Arran Stephens of Nature's Path on Independence in the Fast-Consolidating Food Industry

Arran Stephens is the CEO and co-founder, with his wife Ratana, of Nature's Path. The company is one of the leading privately owned and family operated organic food companies in North America. They sell their certified organic cereals, breads, cookies, and snack bars in 42 countries around the world.

Stephens opened Canada's first large organic supermarket in 1971 in Vancouver. The name of the store, Lifestream, was used for a successful line of natural products that was sold in 1981 and eventually bought by Kraft/Philip Morris. After launching Nature's Path in 1985 the company caught the first consumer wave of organic consciousness in experienced huge growth while maintaining it's core organic philosophy. In 1995, in a move that typifies how Stephens approaches business, he bought back Lifestream from Kraft so he could control the quality of the brand.

Click through for our Q+A with this organic food pioneer.

When I asked Stephens if there was anything coming down the pipe at Nature's Path that he was especially excited about he could have taken it as an opportunity to plug a new product but instead he chose to talk succession. "What I really like best is seeing the next generation of leaders assuming more and more responsibility for the continued success of the enterprise." It feels as though Stephens measures the success of his company, not through sales numbers, but through how the community he has built affects positive change in the world. From donating to wildlife and organic organizations to reducing packaging and powering their Blaine, WA facility with 35% wind power an ethic of sustainability has been a part of the company long before our current green PR era.

Stephens will be in New York on November 11 to sit on a panel at Ripe For Revolution: The Organic Solution to discuss how organic agriculture will help solve our current environmental crisis. For those of you that can't make it, here's a taste of Stephen's philosophy that could cause a revolution of its own.

TreeHugger: Ripe For Revolution is being organized in support of the Rodale Institute and the Organic Center. These organizations are well known in the sustainable agriculture world, but perhaps not as much by the general public. Why do you support the work that they do?

Arran Stephens: Ratana and I visited The Rodale Institute's organic farm for their 60th Anniversary earlier in the summer. We took the farm tour and viewed large plots of land where the longest-ever side-by-side experiments have been conducted, comparing organic methods with non-organic, measuring yields, effects on soil, moisture, humus, microbiological activity, etc. (Initially, organic farming yields drop off, but within a few years, organic yields are equivalent of chemical farming yields, but in drought years, organic agriculture provides higher yields. We were most impressed. In the early 1940's JI Rodale employed many of Sir Albert Howard's principles in establishing and promoting organic agriculture, and Sir Howard wrote the Foreword to J I Rodale's book, Pay Dirt. Organic Gardening Magazine, published by the Rodale family, enjoys a huge circulation and is very popular to this day. I felt that in recent times,The Rodale Institute (TRI) had almost disappeared from public consciousness, especially within the organic industry itself—the very movement it helped to start.

To provide the science behind the organic promise, non-profit The Organic Center was set up, with Dr. Charles Benbrook providing much valuable research, with very positive nutritional results in favor of the organic method. I thought that I should try to bring about a meeting between The Rodale Institute and The Organic Center to cooperate, and worked on that this year. Whether or not I had any impact, the two non-profits are working together and the first visible result of that is the Ripe For Revolution event in NYC. I was very pleased and honored to be offered a Director position on TRI (unpaid), which I have accepted. One of my goals is to help increase awareness within the industry of the fantastic work TRI has been doing all these years behind the scene. Under the CEO-ship of Tim LaSalle, PhD, the programs continue to accelerate.

TH: The others on the panel for the event are media personalities of one sort or another. Are you familiar with their work?

AS: Sara Snow was raised in a family of dedicated natural foods pioneers (her father is Tim Redmond [Eden Food and American Soy Products Founder]). She's a great spokeswoman for organics on her popular TV show. Andrew Weil MD is an extremely articulate and popular wellness doctor/writer/advocate, who has been increasingly supportive of organic gardening and eating. Maria Rodale is the granddaughter of organic pioneer, J I Rodale and is active on the Board of the non-profit Rodale Institute; Dr. Alan Green—well-known pediatrician, has been an eloquent advocate for organics...and I have yet to meet Emme, the supermodel. They all have pretty good websites, so you can look 'em up and see for yourself.

TH: You've been an organic advocate for a long time. How has the organic food industry changed from when you started Lifestream in 1971 to today?

