Community is at the heart of natural. Working together toward a common purpose is what drives us. Our stories need to educate and inspire consumers to vote with their dollars – helping brands get on retailer’s shelves and into the hands of more shoppers.

Today’s story is about inspiration and education. I have the privilege of interviewing Gary Hirshberg, one of the leading thought leaders in our industry. Gary shares with us the story about how he and his partner started Stonyfield Yogurt. The struggles that they had and how their dedication, and attention to detail, turned it into one of the leading brands in the category. Gary shares how his commitment to his friends, family, shareholders, employees, the community that he serves and the farmers that support him, helped him remain true to his passion. His dream was to develop a healthy yogurt brand and more importantly to prove that organic farming was sustainable. This was an opportunity for organic farms to prove themselves, to be a viable solution, to help solve many of the food problems that we have today. 

We discussed the need for education. The opportunity for brands to help educate consumers and retailers about the sustainability and the viability of organic. We talked about how consumers vote with their dollars and why it’s imperative that we speak up and stand up for those farmers that are committed to organic, that are committed to giving back to our healthy way of life and are committed to healthy sustainable farming practices. Gary also talked about how entrepreneurs are pathological optimists and he emphasizes that if you don’t ask, you don’t get. This mantra helped Gary continually do whatever it took to succeed and to find ways to persevere when everything was going against him.

I want to thank Gary for openly sharing his story and his inspiration to help young healthy organic brands get their start and to stay focused on their core mission and to guard and protect their values. Never compromising or giving into adversity, which causes so many brands to cut corners.

Download the show notes below

Click here to learn more about Stonyfield

Click here to learn more about Naturally Boulder

Listen to the podcast: Hear Our Story on NPR’s How I Built This



Hello and thank you for joining us today. This is the Brand Secrets and Strategies Podcast #42

Welcome to the Brand Secrets and Strategies podcast where the focus is on empowering brands and raising the bar.

I’m your host Dan Lohman. This weekly show is dedicated to getting your brand on the shelf and keeping it there.

Get ready to learn actionable insights and strategic solutions to grow your brand and save you valuable time and money.


Dan: Welcome. Today's story is about inspiration and education. I have the privilege of interviewing Gary Hirshberg, one of the leading thought leaders in our industry. Gary shares with us the story about how he and his partner started Stonyfield Yogurt. The struggles that they had and how their dedication, and attention to detail, turned it into one of the leading brands in the category. Gary shares how his commitment to his friends, family, shareholders, employees, the community that he serves and the farmers that support him, helped him remain true to his passion. His dream was to develop a healthy yogurt brand and more importantly to prove that organic farming was sustainable. This was an opportunity for organic farms to prove themselves, to be a viable solution, to help solve many of the food problems that we have today.

We discussed the need for education. The opportunity for brands to help educate consumers and retailers about the sustainability and the viability of organic. We talked about how consumers vote with their dollars and why it's imperative that we speak up and stand up for those farmers that are committed to organic, that are committed to giving back to our healthy way of life and are committed to healthy sustainable farming practices. Gary also talked about how entrepreneurs are pathological optimists and he emphasizes that if you don't ask, you don't get. This mantra helped Gary continually do whatever it took to succeed and to find ways to persevere when everything was going against him.

I want to thank Gary for openly sharing his story and his inspiration to help young healthy organic brands get their start and to stay focused on their core mission and to guard and protect their values. Never compromising or giving into adversity, which causes so many brands to cut corners. Here's Gary.

Gary, thank you so much for coming on today. I really appreciate you making time for me and for the audience. It was great seeing you again last night. I'd like to start with you sharing a little bit about yourself. If you could, if you could share some of the story that you shared at Naturally Boulder last night, that would be great.

Gary: My pleasure Daniel. Really happy to be with you. Last night's forum, for those who could not be in attendance, was about financing. Something that I have an extensive experience in, unfortunately, more than I wish I had had. Owing to the fact, that when we started Stonyfield 35 years ago, in 1983, there was no market, there was barely a market for yogurt. There was certainly not a market for organic yogurt. There were no funders out there and certainly no institutional, none of the private equity and venture money, that is now so excited about this space.

The overused joke I say here is that we had a wonderful company, just no supply and no demand back then. But the real point being that we had to bootstrap and I explained a lot of my history. We of course, were up against really cheap three-for-a-dollar, two-for-a-dollar yogurts that, obviously, were not organic. We lost a lot of money trying to educate consumers, but gradually and over time, we were able to get past those hurdles and nine years into the game we finally started to make money. But what that meant was by the end of those nine years, I had 297 individual investors, 100 of whom, were my employees, by the way. We were proud to give everybody stock options. But still, it was like a small village that I managed.

