Below is the feature story we wrote about Pacific Natural Foods and its inspirational founder, Chuck Eggert. You can view it in its original e-mail context here, and you can view the wonderful video here.
|So just exactly how many bites of grassdoes a dairy cow take each day? 32,000, give or take. The good folks at Pacific Natural Foods know this because they have strapped wireless ankle bracelet transmitters to each member of their herd, enabling the farmers to monitor the animals’ health, grazing patterns and milk production. Take a fascinating trip down to the farm with us, as we profile this highly respected manufacturer of non-dairy beverages, soups and broths, their love for animals and organic farming, and their incredibly inspirational founder, Chuck Eggert. And, after you use the coupon at right for your FREE package of Pacific Natural Foods Pho Soup Starter, don’t forget to watch the behind-the-scenes video we produced during our trip to Pacific’s farms and production facilities in Oregon.|
Chuck Eggert and Pacific Foods:
The Adventures of Souperman
In the convoluted world of consumerism, there is often a clear distinction in our feelings for a company and its products. Lots of people use Microsoft products, but don’t care that much for Microsoft itself. On the other hand, lots of people love the Chicago Cubs brand even though they boo the team that is put out on the field.
How refreshing, then, to consider the curious paradox of Pacific Natural Foods — makers of numerous beloved lines of natural and organic non-dairy beverages, broths and soups, including the best-sellers at Sprouts… and, because of their strong leadership, stewardship of the land, commitment to sustainability, and do-right-even-when-nobody-is-looking approach, one of the most respected companies in the food industry.
The editors of Fresh Off the Press were flattered to be invited to spend a day with Pacific Natural Foods earlier this year — walking around their campus in Tualatin, Oregon, 15 miles southwest of Portland, and accompanying Founder and CEO Chuck Eggert on a tour of his nearby farms. It was a day that included cows and conveyor belts, cookbooks and (don’t tell our boss!) corks. Plus, we were in Oregon and didn’t get even a drop of rain.
As is so often the case in these rags-to-rich-foods stories, Pacific began rather humbly, as a co-packer making tofu and soymilk. Back then, in 1987, those were still fringe products that appealed mostly to the Birkenstock crowd; so the business plan hatched by
then-38-year-old Chuck Eggert was not terribly ambitious. After all, to that point, no one in the US had become wealthy from tofu.
Eggert, though, was not your typical entrepreneur. Raised in the Northwest, he landed his first job in the food industry at the age of 16, working at a frozen vegetable factory, and went on to become one of the first people to earn a degree in food science from Washington State University. He understood from the very beginning how commercial food production worked, with its rather heartless emphasis on efficiency; and he knew he could do better. Tofu and soymilk were only the beginning.
With a wellspring of passion for the natural world that runs deep, plus the cognitive skills borne of his training as a CPA and MBA, Chuck Eggert is seemingly both gregarious and introverted at once. This fascinating duality, evident to this day in both Eggert and Pacific Natural Foods, was what helped drive the company’s expansion beyond soy and into other aseptically-packaged products, and its ascension to the top of the natural foods industry. They make great products, using pure and simple ingredients, but they also do it the right way: caring for their animals, converting conventional farmland to organic, restoring lost wetlands, and implementing programs to conserve resources and limit energy use and waste.
Today, the company continues to produce soymilk, but it is much better known for its soups and broths, which are the category leaders in every natural foods store and are widely found in conventional supermarkets from coast to coast, too. They also make non-dairy beverages (like rice milk, almond milk, and their truly delicious hazelnut milk, reviewed in the June Fresh Off the Press), frozen pot pies, and some other packaged meals. Pacific employs about 375 people, and occupies 15 buildings spread out over a campus that includes more than 600,000 square feet of production and warehousing. Eggert Family Farms also includes about 1200 acres, on which the company raises dairy cows that produce 36 million pounds of organic milk each year for Pacific’s soups, as well as some other animals, and crops for feeding the animals.
