon Farm), a 300-acre biodynamic farm and eco-resort located adjacent to the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, a 250,000-acre nature reserve at the foot of Arenal Volcano in the north of the country. There, Finca Luna Nueva’s founders are dedicated to promoting sustainable building and regenerative agriculture, and spreading the message worldwide about soil health, carbon sequestration and climate change.
This, then, is my brief tale, On the Organic Trail.
Boulder and Austin are not the only epicenters of natural products entrepreneurship in the country. Check out Naturally Chicago for companies and events in the Windy City. Note: Presence Marketing is a founding Sponsor of Naturally Chicago.
Whole Foods Market, Austin, TX – Brand Innovators Summit
With a lower pricing strategy and a renewed commitment to supporting brand innovation, Whole Foods Market hosted on May 2-3 Secrets to a Healthy Brand Strategy, an invitation-only summit that matched some of the world’s largest food companies with unique startup and emerging brands vying for attention online and on the shelf. Held at Whole Foods’ corporate headquarters in Austin, TX, and produced by Brand Innovators, the largest peer-to-peer community of brand marketers in America, the event featured an exploration of consumer behavior and technology and what it takes to build enduring healthy lifestyles and mission-based brands.
I was invited to the brand strategy summit after getting to know Michael Schall on a hiking trail during an earlier trip to Hill Country outside of Austin. Michael, Senior Coordinator of Global Growth and Business Development for Whole Foods Market, is also former CEO of Manischewitz Kosher Foods and Guiltless Gourmet. A very knowledgeable and experienced business leader and one heck-of-a nice person, after learning of my work, Michael insisted I attend. How could I possibly say no?
There, I met Wes Hurt, a recovering drug addict and founder of CLEAN Cause, a sparkling Yerba Mate beverage company founded in Austin in 2015 that donates 50% of its profits to support recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. The products are sold online and in select stores nationwide; nearly $300,000 in profits have been donated to date. I also spoke with Peter McGuinness, CMO of Chobani. While the company has an unsurpassed social mission, I asked Peter if Chobani is considering coming out with certified organic products, produced without the use of toxic, synthetic pesticides such as glyphosate, synthetic fertilizers, GMOs, antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones to serve a core organic consumer like me. While Chobani’s yogurt products are not produced organically, Peter mentioned the company is exploring some plant-based offerings made with organic ingredients – a positive move for people and the planet, in my respectful opinion. Other speakers included the founders and senior-level managers of Siete Foods, a Texas-based and family owned maker of grain free chips; Harmless Harvest, seller of premium certified organic coconut water; Jamba Juice; Pepsico; Sir Kensington’s; Vital Farms; Maple Hill; Health-Ade Kombucha; and more.
My takeaway: Competition is everywhere today, yet Whole Foods Market continues to be the mecca of natural and organic products – it is the place where the largest multinational corporations as well as local startups aspire to sell their products. And its association with Amazon, while infrequently mentioned during the conference, was certainly felt. In my perspective, the leadership at Whole Foods’ is energized and empowered to expand the company’s influence and reach and further enhance the bridge between brick and mortar and online retail. Whole Foods remains the gold standard in natural products retailing.
Costa Rica Organic Farm Tour
With a national greeting of “Pura Vida,” meaning “pure life,” Costa Ricans share a sunny attitude and gratitude for what they have. The government abolished the armed forces in 1948, and has since invested in healthcare and education. Costa Ricans welcome visitors from around the world; English is spoken and the dollar is accepted throughout the country, though being able to speak some Spanish is certainly a benefit. Costa Ricans, or “Ticos,” are very proud of their nation’s biodiversity and natural beauty. This past year, Costa Rica took the lead on sustainability and climate change in Latin America. During my excursion, we were able to visit the following organic and sustainable agriculture locations.