And, of course, over the first 18 years leading up to 2001, when we did sell the company there were many different investors. Picture this, my mother, my mother-in-law, my friends from college, dairy farmers who we couldn't pay, but who took stock instead and some of these people, their kids grew up and they needed to pay for college, or they needed to pay orthodontics bills. I was in the business of making a market for our shares. While I was just trying to grow the organic business, and help family farmers, and produce healthy food, and educate people about pesticides. I wound up becoming kind of an investment banker unintentionally, but to make a long story short, as you heard last night and on the other podcast, it turned out to be a very important learning period, because I've subsequently been able to take those learnings and help hundreds of other entrepreneurs, both through my own investing, and advising, and board service, and through this entrepreneurship institute that I run each year, and that I'll be running again in Boulder, in June. I've been able to help people not make my mistakes. They can make their own mistakes, but to really learn how to watch out for some of the real cautions out there, some of the dangers that come with too much money and too much greed. And to be really thoughtful about how to protect your values and your mission when you are interfacing with the financial world because it's not always a great fit.

Dan: Well, on that note, and I do appreciate you mentioning that. I did have a chance to listen to NPR's podcast on my way home after seeing you last night. It was a great episode and it framed everything so beautifully. One of the things you said is that you're a master of managing cash and I'd have to add to your resume, you're also a master horse trader. Some of the things that you're able to do. Well, to be able to have Danon give you what you wanted when, as you said, it was a ridiculous ask and to be able to have your mother-in-law continue to help out and the story you talked about, in terms of how you had to go back into your old facility and revitalize that. But yet every step along the way, you never gave up, you continued to pursue. Why?

I mean, you made the point yesterday that there were times when you were scratching your head, yet your mother-in-law believed in you. What was that transformative moment that gave you that drive to continue?

Gary: Yeah, great question and really important for your listeners, because the way I summarize what you're asking is this; first, there are two things I've learned. One, is I think of all of the many critical attributes for success. The one that is probably the least appreciated and most critical is determination, stubbornness. Entrepreneurs by definition are optimists, right? I call us pathological optimists. We have big ideas, but as I said last night, the mark of a real successful entrepreneur, or person in life, is not how they do when things are going well, but it's how they do when they've been knocked down. Because it's that ability to get back up, you see that in athletics, you see it in science and academia and you certainly see it in business.

The other lesson I've learned is even a simpler one and that's, if you don't ask, you don't get. Meaning, yes, our requests of Danon, when I sold the company, when I provided an exit for my almost 300 shareholders, was, yeah, you're going to buy 80% of the company in the next four years if you do what you say you're going to do, but I still want to retain voting control. That was unprecedented in the annals of economics, but it didn't stop me from asking. I guess, that gets me back to the heart of your question. I mean, the real answer Dan, is that Stonyfield has never been about a job, or even about making money, it's always been about a dream. That dream is having grown up in New Hampshire, where the chickens, and the turkeys, and the eggs, and the sheep. I could visit the farms where we got our food when I was a child. And by the time I was an adult, owing to the expanse of suburbia and the urbanization of our country, those farms were gone and those farmers were gone.

Stonyfield has always stood for two things. One, we wanted to show it was possible for family farms to not just survive, but be successful. And the second thing is that we believe that organic was not just great for the planet, but it was the only way. It was the most likely way, I'll say it that way, that family farmers, keeping people on the land, could be preserved. We've proven that and, of course, the sub-point to that is that we believe organics is all about preventative healthcare and it's the cheapest form of healthcare there is, right?

Dan: Absolutely.

Gary: Not getting sick, so we've always seen those dual missions; preserving family farms and promoting organic as our core. The reason I was able to stick with it, even when we were losing barrels of money and everybody thought we were a joke, and venture capitalists would clip their fingernails at the desk while talking to me, total disrespect and so on. Although, they don't do that anymore, I might add. The reason that we stuck with it, against all those odds is A, the mission, and then B, and this is, of course, very important for any of your would-be entrepreneurs to understand. You might think of walking away if a suit, if a private equity person with somebody else's money is your investor, but when it's your mother and your mother-in-law, and your friends, and your farmers, and your employees, you just don't quit.

Literally, in the period from '87 to '91, when we went into a serious crisis because of a failure of a co-packer, a manufacturing partner. We literally worked 24/7. We were three shifts, seven days a week and my partner and I, one of us took turns each night managing, making the yogurt and overseeing the factory. These are the kinds of challenges that any entrepreneur might face, but as I say, for us, quitting when our family and friends' money was invested and when the mission itself was so much bigger than a job, just was never an option.

