Gary Hirshberg is pretty busy these days. Aside from giving commencement speeches; promoting Food, Inc., the documentary he’s in, writing a book, and consulting with big companies on their sustainability practices, he runs a $300 million business called Stonyfield Farms.
But he began with just a couple of cows and a lot of determination.
Gary first became aware of our environmental crisis watching a river catch fire. His grandparents and parents were shoe manufacturers, and growing up, Gary would watch shoe dye emptying into the river.
“One day I watched this blob going down the river and it caught on fire,” he recalls. “I sat there watching it, and I knew this something that was not supposed to happen.”
In college, studying ecology and climate, Gary became more horrified at the damage to the earth, so he dedicated himself to the New Alchemy Institute, an ecological research and education center.
“What I learned there is that technology really did work, that we could produce high-quality food without using chemicals and fossil fuels, year-round,” he says.
But with government budget cuts, the Institute faced closure. In the meantime, Gary had a eureka moment while visiting a food pavilion at Epcot Center. The display, sponsored by a major food manufacturer, featured toxic chemical and pesticides-laden crops of the future.
He remembers saying: “I know what I have to do with myself.” Which was to marshal as much power as this huge sponsor, and show people that it’s possible to be both profitable and green.
Stonyfield began when Gary and his partner decided to sell yogurt to finance their organic farming school. Seed money? It came from the Sisters of Mercy, a Catholic order of nuns. Despite this divine intervention, the business almost collapsed.
“We went through unbelievable stuff,” says Gary, recalling scrounging for money from the last of his wife’s inheritance to buy fruit, and desperate pleas to parents for loans.
“We had a great company, we just had no supply and no demand,” he laughs.
In his bleakest hour, Gary received a letter in the mail that simply said, “Mmmmmm.” He pinned up next to his foreclosure notice. And at the time, 1988, with studies about the dangers of toxic chemicals coming out, “We knew there was no turning back,” says Gary. “We had the support of the consumers, our shareholders, and my mother-in-law’s money to keep us getting up in the morning.”
So what advice does Gary have for the legions of unemployed, searching for reasons to get up?
“This is the time to dream big, not small,” he says. “Dream of a new world, a new way of relating to the planet, a new way of making money. I had a crazy, ridiculous dream, the economy was terrible, we’ve been through ups and downs, but it was the power of this dream that made it work.”
His dream of changing the food business is now being played out in the current film, Food Inc., which reveals shocking truths about the way American food is produced. For Gary, the expose is just one example of an exciting trend.
“Connections are being made, that we are what we eat,” he says. And, he adds, “The most important thing we can do is we can buy organic food. It has immediate effect of not allowing toxins to go in biosphere. It’s the power we all have to reshape the marketplace. We exercise our vote with how we shop.”
Big ideas from a man who makes little cups of yogurt!