Punta Mona – South of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, a delightful, off the beaten track, Rasta-style community on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, beyond road’s end, lies Punta Mona, a 100-acre permaculture outpost just 10 miles north of the Panama border, reachable only by boat or by foot on a trail cutting through eight kilometers of primary rainforest. (The boat ride was a blast; during our trip it was much too muddy to hike the trail.) Powered by solar panels, Punta Mona is located right off the beach, and it is also decidedly off the grid. Founded by father and son organic products entrepreneurs and permaculture advocates Norman and Stephen Brooks, Punta Mona draws visitors and volunteers from all over the world to tour and/or work in the farm’s lush and diverse fruit and vegetable gardens, community kitchen, herbal products laboratory, and all other aspects of managing the farm and “rustic” resort. If you go, be prepared to “rough it.” But if you can handle rainforest-style basic camp conditions, the natural beauty, organic agriculture, good clean healthy plant-based food, and biodiversity simply cannot be beat. Stephen Brooks also is founder of La Ecovilla, a planned permaculture community located northwest of Costa Rica’s capital city of San Jose.
EARTH University – On the eastern coastal lowlands outside the town of Guacimo, Costa Rica, among massive commercial banana and pineapple plantations, is a 10,000-acre nature preserve and internationally renowned sustainable agriculture college, EARTH University. You may have heard of EARTH University, or at least its sustainable fair-trade bananas, sold in Whole Foods Market stores across the U.S. Established in 1986 as an international nonprofit agricultural education and research institution, EARTH university draws more than 430 students from over three dozen countries for a full, four-year degree in Agricultural Sciences. Led by an international faculty, EARTH University’s innovative educational approach has been preparing entrepreneurially minded young people from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and other regions to contribute to the sustainable development of their home communities while constructing a prosperous and just global society. According to its leadership, EARTH University offers a world-class scientific and technological education emphasizing ethical entrepreneurship and a strong socio-environmental commitment. Traveling with lifelong friend and colleague Jim Frank, an estate tax advisor and former fraternity brother from my Penn State University days, we were treated to lunch and extensive tours by a number of EARTH researchers, faculty and staff who generously took the time to show us sustainable banana and cacao research and production, student test plots, state of the art facilities and more. Frankly, there is no place like EARTH University. The campus is open to visitors; consider it in your travel plans if you are a tropical sustainable agriculture geek, like me. One additional note: our visit included a stop at Ecolirios, a boutique eco-resort, restaurant and modern architectural treasure located on a beautifully landscaped plateau in the heart of the mountainous rainforest up a steeply inclined, low-gear, four-wheel drive road. A bumpy ride, but once you get there, the experience is well worth it.
Finca Luna Nueva – With a newly completed, open-air, poolside restaurant built from locally sourced bamboo and other sustainable materials, plus comfortable cabins, bungalows, yoga studio and common areas located throughout the property, Finca Luna Nueva in Peñas Blancas, Costa Rica, is a jewel in the rainforest and the biodynamic pride and joy of New Chapter’s former CEO Tom Newmark and his wife Terry, owners of Finca Luna Nueva along with their longtime business partner and farm manager Steven Farrell. With its neighbor and program partner, Brave Earth, Finca Luna Nueva offers educational workshops in sustainable building and regenerative agriculture, corporate retreats, yoga retreats, and a world-class eco-resort in the heart of one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. Located adjacent to the 250,000-acre Children’s Eternal Rainforest preserve near the Arenal Volcano, visitors to Finca Luna Nueva can take farm and cacao tours and view toucans, sloths, and other wildlife along the property’s hiking trails. Finca Luna Nueva was named among the Ten Best Eco-lodges in Costa Rica by Bookmundi in January 2019. Co-owner Tom Newmark co-authored a recent article in Yes! Magazine on the importance of soil health, carbon sequestration and climate change. Tom, a board member of Greenpeace USA, also is co-founder of The Carbon Underground, a nonprofit organization committed to drawing carbon out of the atmosphere and into the soil to help mitigate climate change. Spoiler alert: my agency, Compass Natural, compiles a quarterly e-newsletter for Finca Luna Nueva. For more on Finca Luna Nueva, visit here or contact me at email@example.com.
OTA’s Organic Week, Washington, DC
Capping off a marathon month of travel was a visit to Washington, DC, on May 20-23, where my agency, Compass Natural, was invited by the Organic Trade Association to help plan and present an educational track focused on the growing market for organic hemp, CBD and related products as part of OTA’s annual Organic Week policy conference.