Dan: I love that. I've been by your plant several times. I never had the privilege of actually going into it. I do a lot of work up in that part of the world for MegaFood. And it is a beautiful part of the world. You feel like you're in farm country. I love the atmosphere

Gary: Sorry to interrupt you, but the Stonyfield Farm, the actual farm itself was 40 minutes to the west of there. In a beautiful hilltop farm that, in my childhood, was all fields. It was truly family farmers up and down every street and even the place where you visited in Londonderry, that we finally moved into in 1990, where MegaFoods is also located. That road, when I was growing up, was called Skim Milk Road.

Dan: It was?

Gary: Yes, because there were so many farms and funny enough, they were mostly Holstein farms. The farmers produce excess milk and they would mix their milk with water to make a whitewash, which they would use to paint their buildings and their fences.

Dan: Really?

Gary: Yeah, it was classic rural New Hampshire. The countryside that we would all envision. But, just to jump to the present, what's so exciting about this odyssey is that, although we started with seven cows, today with our partners in Organic Valley, we support some 1700 farms. The average herd size is 65 cows and this is, now, the heart of the New England and Northeast food system, because, not to mention, farmers are in a terribly difficult position right now. And the farmers that are growing and making money and being stable and whose kids are going into farming, by and large, tend to be the organic farmers. We witnessed and we were part of a real change, but it's not a theory anymore. It's what's really happening.

Dan: Absolutely not, I have to say that I've had the privilege of listening to you, on stage, talking about a variety of events over several, different, years and, of course, I've been following your career very closely. Thank you for what you do and for what you give back. I'd like to emphasize the fact that, if you are what you eat, as I always say, then what you eat matters. Where I'm going with that, is that you're talking about preventative diseases. I want to go one step further and throw this out at you and see what you think. I always go back and reference, if you go to the store and you buy a loaf of bread, the cheap stuff, you're hungry almost before you finish eating it.

If you buy the high quality mainstream bread, you're satisfied for maybe a couple of hours. But, if you buy the organic equivalent, you're satisfied for even longer. The point being, is that if you spend 30 cents more, you're satisfied longer, because it better fuels your body from a nutritional standpoint. Therefore, it's cheaper to eat organic products. What are your thoughts on that?

Gary: Well, I couldn't agree with you more. I'll just say it slightly differently. Cheap food is neither, it's neither cheap nor is it actually food. There's a lot of pesticides in a lot of these ice creams. There's these ice creams out there that say, "Natural," on the label, but they don't change shape when they melt. The problem with this is that you might not be paying the full price at the checkout counter, or at the farmer's market, or wherever you're buying your food, but you are paying a price somewhere. You're paying for it in the environment. You're paying for it in the decline of family farmers. You're paying for it in your health.

Again, this country has got it all backwards, right?

Dan: We do.

Gary: We just spent three years debating Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act, and yet it was never about health. It's all been about sickness care, and treatment, and the most expensive way to treat ourselves is to get sick and the cheapest is to avoid it.

Dan: Very true.

Gary: So I couldn't agree with you more. Organic, for many of us, who have been in this now for as many decades as we have, and I'm sitting here in Boulder today, where Mo Siegel got his start and lots of other of my friends were visionaries back then, who really need to be honored for those visions. For most of us it was a philosophic thing. We were getting into it because we just didn't like the corporate takeover of our food system. We thought farmers were not getting a fair shake. We didn't like poisons and toxins. It was really a questioning authority thing, but I think, now, one can say that what we've proven in the decades since is not only that we were right. That is, organic really works. You put more carbon in the ... I mean, ecologically, there's simply no doubt about it, you build healthier more regenerative soils with more carbon, more water holding capacity, more soil biodiversity and, therefore, healthy plants.

But also more ecosystem biodiversity, you are obviously avoiding putting toxins into our air, water and our soil. And, of course, we now know it's preventative health, as we see the links between pesticides and everything from IQ and brain development, to the whole host of diseases that now plague our children; ADHD, asthma, and so on. But I think the most important, and lasting thing, that we have proven is that this is real economic sustainability. Starting with when you don't spend as much money on all those chemical inputs, you're keeping your money in your local community, you're recirculating it. We're banking our equity in the most important, in the foundation, of human civilization, which is our topsoil.

You're preventing yourself from having to do cleanup of water systems. You're saving species that are probably valuable to us in ways we, humans, don't fully understand. I'm not just talking about macro-species, I'm talking about microfauna and soil organisms. We know about the bees, but even smaller. All the little bugs that are critical to maintaining a healthy system. In the end, we're adding to balance of trade. We're keeping farmers farming. We are reducing our dependence on chemical inputs, and so on, and so forth. I do think that, this story is not as well understood. That’s one of the projects that I'm helping to lead and am focused on this. I think that is the next frontier for us. The science is. Now we have to turn it into information that average people can understand.

