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Another story of sustainable small biz- from the Dust Bowl to ‘08

Times are tough right now, but we’ve seen tough times before. In 1937, Albert and Frances Lundberg moved their family west, settling in California after experiencing firsthand the ravages of the Dust Bowl. Respect for the land, support for your fellow man and “taking care of the soil” defined their vision. These same principles have made Lundberg Family Farms, a pioneer in American organic rice farming, successful.


(Timothy Schultz, VP of Administration of California-based organic rice farming operation Lundberg Family Farms, talks about how this third-generation family-owned business stays true to its founding value of respect for people, as well as the land.)
Originally established in the wake of one of this nation’s worst environmental disasters, Lundberg has built its business with sustainability at its very core. The second generation of Lundbergs took their father’s teachings to heart, and for the four Lundberg sons, planning for the future meant recognizing that when times are good, you prepare for the hard times.

“The family provides consistency and a sense of permanence,” says Timothy Schultz, VP of Administration. Unlike many publicly traded companies, Schultz argues that the focus at Lundberg isn’t placed simply on quarterly earnings, but a true plan to build for the future. That means actively invoking the values at the heart of their business:

Continuous Improvement
Leadership expressly articulates these values and hands out cards highlighting them to all employees.

“These are bedrock for us. If it costs us money to implement them, we will,” says Schultz. If an employee ever has a question as to how to respond to a situation, they’re asked to put them through the filter of these values before crunching numbers.

Every business defines its values, but for Lundberg that meant taking generations of family stories and transforming them into something that everyone, no matter their background, could act on. In recent years an outside consultant was brought in to help assist with formal strategic planning.

“I think the family’s always looking for better way to do things. What this individual suggested just really hit the mark with us,” says Schultz, describing the process by which so many assumed and simply “understood” priorities were solidified and made explicit in the mission statement.

Gary Chavez, a mixer and operator in the Rice Cakes department who has been with the company for two years, sees these values most readily in company-wide gatherings. “They offer many events like our annual Christmas party, summertime picnic and recently a health fair,” he says.

While Chavez believes that customer satisfaction, employee safety and building a reputation for quality are all central to Lundberg’s success, he highlights the focus on  their environmental footprint as the extension of their values that has gotten more attention of late. According to Schultz, looking out for the planet has been at the heart of their operations since 1937 – “although I don’t think it had that name then,” he adds.

The Lundbergs had farmed in a sustainable way since migrating west. When the four Lundberg brothers were approached with the prospect of growing organic rice in the 1960s, they asked, “What’s that?” Organics were pretty close to what they were already doing, so they moved to create their own milling and storage infrastructure and then pushed to package and brand it.

Going organic was a natural outgrowth of their approach, says Schultz, as was their more recent push in 2003 to buy renewable energy credits. At first this offset 10 percent of the electricity consumed on site, but in 2006 they inaugurated their first of two photovoltaic generation tanks. Now, depending of the time of year, 15 to 20 percent of electricity requirements are generated on site, and they continue to buy renewable energy credits (wind, biomass and solar) to make up the difference.

“Ultimately we would like for all of the energy that is consumed in the country to be renewable,” he says. “In order to do that it takes some investment. It is worthwhile for us.”

Lundberg is currently the only agribusiness running on 100 percent green power, but Schultz says this practice is gaining traction. The California Rice Commission devotes much of its resources to improving the environmental footprint of rice farming in the state, and although Lundberg was an anomaly when it stopped burning rice fields over 40 years ago, Schultz explains that this is now the industry standard.

“We don’t feel we’re evangelists out there to convert people,” Schultz says. “We’re just trying to do what feels like the right thing for us and sharing that information if anyone’s interested.” In fact, even with the growing trend for touting environmental responsibility as a marketing technique, Schultz isn’t worried about competition. “People will sort that out and find out what’s real and what’s not, and support what’s real,” he says.

Lundberg continues to succeed through their authenticity, quality and differentiation in delivering a value message directly to consumers. All rice is not created equal in this world, and it is rare that a business can boast such a rich history of support for environmental and employee concerns. As Gary Chavez puts it, “I am proud and appreciative to work with this company.”

Indeed, Lundberg continues to see low turnover in their permanent and seasonal employees through good pay, a collegial atmosphere and fine benefits for their families. Far from producing just another commodity on the shelf, this family farm enters into its seventh decade of operation with a line of products that provide nourishment not only for consumers, but employees, their families and the very ecosystem in which the business operates.

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