Rekindling my passion for organics by sowing some ‘Wild Oats’

In 2007 after helping coordinate our teams last production of the Organic Center dinner, I resigned as chair and board member of the center and came to the conclusion that while we were good at fund raising (sort of), my personal passion for bringing organic food to the masses was for all intents and purposes pretty much spent.

In 2000 we had launched the Organic Mission with a call for 10 percent of all food to be organic with high hopes of being at or near that goal by 2010. In a single night at our opening dinner at Expo West, we raised $1.5 million dollars — something I am still very proud of. But I am not proud of how effectively those funds were deployed or the net impact of our effort.

Many times, with all due respect to the industry, I wasn’t really sure they wanted to make organics available to the masses. In fact, many times I felt it was the complete opposite. So I attempted to determine what it was we were doing wrong, and settled on what I call the “three E’s”. First of all, we made organic products too expensive due to a poor supply chain and disjointed marketing and manufacturing. This then led to their being available only to the second “E” — an elusive set of retailers that were hard to find and not convenient for most shoppers. And that, in turn, led to the industry’s becoming defined by third “E,” which is exclusive.

This realization of where organics was heading resulted in my leaving to see if I could perhaps have a bigger impact on the recycling industry. But as luck would have it, after Whole Foods bought out its only chance of competition, Wild Oats, the Federal Trade Commission got involved in challenging that transaction, making me think that perhaps there was hope for the movement after all. So a business collaborator and I petitioned for the brand and ended up acquiring it.

Then serendipity kicked in when Jim Keyes, the former CEO of 7-11, was ending his term with Blockbuster he had the perfect expertise to build e brand. As it happened, the business team we were working with knew Jim and Walmart had confidence in him. This made Walmart interested in marketing and selling Wild Oats products as part of a “Democratizing Health” campaign. Our business team’s retail experience, represented by such individuals as Wild Oats CEO Tom Casey, Tom Dahlen and Ira Trochner, came into the picture, and before we knew it we were contracting with the largest retail service provider in the country to help us build the line of Wild Oats products.

Such partnerships, of course, can be awkward and difficult, which is why most big companies will never engage in them. But I watched Walmart, our business team, and the sales and marketing experts work through the issues, because everyone had the same goal: turning those “three E’s” into “three A’s”, which are: (1.) affordability, via the utilization of a unique manufacturing base and Walmart’s distribution/supply chain; (2.) accessibility, not just in 300 stores, but to potentially more than 3,000 retail outlets, and (3.) absolute authenticity, by which I mean guaranteeing that growers, producers and consumers are the beneficiaries of this effort as well as the consumers (an aspect I feel especially qualified to promote, having had considerable experience helping to preserve family farms.

The fire and passion generated by the team led by Jim Keyes and Tom Casey has been inspiring for me to watch. We Tim and I could of never accomplished this. Kudos to all involved in this campaign you have driven the extra mile, with in excess of 50 plus trips to Walmart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. over the course of the last couple of years — quite an accomplishment — maybe now it is time for me to get back on the Board of the Organic Center for Education and Promotion.

This time, I truly believe we’ve set the stage for replacing those “three E’s” with the “three A’s,” and perhaps reaching — and even exceeding — the organic industry’s initial goal after all.

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