Back to your point, that we not only are what we eat, but every time we purchase we vote. A vote for organic is ... We obviously need, especially this year, to focus on our elections. But we have to understand that every single time we purchase we're voting for the kind of world we want, and I don't know anyone who's voting for more pesticides, unless you're a chemical company executive. But I do think that now the challenge is to move from the five and a half, or six percent of food that we occupy to into the double digits and to really become ... live up to our potential, which is to get back to the majority of our food being grown, and produced, and consumed in a way that has so many beneficiaries and wins.

Dan: Absolutely, and that's what's driving sales at shelf. You'll get a kick out of this. I did a project several years ago. I wrote a feature article for the CMA 2016 Category Management Handbook where I was able to look at every category and I was able to compare organic and natural in total sales, and this is all outlet. The gist of it is this, total dairy was up 1.5%. Organic dairy was up 12%. Organic dairy represented only 9.8% of a multi, multi, multi-billion dollar pie. Gary, if you strip that out of there, total dairy was only up .5%. The point being, is that it's those companies that you're celebrating. It's those companies that you're talking about that are driving all the sustainable sales across every category and across every channel. That's why this matters.

And, of course as you know, my mission is to help make our healthy way of life more accessible by getting healthy natural organic brands on more retailer shelves and in the hands of more shoppers. To do that, it's leveraging the fact, like you were talking about. That consumer that looks beyond the four corners of the package, that wants to know where the product comes from, how it's built, where it comes from, and wants transparency, true transparency. The consumer that is really trying to understand or are working to provide a healthier more beneficial product solution for their friends and family. I thank you so much for what you're doing in that area. In fact, one of the things I really wanted you to touch on is, you were talking about, in one of the talks, I heard you go on about how you were using butterflies as pesticide.

The point being here is that people don't realize, again, if you are what you eat, why do we believe that if we spray a pesticide on a crop that it's not going to somehow impact us? I go as far as to say that pesticide knocks out the nervous system of a bug, why would we begin to believe that, that would not impact us? I don't remember, I'm a little bit younger than you, not much, but I don't remember, like you said, the diseases and all those issues that we're facing today. Your thoughts?

Gary: Well, how many hours do we have for this discussion?

Dan: As long as you'd like. I appreciate your time.

Gary: Look, it's understandable what you're saying. We humans are really good at imposing our own rational order on systems. We know how to do high inputs and get something out, but what we aren't so good at is understanding systems. In this case I'm talking about ecologic systems. Systems where every organism actually has a role. The point about butterflies goes back a ways. I was the executive director of an ecological research institute back in the late '70s, early '80s, called New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod, where we had created solar powered enclosed and heated food systems that were as productive, on a per square meter basis, as any food systems on Earth. By that, I mean, more output with less inputs. We were growing fish and the fish waste, just as in nature, needed to be exited from the ecosystem. We used to provide very powerful and potent soil nutrients to grow our vegetables, our fruits, and even some of the fish feed in adjacent gardens, both terrestrially and hydroponically.

You would walk into these buildings in the middle of a Cape Cod winter with three feet of snow outside, there'd be bananas and figs and papayas growing. There would be bees and birds and butterflies flying around. There was no fossil fuels being burned. If conventional agriculture takes 15 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of food energy, and that's another word for bankruptcy, right? 15 in, one out. Then our systems were operating much closer to a net neutral and even potentially a net positive effort by using resources wisely and synergistically to produce truly productive ecological systems.

Now, this stuff was all science and theory back then. As I say, we've now got a $50 billion organic sector that has proven that today. The farmers who produce all the fruits and vegetables that we use in our products with Stonyfield and other companies, they intentionally create ecosystems that attract and promote biodiversity and these butterflies, and bees, and birds are a critical, critical part of the system. Anything that, as you say, that would threaten their health, we eliminate both because they're functional, but also because anything that threatens their health, obviously, threatens all of our health.

We're getting there, right? Again, I want to be positive. We have a $50 billion sector here. That's something I dreamt of back 35 years ago, but the flip side of that is now I dream of $1 trillion dollar sector, right? I mean, all food was organic before World War II, all food.

Dan: True.

Gary: People think it was a pipe dream, but okay there were a few less people on the planet, but we now know that organic, in virtually every area of production, is not only at least as productive as conventional, but actually more productive when you net out the net inputs and, of course, consider that also science, the health ramifications, of not poisoning ourselves and our planet.

