Gary Hirshberg spent his first 20 years at Stonyfield Farm trying to convince the world that he could make a viable industry out of organic food. And the last six counting the money that proves him right.

Today, as chairman, president and “CE-Yo” of the world’s largest organic yogurt company and third-largest yogurt company overall, Hirshberg oversees a $340 million enterprise that he helped start on a tiny patch of farmland in Weston, New Hampshire, in 1983, with seven cows. Back then Hirshberg was one of two counterculture entrepreneurs — Samuel Kaymen, founder of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, was the other — who dared to think that organic food was commercially viable in mainstream America. After all, it was good enough for … well, everybody until World War II.

“You have to keep in mind,” Hirshberg says through his cell phone while scurrying to catch a plane to Washington, D.C., “that all food was organic before 1939. George Washington and Jesus ate organic.”

But in the early ‘80s being the top organic yogurt maker was roughly on par with being the best bowler on a life raft. “Organic” was the scraps of long-dismissed hippie ideals. Produce was expensive, and no one was even mildly interested in making organic food part of the general dialogue. “Organic was very, very niche,” Hirshberg says. “Then coastal. Now it’s in every segment, and organic is the fastest-growing subset of the food industry.”

Organic has indeed moved from specialty shops and even past major supermarket chains specializing in “natural” products, such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, into established, mainstream stores. The only place it lags, says Hirshberg, is restaurants. Elsewhere, from cat food to cabernet, organic is exploding.

The industry Hirshberg helped create will be the subject of his keynote address to the “Feeding a Hot and Hungry Planet” conference on Thursday, April 30, at 1 p.m. in McCosh Hall.

The growth of the organic market, particularly in this century, has been exponential enough to give Hirshberg the hubris to say that organic entrepreneurship can save the world. The sentiment, in fact, is the subtitle of Hirshberg’s 2008 book, “Stirring It Up: How To Make Money and Save The World,” in which he unabashedly pronounces his faith in organic’s inevitable re-conquest of the world.

But if the idea sounds like more remnants of hippie hopes, think again. Gary Hirshberg is a stone-cold capitalist. “I measure progress with hard numbers and productive assets listed on balance sheets,” Hirshberg once wrote. “I have little patience for big talk and no do.” And for him, it will be the business of organic, not the lofty ideologies behind its PR campaign, that will be movement’s juggernaut.

“Our planet will not be saved by preaching principles and exerting moral suasion,” Hirshberg wrote in summary of his book. “After more than three decades spent working in the environmental movement, I am convinced that economic self-interest — whether it is achieved by saving, earning, or both — is the most powerful, if not the only, force capable of bringing about the future we need in time to make a difference to the well-being of Mother Earth.”

And this from an anti-nuclear protester who built windmills before trying his hand at cow teats. But though Hirshberg says he remains as idealistic-at-heart in his own beliefs, being in business has taught him a valuable lesson in human relationships — money talks, and bullshit only works as fertilizer.

“Saving the planet can prove profitable in both a fiscally narrow sense and in a much broader context of job creation and greatly expanded economic development,” he wrote. “Addressing climate and environmental challenges will give 21st-century businesspeople and ordinary citizens the chance to grasp possibilities that may exceed anything humankind has ever seen.”

Back in the early ‘80s Hirshberg was, on the surface, as unlikely a poster boy for capitalism as you were likely to find. He had grown up working with his father and brother in his dad’s shoe company in New Hampshire and was so turned off by the amount of dye the plant dumped into the Merrimack River that Hirshberg merely equated business with the problem, not the solution. Once he came around to the other side of that logic — that business could also be the solution to the world’s ills — Hirshberg set out for the farm, but things there were more dreamy than workable.

Hirshberg and the founder of NOFA, an advocacy group for an industry that barely existed, only started selling yogurt in order to finance the farming school they were hoping to start on an 18th century farm on a hill with a sumptuous view of New England. He had been working for a while when he met a girl — Meg Cadoux — who worked at the Stonybrook-Millstone Watershed’s pilot organic farm (and NOFA’s New Jersey headquarters at the time) in Pennington at an organic conference where Hirshberg was giving the keynote on making organic an industry.

