This story originally appeared July 1st in Oregon Business Magazine
Demand for organic food continues to soar: Last year, sales of organic food rose to $32.3 billion — up 10% from 2012. Here in Oregon, organic produce wholesaler Organically Grown Co. has been championing organic growing methods for four decades. Founded as a cooperative in Eugene 36 years ago, OGC started with less than a dozen organic farms. “And some of those were big gardens!” recalls David Lively, one of the founders.
Though it became a for-profit company in 1983, OGC (like another local organic success story, Bob’s Red Mill) is also an ESOP, meaning its employees and member farmers are owner/shareholders. Today, the company has annual sales of over $125 million and employs around 250 people who work at the company’s Eugene, Portland, or Kent, Washington offices — or at its 120,000-square-foot distribution center in Gresham.
I sat down with Lively, who is now the company’s Vice President of sales and marketing, to ask him about the company’s growth, why it distributes New Zealand apples and South American bananas and the reason the Northwest is such an organic stronghold.
OB: You’re an organic produce wholesaler—the company transports organic produce from farms to grocery stores, juice bars, and food buying clubs. But while you’re Northwest-based, you don’t only distribute regional produce. Can you explain?
DL: Even back in the ‘80s, we knew we had to source some produce from outside the Northwest. Some of the growers just wanted to move their stuff, but another group of us were like, “That leaves us with a serious predicament because we’re in Oregon and so we can only grow crops half the year. We’ll have nothing to do from November through April. What’s going to pay the rent?"
So we’re working with growers that are located all the way from British Columbia through the western United States to Mexico, South America, Hawaii, and even New Zealand. We have a full product line, pulling from all over the joint.
OB: You’re an S-Corp and an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan). What’s the difference between a farmer-owner and a farmer who merely has their produce distributed by you?
DL: Owners’ shares are worth value and so their shares increase as the company grows. We’ve got growers who, when they joined and put down $15,000 in the ‘80s, are worth tens of millions of dollars now. Owners vote for the board of directors and they may serve on the board of directors. At some point, they can retire and the business will buy their shares.
OB: How many growers do you work with, total?
DL: It’s hard to say because some of those growers are disguised behind brokers. We work with an outfit called Awe Sum Organics, which works with apple growers in New Zealand. We only bill Awe Sum, but they represent a lot of growers. Same with our banana deal: we only work with Organics Unlimited, but Mayra [Velazquez de Leon] represents growers who work in Southern Mexico. But I’d say about 240.
Continue reading at Oregon Business Magazine.