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.”

Leave a Reply

Featured Stories
New citrus grove in Florida
Citrus
August 24, 2016
Florida Citrus Granted New Incentive To Grow On
A state-backed $5.5 million grove renovation/re-establishment incentive is now available and accepting applications. Read More
Judi Whitson, 2016 Florida Woman of the Year in Agriculture
Citrus
August 24, 2016
Meet Florida’s 2016 Woman Of The Year In Agriculture
Dedication to fostering the state’s farming future defines the latest winner of longtime honor. Read More
University of New Hampshire scientists constructed a linkage map of the seven chromosomes of the diploid Fragaria iinumae, which allows them to fill in a piece of the genetic puzzle about the eight sets of chromosomes of the cultivated strawberry.
Berries
August 24, 2016
Researchers Unravel Genetic Ancestry Of Cultivated Strawberry
A genetic analysis conducted by New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station researchers aims to improve modern cultivation efforts of strawberry growers. Read More
Justin Clements, a fifth-year doctoral student in the Molecular and Environmental Toxicology Center working in the Department of Entomology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the recipient of NPC's 2016-2017 Academic Scholarship.
Potatoes
August 24, 2016
Fifth-Year Doctoral Student Receives NPC’s Scholarship For Potato Research
The National Potato Council (NPC) has announced that Justin Clements, a fifth-year doctoral student in the Molecular and Environmental Toxicology Read More
2011 WA IFTA Tour
Fruits
August 24, 2016
Don’t Underestimate The Value Of Production Bus Tours For Your Business [Opinion]
Sure, you can see and talk with virtually anyone in the world through your smart phone, but you can’t shake their hand. Read More
Crowd protesting GMOs stock image FEATURE
Farm Management
August 24, 2016
Swaying Views On GMO Foods No Easy Task
Featured speaker for the upcoming FFVA Annual Convention says tides are slowly turning in how people digest the concept of genetic modification. Read More
A subsurface microirrigation system.
(Photo credit: Peter Jacoby)
Grapes
August 23, 2016
Deeper Irrigation Method Showing Promise For Vineyards
A new subsurface irrigation system is showing promise for slashing water usage in vineyards. Many vineyards use drip lines that Read More
Tar spot of corn
Disease Control
August 23, 2016
Florida Sweet Corn Has New Deadly Stalker In Tar Spot
Learn how to identify, the survival and spread, as well as management methods for this disease. Read More
sprayer nozzles
Fruits
August 23, 2016
New Insecticides Geared To Give Growers Edge Over Pests
Check out three unique chemistries from several of the industry's leading crop protection suppliers. Read More
Prepping apples for cleaning, waxing, and sorting.
Apple Grower of the Year
August 22, 2016
Apple Crop Forecasts Live On Twitter
You'll be able to get up-to-the-minute reports of not only the various regions of the U.S., but key production regions around the world. Read More
The Latest
Citrus
August 24, 2016
Florida Citrus Granted New Incentive To …
A state-backed $5.5 million grove renovation/re-establishment incentive is now available and accepting applications. Read More
Citrus
August 24, 2016
Meet Florida’s 2016 Woman Of The Year In…
Dedication to fostering the state’s farming future defines the latest winner of longtime honor. Read More
Berries
August 24, 2016
Researchers Unravel Genetic Ancestry Of …
A genetic analysis conducted by New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station researchers aims to improve modern cultivation efforts of strawberry growers. Read More
Potatoes
August 24, 2016
Fifth-Year Doctoral Student Receives NPC…
The National Potato Council (NPC) has announced that Justin Clements, a fifth-year doctoral student in the Molecular and Environmental Toxicology Read More
Fruits
August 24, 2016
Don’t Underestimate The Value Of P…
Sure, you can see and talk with virtually anyone in the world through your smart phone, but you can’t shake their hand. Read More
Farm Management
August 24, 2016
Swaying Views On GMO Foods No Easy Task
Featured speaker for the upcoming FFVA Annual Convention says tides are slowly turning in how people digest the concept of genetic modification. Read More
Grapes
August 23, 2016
Deeper Irrigation Method Showing Promise…
A new subsurface irrigation system is showing promise for slashing water usage in vineyards. Many vineyards use drip lines that Read More
Disease Control
August 23, 2016
Florida Sweet Corn Has New Deadly Stalke…
Learn how to identify, the survival and spread, as well as management methods for this disease. Read More
Fruits
August 23, 2016
New Insecticides Geared To Give Growers …
Check out three unique chemistries from several of the industry's leading crop protection suppliers. Read More
Apple Grower of the Year
August 22, 2016
Apple Crop Forecasts Live On Twitter
You'll be able to get up-to-the-minute reports of not only the various regions of the U.S., but key production regions around the world. Read More
Oranges
August 22, 2016
Major OJ Purchase Promises Relief For Fl…
$30 million planned acquisition from USDA to be used for surplus removal. Read More
Varieties & Rootstocks
August 22, 2016
Florida Citrus Breeders Squeezed For Tim…
The pressure is on to develop a more HLB-tolerant orange. Read More
Pest Control
August 21, 2016
Spotted Wing Drosophila: For Michigan, …
Why the pest can be so much more destructive for Eastern cherry growers might be due to what they’re not farming. Read More
Grapes
August 19, 2016
European Grapevine Moth Eradicated From …
Agricultural officials confirm eradication of invasive pest, lift quarantine restrictions. Read More
Fruits
August 19, 2016
Parts Of New York Now In Extreme Drought
Water deficits starting to cause concern for fire, water shortages in the Empire State. Read More
Citrus
August 19, 2016
Rough Winter In Store For Much Of The U.…
The Old Farmer’s Almanac and its competitor The Farmers’ Almanac predict the 2016-2017 winter will be cold for much of the country. Read More
Citrus
August 18, 2016
Florida Farmer Takes Fresh Approach To G…
New easy-peel, seedless varieties offer market potential. Read More
GenNext Growers
August 18, 2016
USDA Invests $17.8M To Educate Next Gene…
Money will bolster efforts of partner organizations to increase next generation of growers. Read More
[gravityform id="62" title="false" description="false"]