The science is in. We have proven, like you say, millennials, the new consumer, who's grown up in a world where climate change is now understood as opposed to debated, except by a handful of old guys in Washington. The wind behind our backs here, a new consumer, half of all millennials are parents, who get that and wants, expect, and demand that companies provide solutions to all of these problems; to climate, to biodiversity, to health. That we be fully transparent about what we're doing and about our practices and about our poisons and so forth. Now, we have to translate that into a greater share of the marketplace. To enable more farmers to be successful. And we also have to translate that into policy, which is one of the reason why, at Stonyfield this year, we're really focused on the midterm elections. If you listeners use the hashtag #midterms2018, they can get into a dialog that will soon be populated with the environmental voting records of Congressional candidates.

Why? Because we know now, probably, better than we've ever known, that policy really, and truly, does matter. As we watch the dismantling of the conversion of the EPA, formerly EPA, into the CPA, the Chemical Protection Agency under this Administration.

Dan: That's so sad.

Gary: Our discussion covers a lot of ground here, but I think it's important for us to understand that, just as we're discussing ecologic, biological ecosystems, we have to also think about ourselves, our political ecosystems, and understand that, yes, the act of purchasing and shopping is political, but we can't leave politics out of it, also policy matters. The way I would summarize this and going all the way back to your opening point is that science matters and facts matter.

Dan: It does.

Gary: We have evidence and the evidence is clear that more regenerative organic systems, where you're encouraging biodiversity, promoting preventative health, are both more stable and sustainable, and also more economical. Now, we've just got to, as a species, get that this is the opportunity of our lifetime. Unfortunately, the newest generation of us, of shoppers, the millennials, get this better than prior generations did.

Dan: They do and to your point earlier, we vote with our dollars and if we can make these products more accessible, we can vote at the shelf, more so than any place else. That's going to resonate, I think, far beyond everything. Absolutely, we've got to get some change in the climate, literally, in terms of the way we look at this from a political standpoint. But to be able to drive and help these small brands, and I love the fact that you're so engaged in that community of supporting entrepreneurs and supporting brands.

Let me back up a little bit. The fact that you're helping support the local farmers and getting into to why local is so important. Can you talk about that? Because I think that's really where this transformation starts, people need to realize that it's your community that you're supporting when you're buying organic.

Gary: Yeah. Well, we're all local somewhere.

Dan: Exactly.

Gary: And it depends on your scope and your perspective, here. You're absolutely right, it starts with the farmers in your area who, by supporting them, particularly supporting the organic farmers among them. If you think about it, you're keeping more dollars in your local community. You're keeping the land looking like you want it to look. You're keeping families and future generations of growers on the property. Right away, you're plugging the leak of dollars flowing out of your community and heading off to pay for pesticides, fertilizers, and obviously imported foods.

Then, if you expand your scope a little bit further, and you start to think about your bioregion. Maybe you don't live in a farming area, maybe you live in a city, or maybe you live in a part of the country that can't grow some crops. Then you recognize that your purchase dollar will impact the local community wherever it is grown. We, in the north, have discovered coffee, and vanilla, and chocolate, and bananas, and papayas, and figs, so we're not necessarily supporting local agriculture when we buy those things, but we’ve got to remember that somewhere out there, there's a farmer, there's a farm community, who either because of your choice raining down a cocktail of hazardous chemicals and, again, shipping their dollars out to large industrial suppliers, or keeping their own backyard clean.

This is a sort of, just as the internet links us, an organic food system can link us, so that a purchase in Boulder, or Boston, or Boise, of an organic banana, links you and supports some farmer in Nicaragua, or Costa Rica, or somewhere else and says, "Look, you're as important as my backyard is." I don't tend to get hung up on food miles, mainly because as somebody who's trained in the climate sciences, that was really my background. I came to understand, and Stonyfield actually did these metrics early in our trajectory, that transportation, as a percentage of our total footprint, as businesses and consumers, is really relatively small. It's really in the five to seven percent range. How it's grown, has a much greater carbon footprint and impact.

For example, when you grow organically, and you're building topsoils and, therefore, needing less labor, less machinery, to turn those richer, more fertile, more better textured soils. When you don't have to pump as much water, particularly in droughts, because the carbon content of the soil is such that it absorbs and holds and retains moisture longer, and better, because of organic methods. Those things tend to be the far greater impact, in terms of our carbon footprint.

This has been shown statistically. This is not just my opinion. Yes, buy as much local as you possibly can, but when people ask ... People often ask me, "What's more important organic or local?" And I say, "Yes." That's the answer. Obviously, you want to support both where you can, but where you have the choice, I have to tell you that the numbers, and I'm pretty sure this is true of every food commodity I know of, the numbers favor buying organic over buying local. That is to say, in our area, in southern New Hampshire, there are farms in our area whose milk we would not ever buy and would rather ship in some organic from 100 miles away, just because what's happening to the ecosystem.

One thing your listeners may not know is that organic cows, just as an example of the health of this approach, organic cows actually, literally, live twice as long as conventional cows.

