Eating and living organic: Q&A with Brian Freeman, co-founder of Grower's Organics

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Colorado stands at the forefront of the nation's organic movement, and Grower's Organic is helping to lead the way, finding organic suppliers and then connecting these farms with retail outlets, delivering fresh fruits and vegetables to more than 150 restaurants, grocery stores and local co-operatives across Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico and Texas.

Grower's Organic cofounder Brian Freeman grew up eating organically. In the following interview, he discusses the joys of sustainable living, which restaurants are doing it right...and how some restaurants are doing it very wrong.

Westword: How have Colorado organics changed in the last twenty years? Brian Freeman: I would say that really a lot of the farms have made their production more consistent with national standards. What I mean by that is that I think that the farmers have really raised the bar in Colorado on how they used to harvest products as opposed to today, and the products they use in terms of bug control and working better with the water limitations. The whole organic industry has risen to the challenge to make organics more mainstream. In the past, people in the industry said this is the way we're doing it and people better accept it, but now it's a force so large that big stores would leave those small guys behind if they didn't get with it. These mainstream companies are looking for a higher return than small companies provide.

How does Colorado compare on a national level? Colorado is definitely in the top five of organic awareness. I think we are really a pioneer, getting more products out there and embracing the lifestyle. California still provides about 90 percent of organics in the entire country, so it's actually the pioneer. Though I love Denver, Boulder is an epicenter for organics. People have to take note because a lot of the largest organic companies have come out of Boulder. Whole Foods started in Texas but was not anything that Wild Oats was. It was more marketing while Wild Oats started with everything organic. Vitamin Cottage, too, is now going to a national level to the Stock Exchange and bringing in bigger investors. The name change to Natural Grocers was part of that movement to go public to create an identity more than a vitamin store. They only sell organic produce in Natural Grocers, and that's a big deal in my opinion because they are making a stand that a lot of people won't. It's organic or nothing.

We are a force to be reckoned with in a place where the talent comes from. I get a lot of applicants from around the country and they don't generally have organic experience unless they are from California or here. That's always a huge indicator for me that there's really nothing big to speak of east of us. I know there are small pockets everywhere, but we have taken it to the mainstream level. What more can we do? I think the next step for us is pushing on the labeling and disclosure of what's really in conventional foods and produce. I think that the labeling and education are such big pieces of what is still lacking. Only a couple of years ago people started reading labels on boxes, but we don't have any idea what's really in there. For example, there's an acceptable level of rat killer the government says is acceptable for human consumption in grain silos. Then there was a big cilantro report from government tests that found over fifty banned pesticides on different brands of cilantro, and a big percent of it came back with known banned carcinogens (which can cause cancer). Also, there's certain pesticides and fertilizers you can use on certain lettuce and grain etc. that supposedly move faster through the food so it's safe to eat, which is crazy. If a pesticide its bad, it's bad. There's no justification for "good" pesticides.

Then we have consumers so confused that they think they can spray something on the outside of fruit or vegetables to make it more organic. Fruits and vegetable are like people in that they are 90 percent water, and the pesticides stay inside there. You can wash off produce that people pick with dirty hands, but some people think nothing gets inside avocados, bananas or oranges because of the skin.

Education is what needs to happen. Kids should understand about where their food comes from. I go to schools and talk to kids about food. When I ask what they had for breakfast, someone always raises a hand and says Sonic or Red Bull. We have parents that allow that? At what point is Red Bull acceptable for an eleven-year-old kid? When I ask those kids where do they think their food comes from, I hear a truck or a warehouse; I never hear the ground or my backyard.

I usually go to suburb schools because I think it'll make a bigger impact. Inner-city kids know more because we have programs and urban gardens. I really don't see a lot of vandalism in those places, so I feel like the urban kids are more educated about it. If you live in the urban environment or Capitol Hill you almost gotta go to that Whole Foods. You're just exposed to it more because it's on every corner, and that awareness needs to spread. How do you balance the push for organic and sustainable products with the financial crisis still biting at our heels?

There's been a misconception about food for a long time. The government has pushed subsidized food for so long and is just now starting to take those away. We really don't know the cost of food. We have been eating bad food and are paying for it with our health care. We can look at it as paying for our food in the beginning of our life rather than the end. The quality of life is so much better for people who are eating right at the beginning of life. As subsidies come off of corn, etc., we'll see how much food really costs and see that organic isn't really that much more expensive. We don't think about how we will feel tomorrow when we open a beer and relax at four in the afternoon; we don't think about our choices when we want things on a sunny afternoon on the patio. It's funny that as we get older and we can feel the effect of that beer in the morning and start asking ourselves about those choices more. I think that's why when people get older they either decide to eat organic or some people say, "I've already made my bed and I'm going to have to sleep in it." What is a goal for Grower's Organic in the next five years? I'd really like to accomplish getting our foundation off the ground. I would like to get a ten-acre parcel of land and build a working greenhouse and education center with a cooler and place where I can bring in local school kids to learn about organics and agriculture.

