LILIPOH Interviews Errol Schweizer, Whole Foods Market’s Global Grocery Coordinator
For those of us who fill our fridge and freezer with local Biodynamic vegetables, milk, and meat—the products more commonly available from local farmers—we can now stock our pantries with Biodynamically grown foods as well now that Whole Foods is launching numerous Biodynamic product lines by well-known processors like Lundberg, Amy’s Kitchen, and Wholesome Sweetners.
LILIPOH editor Christy Korrow had the chance to interview Errol Schweizer to learn more about the lastest developments in Biodynamic food accessability.
CK: What made Whole Foods decide to take on some of the risks of a relatively unknown brand name and launch Whole Foods’ support toward Demeter Certified Biodynamic® products?
ES: Biodynamics is actually gaining name recognition among national food shoppers and Whole Foods buyers. It’s been part of the landscape of the natural food industry for decades, and as you know, the Biodynamic movement actually predates organic. Whole Foods has sold Biodynamic lines for years, including wines and other food products like sauerkraut, yogurt, and pasta sauce.
One of the things that we do really well at Whole Foods is identify and amplify new trends that work well with our core values such as supporting our communities and the environment. Biodynamics’ strict growing standards—essentially a deeper form of organic farming that treats the whole farm as a living organism where all the inputs must be from the farm, and the farm is free of GMOs and synthetic pesticides—fits in with what our customers already buy. We’re already deeply committed to organic. It makes up close to 50% of my sales in the grocery department. For us, Biodynamics is a next logical step. It’s what you do with product innovation.
If you travel to Europe, there are hundreds of Demeter Certified Biodynamic brands—thousands of Biodynamic products. There’s a trade show for organic food called BIOFACH in Germany. Within BIOFACH, there is an entire hall showcasing dozens and dozens of suppliers who offer Demeter Certified Biodynamic products. While I was there attending this trade show, the lightbulb went off and I said, “You know what? We've got to do this.”
CK: Are you feeling good about the sales trajectory of the Biodynamic products? Is this a sustainable initiative for the company?
ES: This year the sales have almost doubled for all Biodynamic products. We’ve launched about twenty-five Demeter Certified Biodynamic products in the last two years. We’re seeing good product turn around and our individual stores are coming back to say they’re happy with the products' performance. The stores are selling through what they’ve committed to, and for us at a corporate level, that's great news.
CK: Are there special product displays for the Biodynamic products?
ES: Each product is slotted in to its particular category, but we try to highlight them when there are promotions. Sometimes things are put into a special display; a lot of our stores put up beautiful signage.
CK: Biodynamics is a unique agricultural path because it has a spiritual component. Has that come up at all?
ES: You know what? The proof is in the pudding. Biodynamic farming produces a quality product. The type of agriculture that it promotes is more resilient and more sustainable than probably any other form of farming, so whatever else goes into it, whether that is part of the magic or part of the science, it’s proven out in the quality. What I see is that Biodynamics makes great products. Having been on Biodynamic farms, talked to Biodynamic farmers—it’s road-tested. It’s seal-proven. It works.
CK: Let’s talk about the relationship-building aspect of your business. Rudolf Steiner taught about associative economics and how, in a healthy economy, the producer, the distributor, and the customer need to have a more balanced relationship, where they all three work in relationship to establish supply, demand, and price.
ES: I can’t speak specifically to Rudolf Steiner's philosophy, but it seems to echo a lot of what we do here everyday. Relationship-building is really the biggest part of what we do. It’s important for us to stay in touch with the folks at all levels of the supply chain and make sure we’re checking all our interests—it’s wise from a business standpoint to do so.
The Demeter Association has been instrumental in facilitating the relationships with Biodynamic famers and producers. They’ll refer us to people and they’ll refer people to us. They’ll help us find suppliers for products we want to develop.
As a retailer, we do two things. One, we aggregate and stimulate the demand among customers and two, we justify and validate the market so suppliers know that if they make this transition to Biodynamics they’re gonna get a purchase order from us. We put the product for sale on the shelves. We communicate it through blogs and social media. We reach out. We have key members who build fantastic displays and beautiful signage where products are merchandised and replenished.