Meg Hirshberg describes their meeting as her “sitting in the audience thinking he was cute” and him admitting years later that he couldn’t remember her name the next day. But their long-distance romance blossomed — he wooed her, courtesy of $29 fares on the now-defunct People’s Express airline, with coolers of pure maple yogurt that no one could find here. “It was to die for,” Meg says. But she had to share it with Princeton University professor John McPhee, who came running — literally — to her farm after Gary’s visits because he was as much a fan as she. For a couple years the pair visited each other on alternating weekends.

In 1986 the couple married and Meg left Pennington to help her new husband pursue his business. She had already graduated with a bachelor’s in comparative literature from Brown before finding herself in a teepee on an organic farm in California. There she found the merits of organic farming and went to Cornell for her master’s in agriculture. From there she saw an ad for Stonybrook-Millstone’s farm and came to New Jersey. “I loved it,” she says from her home in New Hampshire. “It was my dream job and I thought we were making real headway. But I didn’t own the farm.”

Gary, however, did, so “the decision seemed obvious.” It just didn’t seem too rosy. For nine years Stonyfield Farm operated in the red, losing money by the bucketful. Several times the farm almost went bankrupt and the fear and doubt mounted. But Meg Hirshberg says that her husband is what he says all entrepreneurs must be — “a pathological optimist.”

That optimism was all they had, living on the farm they worked (giving them zero separation between work and home) with their business partner and his wife and six children. Things turned around in the mid-’90s when the farm finally got upgraded manufacturing facilities, she says. They had started in converted barns and ran what in a movie would be a comically inefficient operation. When they built their new factory in Londonderry, all nice and modern, things went so well that the company turned a profit for the first time — by the end of the year.

“I learned a lot from Gary about perseverance,” Meg says. “He always says that success is about 90 percent perseverance.” Gary puts it a different way: “I like to say that we’re a 26-year overnight success story,” he says.

These days Meg is a magazine writer — in May Inc. magazine will begin running a quarterly column on the personal side of entrepreneurship — and author of two Stonyfield Farm yogurt cookbooks. She also remains politically active — she and her husband were outspoken supporters of a Democratic senator named Barack Obama during the New Hampshire primaries in 2008. Meg, however, was ground in such activism early on. As a girl her mother, who worked in marketing for the New York Department of Agriculture and was director of Common Cause there, and father, a real estate developer, took her to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago — and she came away polarized by a need for social and political reform.

In her non-activist time Meg Hirshberg teaches writing at the New Hampshire Technical Institute. She still misses Pennington and Princeton, though she admits that things have worked out well for her and her husband.

Things have gone well indeed. Stonyfield farm has, for more than a decade, posted growth of more than 20 percent annually. Hirshberg attributes the steady climb to the gradual change in perceptions. Consumers, he says, have long made the connection between pesticides and ill health, for the planet and their families. Not to mention taste. Organic produce, referring to that not treated with pesticides or growth-inducing chemicals, are usually smaller and more concentrated than what is called “conventional” produce.

The hang-up has been the money. Organic produce costs more than conventional simply because it does not have the yield of chemically treated produce. Not at first, anyway. Fields farmed without chemical help do take longer to produce higher yields, and organic crops have a greater susceptibility to disease and pests. The cost issue is further evidence of Hirshberg’s assertion that it is money, not good intentions, that sways people to action.

But then there is this: Every supplier Stonyfield Farm contracts with, from the 1,400 dairy farms to the myriad sugar farmers in Brazil, has produced increased yields every year for the past 20 years. Every one, every year, Hirshberg assures. As conventional farms were converted to organic the initial years were rough, he says. But as the chemicals left the soil and organic matter took its place, the ground has increasingly nutriated. The bottom line: Higher yields, less monkeying with the ground, less money paid for the buying, shipping, and application of chemicals, and, ultimately, more money for the farmers.

Hirshberg says his milk farmers typically are paid three times as much as their conventional brethren, a fact he boasts as an unapologetic capitalist and an unapologetic leftist. “Our way of getting efficiency is not by squeezing the farmer,” he says. “They’re paid a good living wage. We save on energy and packaging.”