What's the biggest challenge for organic and sustainable efforts? I'd actually say the biggest challenge is fighting the big money and big corporations that come in. They're confusing people with "natural." Rubber and wood are natural and I don't eat them. These big companies don't even want to spend money on soybeans, so they use cellulose. Cellulose is woodchips, which they're using as a filler instead of soybeans. Big companies are finding the cheapest substitutes now. First it was corn, then soybeans, now it's cellulose. It's woodchips.

How do you fight Monsanto? If you look at the Monsanto board, almost all of the employees were on the FDA board or get on the FDA board after working at Monsanto, and they are in charge of approving Monsanto's experiments. For example, there is no evidence supporting drought-resistant foods. We do not know what these products are doing to our bodies in the long run and we have been guinea pigs for these products. We should make sure that you can't be a lobbyist and you can't be on the USDA, then go work for someone. The USDA should be filled with farmers and people who work the land and know and care about what these bad things are doing to the land rather than allowing Monsanto to give farmers pesticides that ruin the land...until eventually Monsanto owns the land.

We let people write the laws to their benefit instead of what's best for the farmers and education system. Greeley and Fort Collins have good agriculture schools, but places like Arizona don't have those programs. We need to fix that education gap.

What programs can we push for?

We need to really look hard at the food we are already serving our kids. In the '80s we took out a lot of the kitchens in schools because it was cheaper to hire it out. I would like to see kids at the school level take a mandatory agricultural class to understand where food comes from at an early age. That type of education was really taken out of the schools along with the arts. Home ec was looked down upon as a girl's class (the name didn't help), but it was really teaching kids how to cook and life skills.

People are afraid. I have chickens and people ask me, "Aren't those dirty animals?" They are just as dirty as any other animals, like cats or dogs. It's part of the food chain. My kids have learned so much from our chickens about sustainability. Luckily Denver passed a law that allows me to have chickens, so we put all our food scraps in the compost or feed them to the chickens. We have to do something with our trash because we can't keep filling up these landfills, and my kids have really been able to see how recycling relates to the chickens. It really is the circle of life.

We need schools to take field trips to the city dump, not Elitch's; it needs to be about education. Alpine Waste & Recycling is doing a huge environmental favor the likes of which we haven't seen. Then John-Paul Maxfield is running a truly organic compost system through his company Waste Farmers. I compost everything at a company level that I can't use. Instead of me just filling up a landfill, I compost it and John-Paul Maxfield is turning it into usable compost, bagging it and selling it to make a profit. He's got a true organic compost because his only takes organic compost, not just products that aren't sprayed. He also brings people over from Africa to talk about water and not wasting it. His whole compost system now uses less water that spreads out its release. What is your favorite place to eat? I can say that I love restaurants that don't promote their organic menu but are completely organic. There are several in town like that that don't say anything. Fuel Cafe, Il Posto, Z Cuisine and The Kitchen downtown are all organic, but you don't see it as something they promote. Whereas other places that advertise organic on their menu only have organic salad mix. Bob Blair from Fuel is just insane. He took the tops off roasted baby carrots and made a carrot-top pesto. He also used every little leaf off of every piece of lettuce so nothing went to waste. It's so enlightening because he doesn't talk about this food, he talks about his farmers -- because otherwise, his food would be nothing. The farmers are the ones who make all this happen and they are the ones going bankrupt because the big companies want to make more profit down to the last nickel, then hire immigrants to make a tiny bit more. How are you influencing restaurants to serve more organic food? I'm trying to do it with price for these guys. You always hear that price is the biggest cost for restaurants, so I try to find products that work for restaurants but not for grocery stores because of the visual appearance even though the flavor is still there. That's the thing, too: People don't realize that ugly fruit is the sweetest fruit because the sugar content is breaking down and making those spots like on strawberries that I call "watermarks."

How do you help restaurants stay sustainable and compost? Waste Farmers developed a program to put compost bins directly in restaurants to help be more sustainable. We're so small, but as I'm getting bigger we're able to put more people on the streets. Last year is the first time I've had a true salesperson. I started the company backwards by myself rather than with big CFOs and sales people. I started the company organically, bringing in my friends and people who work at farmers' markets.

If you could see what goes on in the back of a restaurant, you would not want to eat out again. A lot of restaurants use oil that is swill, the worst oil you could use. A lot of oil has anti-foaming agents as well that people should not eat. I bring in no-GMO oil, and the restaurants complain that's it's too expensive. They are so stuck in their ways. You serve one million dollars worth of food and you have maybe $5,000 extra in oil cost. It's ridiculous looking at how much chefs charge for their food, knowing the ingredients. They are so cheap. Even the restaurants in resorts like Vail use cheap ingredients but spend so much money on the space and carpeting of the room.

We should all be appreciative to the farmers. If it wasn't for the farmers and what they bring to the table, we wouldn't have the organic food. They are staying true to what they are doing and it is really incredible. Read our Chef and Tell interview with Bob Blair of Fuel.

Read how John-Paul Maxfield and Waste Farmers are growing a business based on ending waste.

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