With the fight over Prop 37 -- a ballot initiative to label GMO foods -- looming in California, we decided to interview the leader a California business that has made a strong commitment to organics, Big Tree Organic Farms. Since 1998, Big Tree Organic Farms (BTOF) has been setting an example for other agricultural businesses in the Golden State, and we celebrate their hard work.
"The ongoing growth and success of the green economy has captured the attention of conventional business," says Wendy Larson, CEO and general manager of BTOF. "Today’s domestic agricultural community is working diligently to reduce synthetic chemical use as a result of studying the successes of organic farmers around the country and recognizing consumers' preferences. This does not change the vision for Big Tree Organic Farms which has always been to promote organic farming."
We asked Wendy to tell us more about almonds, spreadsheets, and huge sheltering trees...
Green America: What does your business do, and what is your most popular product?
Wendy Larson: Big Tree Organic Farms is a farmer-owned marketing cooperative. We process, pack, sell, and ship California-grown almonds to customers around the world. Our most popular products are our whole natural organic Nonpareil almonds which are a healthy delicious everyday food.
What makes Big Tree Organic Farms a green business?
Wendy: We are green because we are certified organic. We promote organic farming within the almond industry of the Central Valley of California – historically a very conservative, conventional industry. Some of our founders were mentored by pioneers in organic almond farming, something originally thought to be impossible without synthetic chemicals.
Additionally, our ownership structure is green. We are cooperatively owned with one farm, one vote regardless of the size of the farming operation, which is supportive of a sustainable market. Small farms are not overwhelmed or absorbed by large farms.
Finally, the operation itself has a highly green consciousness – seeking out greener packaging options and promoting “reduce, reuse, recycle” at every level of the operation.
What did you do before you started your own green business?
Wendy: Before Big Tree Organic Farms, our farmers raised almonds using synthetic chemicals. When they decided to go organic they also decided to take charge of their own success in the marketplace by starting this cooperative.
Is there a story behind the name of the cooperative?
Wendy: The company name was inspired by the location of an early formation meeting. This session took place outside of a farmer’s home, in lawn chairs, under a very large tree. As names were tossed around, the imagery of a large, protective, comforting tree was a recurring theme and by not including the word “almond” in the name we realized we could potentially bring numerous products in under the Big Tree Organic Farms label. Our logo mirrors the imagery as our name is tucked under the protective boughs of its tree.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
Wendy: Though there have been numerous challenges. The most critical have been higher costs. Green packaging costs more. Fewer organic farmers mean higher costs for outside services resulting from lower volumes. Messaging is more expensive because of marketplace confusion and abuse of “green” messages. The key to overcoming these challenges is perseverance and dedication. Sometimes margins are smaller and returns miss the mark, but seeking out and associating with equally committed suppliers, customers, financiers, and advisors is key to success. Additionally, tapping in to the experience and historic wisdom of conventional businesses without compromising social and environmental values shortens the learning curve. It is helpful to realize that some business truths “cross the aisle” well.
|Big Tree Organic Farms HQ.
What has been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
Wendy: Recognizing how many great products have entered the market because of Big Tree Organic Farms' commitment to providing organic almonds as ingredients. We have helped numerous food-bars, desserts, and beverage makers launch and succeed with new organic products that needed a steady, reliable source of organic almond ingredients.
What advice would you give to other green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Wendy: Many green entrepreneurs adopt an adversarial stance to the conventional business world. By doing so, they shut themselves out from a very valuable resource. Having launched a number of businesses in the past, I have learned that it really doesn’t matter whether a business is green or conventional – there will be many people who tell you that your ideas “will not work.” Therefore, learn to ignore the negative and focus in on the prize. Adopt winning strategies and adapt them to your unique individual business regardless of the original source.
Also, learn how to read and explain your own financial reports, all of them: the Income Statement, the Balance Sheet, and the Statement of Cash Flows. Learn how to analyze them through ratios and build yourself a dashboard. Accounting is “environmentally neutral” and is a cornerstone of business success. Many enterprises that have failed could have succeeded if the owners took some time to understand – for themselves – what the financial reports were telling them.