What It Means To Take Sustainability Seriously

Sustainable Stalwart

Many growers are going sustainable these days. It’s become a buzzword, a trendy thing to do not only in agriculture, but business at large. At Stahlbush Island Farms, they too are big believers in sustainability. The difference is, the Corvallis, OR, operation has been pursuing sustainability for 20 years.

In fact, owners Bill and Karla Chambers helped develop the movement. About 15 years ago, they understood there needed to be a recognition, a certification of sustainable practices much like there is for organic certification, which is a very different thing. “Sustainable is a much broader term,” explains Bill Chambers. “Sustainable looks at a broader set of criteria, including wildlife, labor, how you manage water, how you manage inputs — and by definition, if you’re not profitable, you’re not sustainable.”

They joined with other growers and processors, as well as people in marketing and labor, and applied for a Kellogg Foundation grant to develop sustainable certification. “Then I stepped up and said: ‘Here’s our practices, and we’d like to be the first ones,” says Chambers, recalling how Stahlbush Island Farms became the first grower to be certified sustainable by the Food Alliance in 1997. “It’s something we’re pretty proud of.”

Sustainability Defined

In the ensuing years, they have by no means backed off that commitment. On their 5,000 acres of fruits and mostly vegetables, they have pursued a variety of projects to make the farm more sustainable.

To highlight their belief, in the past few months they have distributed a 1/3-page flier in 500 stores nationwide with the headline: “What does it mean to be SUSTAINABLE? Good Question.” Incidentally, the definition they like best is “Sustainability: meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Their strategies range from the low-tech — a heron rookery where the denizens take care of rodents on nearby fields — to the high-tech — they were among the first growers in the region to employ global positioning systems on their tractors so they could run them 24 hours a day, using fewer tractors overall.

$10 Million Investment

But by far the most notable evidence is the huge new biogas plant they opened in front of their headquarters office this year. The $10 million facility produces enough electricity for about 1,100 homes, nearly twice as much as their farm and food processing plant uses in a year.

Organic matter, the considerable amounts of fruit and vegetable waste that are by-products of their processing plant, is placed into huge anaerobic mixing tanks, producing biogas. The methane-rich biogas is used to fuel a cogeneration plant.

There is very little energy loss, so it’s an extremely efficient system, says Chambers. It produces not only electrical energy, but thermal energy at the same time, which he notes is great for the company because food production requires both types of energy.

When the plant started producing electricity in early June, it was the first of its kind in North America. Since they can’t utilize all the electricity, they are selling the excess back to the local power grid.

Not So Odd Couple

One of the first things you notice about Bill and Karla Chambers is that theirs is not a typical relationship, says Stahlbush Island Farms’ vice president of marketing, Tracy Miedema. She’s got an interesting perspective as something of an outsider, because she came to the company from the corporate world, previously working at General Mills.

Karla Chambers is like the left side of the organization’s brain. Extremely analytical, she’s got a degree in agricultural economics from Oregon State University, was the first woman to chair the state Board of Agriculture, and sits on the Head Office Board of the Federal Reserve in San Francisco.

Bill Chambers is more like the right side of the organization’s brain, more free-thinking. “He has one of the finest entrepreneurial minds in agriculture of his generation,” says Miedema.

Not that they aren’t traditional. Both hail from pioneering farm families, and both are hard-working and frugal, hallmarks of generations of growers. It’s just that they, as evidenced by their new $10 million biogas plant, aren’t content to just stay the course. Together they make a fine team, concludes Miedema: “Their willingness to be entrepreneurial is like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

It’s a fantastic way for Stahlbush Island Farms to minimize its carbon footprint and gain energy independence, says Chambers. “And we’re doing it with stuff we used to have a hard time finding a home for,” he says.

For more on the Stahlbush Island Farms biogas plant, check out the farm’s web page, www.stahlbush.com/energy.php.

Ask Your Customers

Bill and Karla Chambers have a simple business strategy that has served them quite well through the years. Recall the premise of “Field of Dreams,” the beloved movie about baseball and fatherhood: “If you build it, they will come.” Well, their business plan is pretty much the opposite of that.

“We’re entirely sales-driven,” says Bill Chambers. “We don’t plant anything unless we have a home for it.”

They started out in 1985 as vegetable growers, and became vertically integrated five years later when they realized that’s what their target customers — food companies — wanted. “Pie bakers don’t want to buy fresh pumpkins,” he says, “they buy processed pumpkin product.”

But how do you know what to plant? Easy, you ask your customers. Chambers says they simply started asking the food companies what other products the companies wanted. They now grow several hundred acres of berries because those pie bakers, as well as other companies, wanted berries. “Finding the customer is always the hardest thing,” he says. “The easy part is the production.”

By 2001, they were completely vertically integrated, from planting the seed to labeling their own products. In fact, today they are the largest organic canned pumpkin producer in the U.S.

Organic What?

But following that strategy of giving the customers what they want has led them down some unusual paths. That’s how they got started producing organic dog food, for example.

Tracy Miedema remembers it well because it was her first week on the job as vice president of marketing. Miedema had just come on board four years ago when a woman called and said she couldn’t find any organic pumpkin food for her dog.

Miedema thought the request kind of odd at the time, but then she got another request for the same product the very next week. She decided to look into it, and veterinarians told her pumpkin is high in soluble fiber, making it easy for dogs to digest, particularly older pooches. And for heavier hounds, it’s also quite filling but low in calories. All that and it’s great for dogs’ coats.

In the course of her research Miedema learned many dog owners were even buying canned pumpkin intended for humans. “But pet store owners obviously don’t want to send people to shop at grocery stores,” she says. And the idea for a product was born.

A year ago, they launched Nummy Tum Tum, and it’s now sold in a dozen states. “It’s the kind of thing Stahlbush Island Farms does very, very well — growing a super-premium product for niche markets,” says Miedema. “What sets us apart is we’re the farm at the end of the rainbow.”

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