The effects of all this have been increased yogurt production and broadening sales. Organic is now a $22 billion annual enterprise, and unlike the Stonyfield Farm of yore, today’s company distributes in Wal-Mart, Target, and other major chains, not just at Whole Earth Center. Better prices for Stonyfield’s suppliers allow more competitive pricing, and with more people able to fit organic yogurt into their budgets, the major bugaboo of the movement is dying fast. “There’s no other reason to not eat organic than price,” Hirshberg says.

Being able to produce inexpensively enough to sell to Wal-Mart is a big deal. Notoriously stingy as a buyer, Wal-Mart became the world’s largest company by offering impossibly low prices on everyday goods. But it has no short list of enemies. Protesters gather every time Wal-Mart wants to open another store and the company has been blamed for everything from the killing of small-town vibes to the utter destruction of the American electronics industry.

Gary Hirshberg, however, loves Wal-Mart. In early April he spoke at a summit on climate change in China, where Wal-Mart is the most important company in the country. And with four times the population of the United States living on roughly two-thirds the arable ground, China is excruciatingly aware of the value of organic products to climate change. “Believe me,” Hirshberg says dryly. “They understand.”

When organic production comes far enough to involve Wal-Mart it means that organic production is feasible, marketable, and important. Small organic and natural food stores are fine, he says, but together they could not come close to making the difference a company like Wal-Mart could make in promoting, supporting, and efficiently distributing the organic lifestyle. “We need Wal-Mart,” Hirshberg says. “If we’re serious about reducing toxicity and our carbon footprint, we need all agriculture to be organic.”

Outside money helps. Between 2001 and 2003 Groupe Danone, the France-based owner of Dannon yogurt, among other products, bought roughly 85 of Stonyfield’s shares. Organic activists have reacted badly to the news, saying that Stonyfield Farm is no longer the model of small companies making a big difference. Hirshberg counters by saying, “We still give 10 percent of our profits to environmental causes. Our milk still comes from New England and Midwest dairy farmers. We still use the very best environmental practices we can find. And we’re still as committed as ever to increasing the number of organic family farms in the world.” Groupe Danone also has increased Stonyfield’s reach and efficiency, he says.

Despite organic’s growing acceptance, however, there is far to go. Remember that $22 billion organic made last year? “That’s less than 2.6 percent of total U.S. food,” Hirshberg says. “I’m proud of the progress we’ve made, but we’re just getting started.”

Getting others started on the organic path is also a big deal. To that end, Hirshberg started the Stonyfield Farm Entrepreneurship Institute, “a boot camp for community-minded entrepreneurs,” in 1998. Based on Hirshberg’s experiences growing Stonyfield Farm, the institute has trained hundreds of organic entrepreneurs in financing, marketing, managing change, and other areas that are fundamental to growing an enterprise.

An ecologist by training — he was one of the first graduates of Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts and was executive director of the New Alchemy Institute, a research and education center dedicated to organic farming, aquaculture, and renewable energy — Hirshberg has become a bona fide celebrity. And he wants to use that celebrity to get his message across. He’s even about to be a movie star. Kind of.

In June “Food Inc.,” an indictment of the world’s food industry that advanced buzz places on the same incendiary path as “Fahrenheit 9/11,” opens in theaters. Hirshberg, if briefly, is in it — introducing Wal-Mart buyers to his suppliers for the first time.

Elsewhere in his increasingly influential travels, Hirshberg recently he had dinner with David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s campaign manager. Plouffe told Hirshberg that the president’s priorities list goes: Education, energy, health insurance, and jobs.

“Organic is the solution to all of that,” Hirshberg says. About education he says, “We’re getting dumber as a species because we’re eating the wrong foods. With increasing education, our ideas are shown to be effective.” Energy? You don’t need as much of it to produce organic. This relates to jobs because in keeping energy and transportation costs down keep things local.

And health insurance? Self-explanatory.

As for the conference at Princeton, Hirshberg lauds it as the beginning of an important conversation. And if it is merely the beginning, then great. Starting small got him where he is today.

“All change begins at the edges,” he says. “The next decade will tell us a lot.”

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