Eggert has studied farming and food production like few others. His office is lined with floor-to-ceiling bookcases that are filled with cookbooks, food essays, technical manuals and more. He gingerly pulls one ancient volume off the shelf — sort of an encyclopedia of how-tos related to farming, food preparation and other practical matters. “It’s like the Internet of the 1830s,” he beams with wonderment.
Later, when showing us around his farms, he communes with his cows in their pasture; lets a calf suck on his index finger (“Dry well,” he says sardonically); explaining in great detail how the separator equipment transforms whole milk to 2% milk in order to ensure that the milk base in their soups doesn’t taste too buttery; pulls out a set of keys on the spur of the moment and starts up a giant tractor; lovingly points out the area where he and his team (including two of his grandchildren) helped restore some wetlands; stubbornly drives his hybrid SUV up a steep hill on the side of his wife’s vineyard just so he can show off the incredible view down below; then drives back down to the tasting room, pops open a bottle of pinot grigio, and pours a glass for everyone. He is a Renaissance Man, a man’s man, a farmer and far more, Cincinnatus for the 21st Century.
He is now also one of the legendary figures in the natural foods industry. And with Eggert’s inspired example, Pacific Natural Foods has grown up into a highly unusual leader within that industry. Their mission statement mentions nothing about sales or profitability. Indeed, they expend much more effort talking about their “food philosophy,” which emphasizes taste, food safety, animal welfare, environmental stewardship, social responsibility, and ingredient sourcing. “Food should be food,” they say. “Wetlands should be wet.”
The notion of traceability is one of the real mantras of Pacific Natural Foods, a program they call “Certified to the Source.”
“If we’re making tomato soup,” says Eggert by way of example, “we can tell you not only where the milk came from, [but] the cows it came from, the day it came from them, where the cows were, we can tell you the feed they ate, we can tell you the health of the animal, her life, her health history, the number of calves she’s had, and we can trace it clear back to the feed.”
Not only are the ingredients traceable — they’re also impeccably fresh. It’s typically less than 24 hours from the time a cow is milked until the soup that uses that milk as its base is packaged up and ready to ship. That’s one reason why Pacific Foods products taste so good.
Sustainability is also a Pacific Natural Foods imperative, and it is quite evident as one walks around their campus (which borders on more restored wetlands). Pacific Director of Sustainability Rory Schmick points out lighting fixtures that have reduced energy use by 60% over the old fixtures they replaced, and other laudable initiatives.
“We currently recycle about 65% of all our materials here,” says Schmick, standing proudly over a warehouse full of baled cardboard and plastic, “and our goal is to eliminate the concept of waste entirely.”
He also notes that Pacific’s Tetra Pak packaging, which is used for Pacific’s soup, broth and non-dairy beverage cartons, consists primarily of paper fiber from well managed forests and is recyclable in a growing number of US communities. The impressive-looking Tetra Pak Recart filling machine — a glass-and-steel-and-water construction the size of a double-decker bus — is one of only about three in North America.
Above and beyond the organic milk trucked over from Eggert’s cows, Pacific focuses on locally sourced organic ingredients. About 12% of their total ingredients come from Oregon alone, with much of the rest coming from nearby California; and 82% of their total ingredient purchases — more than 45 million pounds each year — are certified organic.
“Our holy grail,” says Pacific’s President of the Packed Products Division, Jon Gehrs, “is to get the label on our chicken broth to say just ‘water and chicken.’ It will be difficult to do, but people like simple ingredient statements.” He adds that their condensed soups have about seven to nine “pretty easily recognizable” ingredients, whereas “the bigger guys might have 26 to 28 ingredients in there, because they’ve morphed over the years to preserve them and to neutralize some harsh flavors. And when people look at it seriously, what they are giving their kids, they say, ‘Why do you need to have that in there?'”
Back out in the Willamette Valley, Chuck Eggert is driving along some country roads, pointing out different parcels of farmland like a kid reading off Burma Shave signs.
“This actually has corn and we should be able to see it. It was just planted last Thursday and it’s starting to come up. Oh there, you can see it… going down the roads, just very slightly. And then this whole field will be corn silage that the cows will eat over the next year as part of their diet.”