Dan: Really?

Gary: The veterinarians who take care of organic farmers are a little bit like the old Maytag salespeople. They have less to do because the animals are so much healthier. These are not the kinds of things you can expect every consumer to know and understand, but obviously your listeners are listening because they're interested in this kind of thing. I would just underscore that, yeah, buy organic and buy local when you can, but more important buy organic.

Dan: Absolutely, I couldn't agree with you more. In fact, I was talking in one episode with Tim Joseph with Maple Hill Creamery and he says, "They really don't have vet bills." Jefferson Hartwell of Shenandoah Valley Organic, with organic chickens, said their chickens live longer than other chickens. Beyond that, the taste, the texture, the quality is so much better. I think people have lost the ability to connect with food. I was talking to Robbie Vitrano recently, actually on last week's podcast. I made the comment that food is the common language that unites us. The point being that the quality of the food that we eat, I would rather have quality versus quantity. Getting back to what you're talking about, where something that's mass produced or overly processed, you lose the flavors, the textures, and then your senses become numb. I didn't want to go down that path too far, but the point being, is that organic is, like you said, that's what our parents grew up with.

I don't remember seeing pictures of pre-World War with a bunch of obese people standing around. It's people that were healthy and happy. It's all about the community and you're doing so much to unite this, so again, thank you. What are your thoughts around regenerative agriculture? Can you talk a little bit about that? Why is that so important? Because I don't think a lot of people really understand what that is, what it means, and why it's so important.

Gary: Yeah, let's go back a step here, in fact, let's go back 30 years. The guy who originally coined the term, regenerative agriculture, was my old and late friend Bob Rodale, who's father J.I. Rodale, started the Rodale Organization. Bob, at that time ... By the way, it's a funny little sidebar here. Bob wrote the very first check in support of the ecological research institute I mentioned, New Alchemy Institute. All the way back in 1969, he literally gave us our founding grant. Bob was obviously dedicated to organic. He had Prevention Magazine and he had Organic Farming and Gardening and the New Farm and they started the Organic Farming Research Center at Rodale and so on. A real visionary, but what Bob was trying to say, at the time, that is important for us to remember today, is that organic, in and by itself, is not a label. It's a way of thinking.

Dan: It is.

Gary: It's a way of thinking in which we learn that we are part of nature. That the planet is not our subsidiary. That the Earth is not infinitely resilient. That there is no such thing as a place called away. All of these fundamental myths that have governed the evolution of modern society. What he was specifically saying with regard to agriculture was that the measure of our success of these methods is how much are we regenerating the planet, because we have done some abusing. How much carbon are we taking from the atmosphere, putting back in? How much are we replenishing and cleansing water supplies of unnecessary toxins? How much biodiversity are we rebuilding?

But also are we regenerating rural culture, the kinds of things that our beloved Wendell Berry shined a light on? Are we creating places where young people want to grow up and live on the farm? Again, organic checks all those boxes. I view the word, regenerative ag, through the lens that the guy who coined it intended, which is that it's a way of thinking. I don't view it as a label. Now, that said, there is, as you're well aware, and I think this is what's behind your question. There is this movement now to create yet another standard of almost like an organic plus standard - regenerative organic standard.

I'm not unsympathetic to that, nor am I opposed to that, as long as the baseline and fortunately the folks who've been helping to think about this standard accept and agree that in order to get regenerative organic status, certification, you have to first be organic. If that ultimately becomes meaningful to consumers I'm all in favor of it. I would love consumers to understand that with their every purchase they're supporting fair wages for farm workers. They're supporting animal welfare. They're supporting things that go way beyond just avoiding pesticides. But where I think we have to be cautious is, first of all, not using this standard, or this thinking, in anyway to minimize or demean organic itself. As I said, we can be proud of our $50 billion industry, but we're still only five and a half, or six percent of food on average.

I mean, some crops, like carrots, are 20% of U.S. carrots are organic, but on average we're only down in the single digits. That's because we haven't done a good enough job of educating consumers, first, what organic is and B, for example, non-GMO is not "almost organic," or the word, natural, really doesn't mean anything. But that rather that organic covers all of that. Organic means non-GMO. Organic means, obviously, natural and it means humane. Those things are baked right into the standard.

My real point is that I think people who subscribe to the notions of thinking regeneratively, just need to be a little bit careful that A, we don't get so far out ahead of the consumer that we leave them behind, because, like I said, most consumers still don't even get what organic is and B, that we don't undermine the basic standard that we've worked so hard to build. We do have a real enemy these days in the White House. Someone who truly doesn't understand even the basics of building an ecological system. We have an EPA, a U.S.D.A, that are being completely controlled by chemical interests and big energy interests. I think our efforts, right now, need to be focused on just helping consumers to understand the things you and I have talked about during our time together here.