The most important thing, really, for any farmer or business owner is when you get a purchase order. It's a commitment that the retailer is going to buy what they’re making, and it also needs to be fair to their cost of production, their overhead, and their process model.
CK: Do you have the opportunity to meet with farmers from time to time?
ES: Not as often as I would like, but my team members do make a lot of farm visits. In fact, I’m missing a great field trip this week where our marketing team is going to a Biodynamic rice farm in California—I’m staying here in town to do some work. But farm visits are an important part of what we do as product developers and retailers.
CK: From the farmers’ perspective, I hear over and over again how hard it is for farmers to make a living. When you pencil out how many heads of lettuce a farmer has to sell to earn a living wage, you are faced with a tough equation. Do you have any hopeful thoughts or perspectives that you can share?
ES: As a retailer, what we try to do is road-test programs and understand whether or not it’s viable in the marketplace. Once we have done that, we then have suppliers who are incentivized to participate because they know it will be good for their business. It’s really important for us to make sure it’s successful. We don’t want to hurt anybody if they’re taking a chance. Our suppliers need to know that they are not going to have to sell their product below the cost of production. And you know what? There’s no government subsidies for Biodynamics. It’s really market-driven. We have to find the right balance between supply and demand and the cost of the retail product.
Also, there’s a much greater awareness of fairness in our supply exchange of the people who pick our food and that they are deserving of being able to make a good living for their hard work at all levels. We’ve been a pioneer in other aspects outside of Biodynamics, such as domestic fair labor programs. We have a product line called Farmer Direct, which is organic domestically traded beans, grains, and other products. Farmer Direct is a farmer-owned coop. The coop is certified by the Agricultural Justice Project to make sure that the farmers are treating their farm workers well and paying them fairly; giving them benefits.
This is an effort Whole Foods is making to look at all aspects of the supply chain connected to the product. Some of our bestselling bulk product lines, like quality organic, non-GMO are fairly traded. We sell a lot of fairly traded products from all over the world. I think, in the United States, we’re the largest fair trade retailer of cocoa, coffee, sugar, and various other products. As part of our effort to have win-win partnerships, we have to ask, are we winning for farmworkers too, and that is something that we’re spending more and more time working on.
CK: I imagine Whole Foods influences the entire retail grocery marketplace nationwide, so you could be participating in the breakthrough of Biodynamic retail products in other stores as well.
ES: Whole Foods is definitely seen as a leader, and other retailers are bringing in a lot of products that we pioneered. In some ways they’re doing a good job of even going beyond what they see at our stores and doing their own thing. In addition I think we’re really good in communicating these higher level attributes to our customers. So, I think we’ve got a nice window to really establish Biodynamics and associate it with the Whole Foods customer base in a way that’s relevant and meaningful.
One of the products we just launched is a Biodynamic fair trade sugar, which is a small project, but it’s a key ingredient as we build up a supply chain from scratch. For example, we have Biodynamic apples, Biodynamic wheat, and with the Biodynamic sugar—we now have the ingredients for Biodynamic apple pie.
By building up the supply chain in this way, we can make more complex products, and who knows, maybe someday we will have a Biodynamic grocery store, or a Biodynamic grocery industry. Biodynamic farming will be acceptable, mainstream, and consumers will understand it. Folks will say, “Oh, that’s Biodynamic.” As I’ve said, I am inspired by the success we see in Europe. I think some good know-how and ingenuity can make it happen here as well.
Be sure to ask for these Biodynamic food products at your local Whole Foods Market, or your local grocery store: Amy's Kitchen, Crofters, DeLallo, GreenBelle (Sun Belle), Guayaki, Isis, Kedem, Lakewood, Lundberg, Natural Nectar, Pacari, Republic of Tea, Theo, Yellow Barn, Wholesome Sweeteners, Natural Nectar, Oregon's Wild Harvest, and Hawthorne Valley Farm.
Most Whole Foods Markets include a selection of Biodynamics wines--ask for Frey, Frog’s Leap, or Benziger.
Don’t forget about Weleda and Dr. Hauschka body care products, many of which contain Biodynamic ingredients.