When Don Vetter began questioning the science and ethics of the emerging agricultural practices of the 1950s, he began to adopt organic farming methods for his family farm near Marquette, NE. Sixty years later, that farm has grown into Grain Place Foods, a family business that employs three generations of Vetters, and helps steward other local farms in their journey toward organic production.
"Currently, we're seeing a demand for organic grains that supasses our ability to produce in this country," says Don's son, David, when asked what makes him hopeful about the future of the green economy. We asked David to tell us more about farming in Nebraska and the history of Grain Place Foods...
Green America: What does your business do?
David Vetter: Grain Place Foods produces a variety of organically grown grain-based products. We provide whole grains and whole grain products to food distributors for sale in bulk bins or to small local or regional manufacturers. We also supply raw materials to other manufacturers of organic food products that are sold in local retail markets. In addition we manufacture specialty pet foods and ingredients under contract for organic pet foods, sold in national and international markets.
Finally, we also offer our products direct to the consumer via our online store, including GMO-free cane sugar; organic brown rice; organic, non-GMO corn meal; organic barley; and our most popular product, our popcorn. These products come from our own farm, and from other local sustainable farmers from whom we buy directly.
What aspects of Grain Place Food are green?
David: The biggest thing we do that makes our company green is to support family farmers that have a strong land stewardship ethic. It is important to develop a sound and sustainable farm policy and provides a good opportunity for organic farmers to be successful on the land.
The certified organic and non-GMO products are all green products, and our grain products are all “whole grain.” The business is owned by our family farm, some of our family members, farmers that produce for us and some customers, some employees, and other parties that are supportive of our goals and philosophy.
Nearly all of our products are made here in our facility. We have some specialty items that are produced under contract here in the US. We put a big emphasis on Fair Trade practices on the projects we work with to provide ingredients that we cannot produce in this country with the quality we need. We do reuse packaging and shipping materials as much as we can and most of our shipping cases are made with recycled materials.
Energy use in our processing is the most difficult; we strive to keep our processing to a minimum.
|David shows off some US-grown, organic wheat. (Photo by Dana Damewood.)
What did you do before you started your green business?
David: My father started organic farming practices in the early 1950s so I was raised on an organic farm and the University of Nebraska was not able to educate that management ethic out of me while I was getting my BS in soil science.
I began farming for myself in the spring of 1975 after completing grad school the year before. I managed a living history farm and natural area park during grad school. Contact with young families through a community gardening program there convinced me there was demand for organically grown grains among young urban and suburban families.
We started processsing our grains ourselves when we found
we were not successful in delivering consistent quality to our customers by using contract processors in the area. Most of them could not meet food quality processing standards for cleaning whole grains, so we determined that we needed to do it ourselves if we were going to get it done right and on time.
Is there a story behind the name of your business?
David: Our name came from what we wanted to be known for: high quality organically grown and processed whole grain products. So, when started in 1980, we called our family farm business “The Grain Place." When we started food product manufacturing, we separated the family farm and the processing business because outside investment was required to make that happen. The new business became Grain Place Foods, Inc. in 1987.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
David: In the beginning our customers were not as willing to pay the premiums needed to support sustainable food production as much as they were willing to do so for other goods and services. In the beginning the attitudes toward food and food cost were much less friendly than they are today. The other major issues have had more to do with the overall nature of the organic market and its rapid growth. During periods of rapid growth many new people/companies get involved and distort the market place and many are not reliable and it dramatically complicates the overall business environment.
David's brother-in-law, Mike Herman (standing in a soybean field), manages day-to-day operations for Grain Place Foods.
What has been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
David: The number of successful organic family farming operations we were able to assist when they were beginning their transition to a fully functional organic family farm makes me proud. I love seeing another family farm finally make it all work. That is difficult journey and several never quite get there.
What advice would you give to other green entrepreneurs just starting out?
David: Develop a strong philosophy/theology around what you want to accomplish, and stay focused on that but be willing to change what you actually do to get there.
What's the next green step you're working on right now?
David: We are looking for cost effective ways to make our packaging a better fit to our overall vision. We have a number of issues to work around in terms of food safety requirements. We are also excited to find new ways to increase the bio-diversity on our farm while increasing its overall productivity. We try to measure that by increases in wildlife and its diversity.
Grain Place Foods as seen from above.