We are what we eat. Voting is a political act. It's a way of choosing the kind of world we want to live in. And not getting so obsessed with slicing and dicing that we just become so wonky and disconnected from the average consumer who we all work for. Who, in the end, is going to drive this change or not. Net-net, I support regenerative thinking, I agree with the notion that organic, as a standard, needs to constantly improve. That many other things need to be considered, but I don't want to see this become something where it fuels an organic isn't enough kind of attitude.

Dan: I love that idea. In fact, actually, when I speak on stage a lot, or talk to a lot of people, I ask questions. I ask the audience, "Which is better organic, non-GMO, et cetera." People, unfortunately, think that non-GMO is better, even people that are working in the natural channel. To your point, we've got to do a much better job of educating. I wrote an interesting article, right after the election, about what do the election of 2016 and natural have in common? And the bottom line was apathy. The fact that people are standing up now and paying attention and getting engaged and getting involved, again, that goes back to you vote with your dollars. If we can drive that at the grassroots level, as you've been saying, and really help multiply that, or help communicate that up the channel, I think that's the future of this CPG industry.

In fact, actually, I was talking to Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru. He agrees with me that the future of products, the future of CPG is the natural organic brand. Those are the brands that are driving sales and it's those small disruptive brands that, like you said, are growing sales across every category. More importantly, consumers are looking, like you said, for those consumers that meet their needs beyond the four corners of the package, more importantly, from nutritional, supporting the community that they live in. What are your thoughts along those lines? Anything you want to share in that regard?

Gary: Frame the question a little tighter for me.

Dan: My belief is that big brands are struggling, because their idea of innovation is to put a new sprinkling on it or put a new label on it. For example, calling it natural, which, like you said, means nothing. True innovation ... I also say that the natural channel is the R&D of the CPG. Meaning that natural brands are more closely tied to their consumer. They're providing the solutions that the consumers want. My point being, is that it's those innovative, disruptive, brands that are the future of the consumer package good industry. Those brands are going to become more relevant as they continue to grow, similar to throwing a rock in a pond. We pay attention to the small ripples long before it becomes a tidal wave and ends up on a Walmart shelf.

Your thoughts along those lines.

Gary: Yeah. I couldn't agree with you more. Look, here's the sad reality. Thanks in part to the failings of this current Administration, but really it goes back before. We had our challenges even under Democratic Administrations. We have not progressed as far as we need to as a species. We are still warming the planet. GMO's have led to an explosion in the youth and the exposure of serious carcinogenic compounds, herbicides, and so forth. I mean, we've done a lot of damage and this consumer, who's coming up now, gets that as never before. First, they're paying the consequences with both climate warming, with rising rates of everything from ADHD and cancers to asthmas and all kinds of other health effects. We've really replaced the traditional threats to humanity, the chronic biological diseases, with human induced disease. Cholera and some of the other small pox diseases that have plagued humanity are now being replaced by cancer and by autism and by many other threats that we can now track and trace to toxins in our environment.

Your listeners should read an incredible and, I think, really valuable new book by my friend Phil and Mary Landrigan called Children and Toxic Chemicals: What Everybody Should Know. It's a simple, user friendly, easy to read and empowering book because it gives a whole bunch of prescriptions for what we can do. Anyway, to come to your point, this consumer is more enlightened and they get it. They want it all. They want to know that their purchase counts for something. They know that it can and they know that the market ... that we're not the victims of what companies put out there. We're the ones who, through our choices, we determine what companies put out there.

Phil and you are absolutely correct, that this is why the growth, inevitably, is going to be better for you, better for the planet products. By the way, don't take our word for it, just look at the pattern of acquisitions going on and the multiples these huge companies are paying. I mean, there's a reason that Campbell's, General Mills, Coke, Pepsi, all the others, are spending these crazy amounts of money on these emerging brands. Back in my day it was hippies who weren't exhaling who were creating these brands, now these brands fall under the umbrella of these mega-companies. Why is that? Because growth is the essence of their obligation to their shareholders, and this is where the growth is.

No question there's a sea of change happening.

Dan: Absolutely. My mission, and I'd love to get your thoughts on this, the big companies tend to commoditize natural, the consumer, and the products. Meaning, and I make this joke that, they view the LOHAS consumer. Someone eats a couple salads and goes for a walk. Whereas in our world, it's someone who is trying to reduce their carbon footprint. Who pays attention to the transparency, where the product came from, everything else. Do you have any thoughts along those lines? What would you recommend? Getting back to what you talked about last night, about staying true to your values. How do you help a young entrepreneur, or a natural organic brand, communicate that and help the bigger brands, and the bigger retailers, understand why they have value on the shelf?

