A young producer sets his sights on creating a national chain of organic produce producers
Pierre Sleiman, Jr., thinks very big for a young guy, only three years out of college.
Starting with his organic produce farm in Encinitas, Calif., he wants to create network of local organic farms that could take on a California-based produce oligopoly that accounts for a majority of sales in this country.
"They’ve served us well," he said, referring to the handful of companies that have controlled the business for hundreds of years, "but they aren’t willing to change things completely. Agriculture hasn’t had the kind of innovation that other industries have had, the kind that disrupts."
Sleiman wants to be that disruptive force, he has a long way to go with only 400 customers in one metro market. He believes that local organic producers possess some strong competitive advantages, even if they don’t have the working capital, the logistical dominance and the customer base that the big guys enjoy.
First, local growers can deliver quality organic produce to restaurants and supermarket within a day, where it may take national companies up to a week to ship produce from one part of the country to another. This may matter greatly to restaurant chefs looking for fresh ingredients and supermarkets that specialize in fresh, organic produce.
Lettuce and other produce shipped nationally may spend time in cold storage whereas Sleiman's company, Go Green, can ship fresh the next day. To make that point, the company leaves root balls on its butter lettuce, which also doubles or triples the product’s shelf life, Sleiman said.
Go Green’s lettuce scores higher on the green charts since it is produced locally, in closer proximity to the stores and restaurants that sell it. That reduces transportation costs, middlemen and all the fuel used to power trucks, refrigeration and storage.
"My mission is to put a mini-farm in every populated area of the U.S. It should be branded and organic."
The organic produce industry certainly has wind beneath is wings. U.S. sales of organic food and beverages have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010, according to the Organic Trade Association.
Go Green has achieved some notoriety. John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, has asked Sleiman to build an organic farm on top of one of his stores. The company has also had success selling to Costco and Wal-Mart, which allows its stores to buy local vegetables.
The old ways of produce farming pose significant risks, according to Sleiman. Fuel costs are skyrocketing. Weather is always uncertain. Water is running out. And there’s always the issue of food security on open farms.
In Sleiman’s operation, by contrast, water is recycled, filtered and sterilized. "There’s no run-off and virtually no evaporation. We use 80% less water than outside farm. We harvest and seed every week of the year. We have non-stop lettuce." Go Green also produces its own organic fertilizer that is applied to plants.
Speaking at the Future Farm America conference in San Francisco last week, Sleiman treated the audience to a video about this operation. It featured testimonials from local chefs raving about the freshness and taste of his product.
Go Green has already turned down offers to ship beyond its natural transportation borders. In the meantime, Sleiman is working on his dream to one day create a network of small farms that grow and sell produce locally. He wants to create a brand "that is strongly recognized by consumers as synonymous with ultra-healthy, premium-quality and always consistent."
Some produce companies have been producing hydroponic products on a national scale for years. They still use distributors and don’t grow products locally. Go Green takes orders at a central office that ships out orders to 10 local farms.
"Imagine a world where on the outskirts of every city, you could visit your local farm(s)," Sleiman writes on the company’s website. "It would be a farm that grows several healthy fruits and vegetables and only serves its local community.
"I'm not suggesting that all products can necessarily be grown locally and still be viable economically, but the basics like lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs can. With today's technology, it's possible... and we're doing it."