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Nov 172010

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Like many farmers of their time, the Lundberg family experimented with new pesticides being hailed in the mid-20th Century as the wave of the future, the way to increase yields and tame food production.

The founding brothers of Lundberg Family Farms

Once, University of California at Davis researchers persuaded Wendell Lundberg and his three brothers to try a  strong new chemical on a field of rice. It proved so powerful, the crop was dead in a day.

That experience made a lasting impression, and was one of many that caused the Lundbergs to increasingly veer away from the chemical trend and return instead to their roots.

“My dad said it cemented in his mind that a farmer has to question what he’s doing and that you are a steward of the land and you have to take responsibility for what you’re doing,” said Jessica Lundberg, Wendell’s daughter and current chairman of the board of Lundberg Family Farms, based near Chico in Northern California.

Wendell and his brothers, Eldon, Harlan and Homer, who had inherited a rice farm from their parents in 1937, found themselves returning to the core principals espoused by their Nordic forebears: Preserve the land for future generations and it will provide an ongoing bounty. So like many innovators, instead of following their crowd, they followed their instincts, Jessica said. They restored  the soil each year with compost that enriched the fields, reused farm waste and began setting aside land for chemical-free production.They built their own mill to keep this early organic rice (which predated the official label) pure, and later on, the family took other environmentally friendly steps, even setting up  a program to salvage thousands of wild duck eggs from the nests that ended up in the wet rice fields every year.

Children gather to hunt for and rescue duck eggs left behind in rice fields before spring mowing at Lundberg farms.

When macrobiotic and back-to-the-earth farmers and retailers began turning up in California in the 1960s, the Lundbergs agreed to provide them with chemical-free rice. Wendell became an “environmentalist” before the term was coined, Jessica said, and soon, the Lundbergs found themselves in the heart of the sustainability movement, supplying “alternative” grocers with bulk and organic rice.

Today, the family operation, which employs about 200 people, continues that tradition, selling brown and exotic rices that provide a fiber-rich and organic alternative to regular white rice at the grocery store. The farm near, which buys green energy and is partly solar powered, is a picture of diversity, producing an aromatic Arborio rice that’s considered a gourmet treat, and a staple short grain brown rice that’s become the company’s best seller, to name just two of the dozens of rice and grain varieties grown at the Lundberg farm. (The line includes 200 products ranging from rice to risotto and breakfast cereal.)

Jessica, who serves both as board chairman and seed nursery manager (one of about a dozen Lundberg family members actively working at the farm), seemed the perfect person to query about the state of organic food and farming.

Q: How strong is customer support for organic products?

A:  “I think the more people are aware of food. The more support for organic there will be. The last few years with the economy so tight, we’e seen a little change in buying habits, but the organic (buying) hasn’t declined. They’re doing it out of principle and for health reasons. We are seeing a change in how people buy. They may not be buying a box with flavor packets in it, but they’re buying more in bulk.”

Q: Your products are certified Organic and some are labeled as “Eco-farmed” – which allows the use of pesticides. How is eco-farmed better than conventional? What are you saying with that label?

Jessica Lundberg of Lundberg Family Farms

A: Organic means it is certified under USDA standards. Eco-farmed is our own term for our conventional production. It does use chemical pesticides, it is not organic….But we do use the rice straw (left over from the harvest) again, and practice water conservation. This rice is treated as organic once it’s brought up from the field.

It costs more to grow organically. There’s a risk of weed competition, and it can lower your yield. So way back when, we decided to grow as much organic as people will buy….(But, the family decided) we can’t risk the farm on it.

So they (the brothers) had two lines all along: Organic which was officially defined later by USDA and the conventionally grown.

They also developed markets for other specialty varieties and some are harder to grow (organically). So we have “side by side” product lines.

Q: About how much of your business is organic vs. eco-farmed?

A:  It depends on the year 60-70 percent organic and 30 percent or so is eco-farmed.

Q: The Lundbergs have been strongly non-GMO – against growing genetically modified plants or seeds. Can you tell me why?

A: We felt we needed to take a position, a strong position to protect California. We want to provide a good example. We believe that genetically modified organisms — the majority are being developed in relation to a chemical — they lead to a chemical dependence. It comes down to limiting genetic diversity.

It’s important that we don’t lose our rights to have access to seeds. Also there’s not enough testing to show that they’re (GMO plants) are unequivocably safe. (The company has lobbied in Sacramento for legislation to protect non-GMO growers.)

We followed up to say we would not grow GMO or use GMO. The next step is we test our seed to a standard to make sure no GMOs are present.

Q: So you grow as much product as you reasonably can organically – and you don’t use GMOs – do you think the world can be fed this way? The big chemical companies say that we must farm with powerful pesticides and fertilizers and GMOs if we’re to produce enough food for the world?

A: I feel pride in how we’re farming. But you see a lot of farmers not paying attention to the systems where they’re farming. They don’t see the importance of the soil. They’re putting chemicals on it and masking the effects of not rotating crops or not resting soil. In some places, that will be found to be a very dangerous road.

I believe that organic can feed the world and I think if anything, as we talk about sustainability, there are many groups around the world trying to define that. But ultimately, the definition is: We’ve all got to survive on the planet.

…I think when people are making out their equations (about how much food is needed and whether it will be enough) and thinking how we’re going to do this, it’s important to have organics, and not lose those tools and have that out there for us.

That’s actually what’s good for us. That’s good for our health as human beings, it may mean we have to bring on the true cost of food.

Q: What do you mean, the true cost of food?

A:  Americans pay less than 20 percent of their disposable dollars on food. …They may need to spend more. But we’ll be growing food in a way that’s not harming the planet, hurting water quality or our neighbors.

Q: But that said, you think organics can be the answer?

A: I honestly believe that we can feed the world organically. A  lot of the world already does (rely on organic food).

The argument that’s put up that we have to push our industrial system harder to feed everyone, it overlooks that a lot of food shortages are result of political problems….

Even chemical makers admit they are not providing long-term solutions. They will run out. This (heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides) is a short-term or gap solution. And these companies are pushing these products around the world.

We need to find sustainability around plant structure, preserving soil structure; learn how to keep food fresh….That can add to people’s ability to feed themselves.

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