Gary: Yeah. Well, look, these are knowledge infused products.

Dan: Yeah, I love that.

Gary: These are products that have incorporated vast amounts of new data that wasn't available in the past. I'm not one of these guys who blames food companies for being hung up on producing cheap and so forth. But I would conversely say, you're not paying attention, if you're not seeing the fact that these products make ecological sense, make financial sense, make marketplace sense, and you're either going to be on that or you're going to be left out.

Dan: Absolutely.

Gary: It's not very complicated.

Dan: Well, it's like you said in the beginning, Wall Street versus Main Street. I mean, that's not the terminology you used, but you talked about really educating people and having them understand back to the rural community. That's where you grew up. That's where that sense of community, that local, that supporting the local ecosystem, et cetera, is so valuable. I know we're coming up on the end of the hour. Do you have a few more minutes or do you want to call it good?

Gary: I have about two, sorry.

Dan: No, that's fine. Well, then I want to thank you for your time. Anything you want to share, last closing thoughts? By the way, anyway that I can help support you in some of your missions, I would love to be a part of that. I so value what you do, how you contribute to our natural community.

Gary: Well, I appreciate that Daniel. You are doing that by this interview and the others that you do. I think, I would just say, this whole thing ... we've covered a lot of ground here, thrown a lot of data around, but in the end it's not all that complicated. We are what we eat. We change the world through our votes. The food system, for that matter, the consumer products universe works for us. We have enormous personal power, we just need to wield it. If you can't buy everything organic, buy something organic. I'd say, start with organic yogurt, but pick your place. But the real point is, this is an act of expressing our willpower. We're all compost eventually. We only have so much time here on this planet, but nothing in my 40 years in this space has led me to believe that we cannot change things. Or to put it a little bit more positively, everything in my 40 years has shown me ... We got into this, a lot of these messes, ecological and otherwise through a whole series of unconscious steps.

Dan: Absolutely.

Gary: Nobody set out to say, "Let's warm the planet. Let's pollute the Earth. Let's put chemicals everywhere." And we have to understand and give ourselves a break, that's how we're going to find our way out. One step at a time, one purchase at a time, one cup at a time, one farmer at a time, one cow at a time, and one podcast at a time. Again, thank you for giving me this opportunity to talk.

Dan: I'm just thrilled that you're on. Thank you for making time for us. I'm honored that you gave us the time today. Thank you, again, for everything you do in the community. I know you've got to go. I look forward to talking to you next time we bump into each other. Again, if there's anyway I can help support you, and some of the valuable missions that you have, educating small brands, et cetera. That's one of the things I wanted to ask you about, but please reach out to me, I'd love to help support what you're doing.

Gary: Well, thanks. And, again, I would say on that last point, real quickly. Your folks should check out the Hirshberg Entrepreneurial Institute happening in June in Boulder. It's for entrepreneurs small, medium, large who want to do well by doing good. Who want to help make the world a better place. That would be a great place for people to plug in, but again thanks for your time.

Dan: Thank you. I appreciate it.

Dan: I want to thank Gary for making time for us today. His insights, his activism, and everything he does for this industry to help make our healthy way of life more accessible and everything Gary does to help improve the health of our planet. Gary mentioned a lot of great resources on this podcast. I'll be sure to include them as show notes and on this podcast webpage. You can access them at In this podcast we talked a lot about education, about the need to communicate effectively with your consumers, with the shoppers, with your retailers. In honor of that, I'm going include as the freebie my new book, before it goes on sale, it's Turnkey Sales Story Strategies.

I've worked hard to produce a guide full of actionable insights to help natural product brands to get on more retailer shelves and in the hands of more shoppers. You can get instant access to it by texting strategies to “44222”, or to go to my website. Also, check out the free companion course. It's designed to help you get the most from this valuable resource. My free course, Turnkey Sales Story Strategies, where I teach brands how to do just this, how to leverage your unique selling story to help you get your products on more retailer shelves and into the hands of more shoppers. This is how we make our healthy way of life more accessible. You can find my free course at, or you can find it on this podcast webpage. Thank you for listening.

If you like the episode, please leave a review on iTunes, subscribe and share it with your friends. As always, this is about you and it's for you. Thank you for listening and I look forward to seeing you on the next show.

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Thanks again for joining us today. Make sure to stop over at for the show notes along with more great brand building articles and resources. Check out my free course Turnkey Sales Story Strategies, your roadmap to success. You can find that on my website or at Please subscribe to the podcast, leave a review, and recommend it to your friends and colleagues. Sign up today on my website so you don’t miss out on actionable insights and strategic solutions to grow your brand and save you valuable time and money.

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