And over here? “Actually, this was an 88-year old individual and he called me up one day and he said, ‘Chuck, I want you to convert my farm to organic because I realize that I’m gonna’ leave it to my kids and I don’t want to leave them a field that’s not been treated right.'”
This was not an isolated example. Eggert has helped many local farmers convert their acreage to organic. He’s the go-to guy for this sort of thing, a “con man,” if you will: conventional conversion consultant.
“We also support a number of young farmers that wouldn’t be able to farm if we weren’t working with them. And that’s part of our goal, too: to be supportive of younger farm people. The average age of a farmer in Oregon is like 62 years old. And we have to… have a responsibility to help create young farmers to take the other people’s place or we just become mechanical. ”
From his perspective, the shift to organic isn’t just philosophical; it’s economical.
“Pesticide-based farming operations — shipping corn from Iowa for animal feed — just isn’t going to work. Given fuel prices and energy prices, organic farming is going to become the cheapest, most effective way to farm. I think that there is a point in the future where organic farming will be cheaper than conventional. Which is kind of ironic, considering what it is.”
Eggert steps out of the car at Mayfield Farm, where he is raising 400 milking cows, and he is a man transformed. His gaze softens as he looks out over the facilities, and his pace quickens as he walks toward the pasture and sees his cows.
“The cows right now are spending about 20 hours a day outside, and they come in at night, in the middle of the night, and then they milk. And then in the winter time, we have greenhouses they come in, and we actually have exercise yards, so that when it’s too wet in Oregon for them out on the pasture, we then have them in here and do exercise with them.”
This should come as no surprise. These cows live a good life, one that is stress-free. Food is processed offsite to keep noise to a minimum. With new machinery, Chuck’s goal is for the cows to be milked anytime they want, by walking up to the robotic milking machines. The facilities have the stamp of approval from Animal Welfare Approved. Additionally, each cow also has an ankle bracelet transmitter, in order to track its steps, body temperature, milk salinity and milk volume. Each day, herdsmen come in and look at a computer monitor to see if there were any numbers that fell outside of the tolerable range, so that they can spot potential health problems early. The result? This organic herd produces about the same amount of milk as a conventional herd does.
“Conventional farmers say, ‘You can’t do that,'” says Eggert with obvious glee. “Rather than say, ‘Yes we can,’ we just say, ‘Here are the facts.'”
Over on another property, Eggert spies his large green John Deere tractor sitting out in the field, and he is like a little kid eager to show off his Hot Wheels. He whips out a set of keys from somewhere and climbs aboard; then he takes it for a couple of passes across a dusty sorghum field that he is in the process of converting to organic.
“You can feel it, it’s a little wet right through here. And you can hear as it kind of slows down, this tractor is totally automated: it will adjust the automatic transmission to whatever the soil conditions are.”
How he knows all of this is a mystery, even to him, since he never truly learned how to drive a tractor.
“It’s pretty simple,” he shouts over the loud engine, as he cranes his neck around to make sure the plough will negotiate a turn. “It’s like riding a bike. You know there are certain things you can just do, and tractors are one of them. And this is actually one of the best ways to spend an afternoon.”
At another one of Eggert’s farms, he watches some young calves run around like puppy dogs, and then slides open a barn door to reveal a warm room full of about 800 turkey chicks, excitedly running around and making noise. Eggert is impassive, the farmer scholar, but you can see his eyes darting about the enclosure, and it is hard to tell who is more excited here, chicks or Chuck.
He steps outside and looks around at the restored wetlands and the farmland beyond.
“There’s really something about being able to go back to the farm that’s therapeutic. And I think a lot of people have lost touch with that. It really is something that gives you a sense of pride…. Land is, you know, without getting too philosophical, something you can’t replace. And if you’re going to accumulate anything, you should be accumulating farmland. At least that’s what I tell myself when I buy too much of it.”
For fans of Pacific Natural Foods, who love their soups and their company alike, Chuck Eggert cannot possibly buy enough.