AS: Enormously. It has grown and moved into the mainstream. There have been massive consolidations as huge multinationals swooped up most of what were once iconic natural or organic brands. Kellogg bought Kashi (not organic), General Mills bought Cascadian Farms & Muir Glen, Kraft bought Back to Nature, and the list goes on. Please check out [Philip Howard's Organic Industry Consolidation Charts] for a comprehensive list of industry consolidations. It will shock you. Nature's Path is one of a handful of authentic organic pioneers that decided to never sell out.

When Lifestream started on a shoestring in 1971 at the corner of 4th Avenue and Burrard [in Vancouver], there was no organic 'industry' per se, there was just a handful of idealistic entrepreneurs (many dubbed us hippies) who wanted to change the world for the better. We were inspired by Sir Albert Howard, JI Rodale, Walnut Acres, Georges Ohsawa and Rachel Carson. The new entrepreneurial spirit found locus in young leaders such as Paul Hawken in Boston, Fred Rohe in SF, Frank Ford Jr. in Hereford, TX, Blake Rankin in Seattle, the Lundberg brothers in Chico, and our own little Lifestream enterprise in Vancouver, plus a few others. We began with virtually nothing but ideals and hard work to educate and promote natural and organic foods, at a time when ours was looked upon as a fool's errand. What started as a little trickle, eventually became a flood. The consolidation of the "Industry" was inevitable (some say regrettable as ideals were sacrificed at the altar of market share and profits). This is probably sour grapes, but the entry of huge players helped to broaden the horizon and subsequently added to the conversion of millions of acres of land into sustainable organic production. Nature's Path today uses over 70,000,000 lb annually of organic grains, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, etc. from hundreds of organic family farmers across the continent. Consumers have rewarded us with their trust, and is for us to keep that trust as sacred.

TH: Nature's Path is a continent wide recognized brand. How do you keep your ideals at the root of the organic movement balanced with the challenges of running a packaged food company that competes with huge multi-national corporations?

AS: Firstly, by not selling out. Secondly, by structuring our succession to involve the next generation on a merit basis, and ensuring that our (my wife and I) ideals and commitment are fully engrafted into the DNA of the company, so that it will carry on long after we have become organic compost! By multi-national standards, we are dwarfed by giant food companies that are a thousand times larger than us. Their marketing and spending resources are vast, but if they decide to get out of organics because the metrics are no longer attractive, they can do so, but we are totally committed, as this is what Nature's Path has always been, and will always be about. We are nimble players; we dance under the legs of elephants. But although Nature's Path may be miniscule by comparison, our rate of growth is enviable, and we love what we do.

TH: Nature's Path recently bought 2240 acres of farmland in Saskatchewan. Can you tell me why you bought this land in particular, your relationship with the farmers who will farm it, and what you'll grow on it?

AS: Earlier this year we bought two fertile farms, actually directly adjacent to two very knowledgeable organic farmer-suppliers of soft white wheat and kamut, which have been used in our cereals for many years. They weren't able to buy this land, but on a cooperative basis where they combine farming their and our land, they have been able to achieve economies of scale which have allowed them to have their sons return from the oilfields. An absolute win-win situation. And, another 2,240 acres is being transitioned into organic production from chemical farming. In organic dryland grain farming, we pay double for organic grains, but grain crops must be rotated into legumes, and also fallowed (rested) every other year.

TH: Local food has become "the new organic". Do you think the local food craze has helped or hindered the organic food movement?

AS: There's nothing better than local and organic. I would choose organic from a distance if local was grown with poisons. I have a very large organic vegetable and berry garden, plus 30 fruit trees. I also volunteer at the SOS Eco-Centre in Richmond, BC, where there is a large organic vegetable garden and orchard. There are plenty of community gardens throughout the city for those wanting to grow their own who don't have gardens. But, why apply poisonous pesticides, chemical fertilizers and herbicides, when they are absolutely not needed?

TH: Anything else you'd like to add?

AS: We live in very challenging economic times. The current crisis will pass, like clouds that briefly cover the full warmth of the sun. Fortunately, Nature's Path has very little debt because of our triple-bottom line focus: environmental, social and financial, however, we cannot take anything for granted. We will endeavor to grow despite the doom and gloom on Wall/Bay streets, and hopefully our actions will help improve our spheres of influence.

Tags: Corporate Responsibility | Organic Agriculture

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