At the conference, OTA announced that sales of organic products in the U.S. surpassed $50 billion, growing 6.3% to reach a record $52.5 billion in 2018. Almost 6% (5.7%) of all food sold in the U.S. is now organic, driven in large part by demand for organic produce, dairy, plant-based products, dietary supplements, textiles and fiber. “Organic is now considered mainstream. But the attitudes surrounding organic are anything but status quo,” said Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director of the OTA. “In 2018, there was a notable shift in the mindset of those working in organic toward collaboration and activism to move the needle on the role organic can play in sustainability and tackling environmental initiatives.”
As part of OTA’s Organic Week, I was scheduled to visit several congressional offices on Capitol Hill, lobbying on behalf of organic food and farming and industrial hemp, CBD and related products. The staff at the offices of Colorado Senators Michael Bennett and Cory Gardner were supportive of industrial hemp in our meetings, and in alignment with Colorado Governor Jared Polis’ goal of furthering Colorado’s leadership in industrial hemp, as were staff leaders in the offices of Colorado Representatives Joe Neguse and Diana DeGette. However, staff at the offices of Idaho Congressmen Russell Fulcher and Mike Simpson deferred to their state’s legislature when it came to my questions regarding Idaho’s seizure in January of a container shipment of industrial hemp from a licensed grower in Oregon bound for processing in Colorado, despite the 2018 federal Farm Bill declaring that interstate transport and commerce of hemp-derived products is now legal throughout the U.S.
In addition to our Capitol Hill visits, I moderated a lively seminar attended by a number of organic farmers interested in or already growing hemp for food, supplements and fiber as part of an educational track focused on hemp during OTA’s Organic Week. The importance of certified organic in hemp farming cannot be overstated – currently, nearly 80,000 acres are in hemp production in the U.S., and few of them are certified organic, meaning that all that hemp is being grown conventionally using toxic, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
At the seminar, longtime organic farmer Chris Jagger, owner of Blue Fox Farm in Oregon, shared how he began growing hemp three years ago. Instead of planting hemp densely, like they do for fiber production where tall stalks and little foliage are desired, Chris farms his hemp like a specialty crop, or “like vegetables,’ he says, to cultivate the delicate hemp flowers for CBD extraction. Currently, a small number of organic certifiers, including OneCert, CCOF and MOSA are certifying farms for organic hemp production, and rumor has it some other major certifiers will soon follow.
Organic agriculture is a bright spot in the U.S. farm economy, continuing to grow at a rate more than double the growth rate of the overall U.S. food market. According to new OTA data, the number of organic farms grew by 39% while the total number of farms in the U.S. shrank by 3% between 2012 and 2017. Organic products can now be found in more than 82% of U.S. homes, and in some states, including California, Arizona, Oregon, Washington and my home state of Colorado, organic products are in over 90% of U.S. households. Now, after a month of travel, that’s news worth coming home to.
Grain Place Foundation 2019 Field Day, July 13, 2019, Marquette, NE – Help preserve the legacy of the 300-acre Grain Place organic farm in Eastern Nebraska, which first went organic in 1953 and has been shepherded by the Vetter family ever since. Join over 100 organic farmers for a tour of the Grain Place and a keynote luncheon presentation by renowned organic farming pioneer Bob Quinn and Liz Carlisle, co-authors of Grain by Grain. Learn more. To sponsor the 2019 Field Day with a tax-deductible contribution, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Southern Hemp Expo, Sept. 6-7, 2019, Franklin, TN – Learn about the exploding market for products derived from industrial hemp – from bioplastics to CBD – at the 2nd annual Southern Hemp Expo, the largest hemp exposition and conference in the Eastern U.S., featuring an investors summit, business conference, agriculture symposium and a full exhibition half. Visit www.SouthernHempExpo.com. To exhibit, sponsor and for more info, contact me at email@example.com.
Steven Hoffman, is Managing Director of Compass Natural, dedicated to providing brand marketing, public relations, social media, and strategic business development services to natural, organic and sustainable products businesses. A former agricultural extension agent and also former Editorial Director of New Hope Network’s natural products trade magazine and trade show division, Hoffman brings 30+ years of communications, sales and brand marketing expertise to his clientele. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos: Compass Natural