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Timothy Young's green business, Food For Thought, is headquartered on an organic farm nestled among the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, a 70,000-acre national park along the Lake Michigan shoreline (voted most beautiful place in America by Good Morning America viewers in 2012).
"I walk about 100 yards through a forest to get to work," says Timothy, when asked what makes it worthwhile to be a green business owner. "And while I can work long hours, I see my wife and kids throughout the day, every day. Together we’ve found a way to be inspired, live, and know that it’s about more than us. Financial success has been elusive; however, we have the privilege of helping others and trying to make a difference in the world through our business. I know of no better way to measure wealth."
Timothy Young: We create and market organic and Fair Trade specialty foods that make a difference in people’s lives; our two brands are Food For Thought and Esch Road Foods. Food For Thought is our original all-organic and wildcrafted line of preserves, relish, salsa, and other condiments, and we launched the Esch line last fall. Both lines bear many certifications such as gluten-free, GMO- free, and Kosher.
In addition, we do a lot of contract packaging for a wide range of companies. That can include bottling beverage concentrates for a large company like Michigan based Eden Foods, to a pasta sauce for a company in Chicago, to making jam for a small strawberry farmer down the road.
After 18 years, our most popular product is still one of our earliest creations: our organic Fair Trade blueberry lavender preserves. We grow the lavender here on our organic farm and the blueberries come from a friend who has been certified organic for over 40 years -- the first farm to get certification in Michigan. The sugar is, of course, organic, non-GMO, and Fair Trade.
What makes Food for Thought green?
Timothy: I founded Food For Thought on a variety of green principles.
First of all, we make almost all of our products right here on our organic farm. The company started in a commercial kitchen I built in my home in 1995, and we also now have a bottling facility I built next door to our home in the year 2000. Just a few of our products are bottled at another source, such as our Palestinian organic Fair Trade olive oil and our maple syrup.
Our sourcing has always been “local at any cost.” While local is our first tier goal, we occasionally have to go out of state and country at times to source organic fruit. Though Michigan is a powerhouse in organic fruit production, crop failures happen.
Then there's our building. I built to it to American Lung Association “Health House” standards. I was part of a design/build committee that helped ALA develop these standards and oversee the first one built in the US. I also incorporated all recycled windows, doors, and cabinetry throughout, and built the structure from all native Michigan wood. We used no construction glues, and no interior paints or varnishes (no VOCs). We have a photovoltaic solar system and we also designed a heat recovery system in our production room (making jam creates a lot of heat). Most of the office areas are heated from dead and downed trees from our forest.
We recycle more than 90 percent of our office and production waste. Since much of our fruit comes frozen in cardboard boxes we decided that a better process would be to compost, rather than recycle. So after some experimenting, we now compost annually more than nine tons of cardboard, 100 yards of horse manure, and 100 percent of our food waste from our production. That compost is then used on our farm, traded with other farmers, or sold.
What were you doing before you started your green business?
Timothy: I’m a political scientist by training and spent a number of years in and out of college or graduate school to do research or work on human relief projects in the developing world. I spent many winters living in the war-torn regions of Central America in the pre-Fair-Trade globalization era of the 80s. Seeing and living with the invisible costs of globalization (war, structural poverty, and all the human and environmental injustices that come with this model of global trade), my world-view was pureed, extruded, scrambled, and solidified. I later returned home to northern Michigan determined to find a way to be in the food business without perpetuating or participating in this impoverishing global economic regime. My first step was to build a home from entirely recycled materials, followed by certifying my land organic. I planted a few seeds, started selling jam at a farmers market, and things took off from there.
What have been the biggest challenges to social and environmental responsibility?
Timothy: A big one for me is the challenge of offering year-round employment in the agricultural economy. Far too many of our staff endure some seasonal layoff or reduced hours in the winter. Resolving this is always core to our strategic planning and something on which we make slow and constant improvement. It weighs on me the most.
Energy consumption is always there too. Despite our efforts, cooking food is energy intensive. We conserve, dabble in alternatives, and make constant improvements, but there’s no getting around that there’s a big trade-off there. But working through them is where we build strength. We stumble, debate, work hard, learn from our experiences and accept our limitations. It’s a lot to put into a jar.
What has been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
Timothy: For me it is simply finding a business model that thinks locally, yet acts globally. Even as a regional (Great Lakes) based business, we still make decisions every day that impact other people we never see on the other side of the planet. So incorporating Fair Trade into what we do has been essential and what I feel most proud. I’m a founding board member of the Domestic Fair Trade Association as well as On The Ground. Through On The Ground I have been coordinator of the Run Across Ethiopia and the Run Across Palestine. Both runs raised money to help marginalized farming communities, which is our mission core. In Ethiopia we built three schools and are currently building a library in the coffee growing region of Yirgacheffe. In Palestine, our fund raising has been focused on planting olive trees to stem the tide of those lost by demolitions, security walls and the ongoing occupation. We are also funding college scholarships for farming families throughout the West Bank.
What advice would you give to other green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Timothy: Being self-sufficient has its advantages, but as the saying goes, “no man (or woman) is an island." I made the mistake in the early years of not taking advantage of more traditional business resources in my community. It wasn’t until I joined the board of my local Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club, and other, shall I say “less green” institutions, did I begin to feel that I was having a significant impact. It was better being a lone voice at those tables than hanging with my own choir. And being closed minded about those institutions delayed my heart and mind from opening to all the lessons they had to teach me about business and community.
What's the most hopeful sign you've seen recently from the green economy?
Timothy: More than anything else, the mainstreaming of organic and green consumer goods is a good thing. There are the negatives that come with that scale, but it’s still a positive direction from my vantage point. When I started my company, our products would only sell in very high-end delis or natural food coops. While that’s no small market, it’s tough doing that on a regional level and providing decent full time jobs. Today we are finding great success with our products in mainstream grocery stores, so we are hitting a demographic that even a few years ago would not have come across our product. It has opened up some rewarding opportunities for our company and expanded our production season.
What's the next green step you're working on right now?
Timothy: After 18 years there are some critical goals yet to reach, most concerning reaching a scale where I can offer compensation and benefits that are above our regional average. We’ve got all the facilities, equipment, systems and capacity needed to grow. So over the last year I’ve been meeting with my advisory board and doing some long term planning in order to bring in some growth capital. I’m engaged in some early conversations with a few entities that would take the shape of strategic partnerships: other businesses that can benefit from what we do while bringing in some growth capital to build the team we need to get our company to the next level.
What green product (besides your own!) can you not live without?
Timothy: My favorite has got to be Higher Grounds Trading Company. They are a 100 percent organic and Fair Trade roaster in northern Michigan. Their owner, Chris Treter is the founder, heart and soul behind On The Ground and has been an inspiring leader to many in his efforts to go beyond Fair Trade in the communities where he sources coffee. They are a model company and Chris is a true visionary.
|BELOW: The Young family.|