Reclaiming the future of food and farming

PAN in conversation Gary Hirshberg

Gary HirshbergPhoto: Courtesy of Stonyfield

Longtime friend and PAN supporter Gary Hirshberg is co-founder and chair of Stonyfield Farm, the Londonderry, New Hampshire–based organic yogurt maker.

We sat down with Gary Hirshberg to discuss his work with Stonyfield Farm, Just label It (Gary also chairs the national "Just Label It" campaign) and PAN.

1.  What brought you to the organic industry? Did you study agriculture or grow up on a farm?

I grew up in the 60's in a rural area and watched family farms disappearing rapidly throughout my childhood. In college in the early 70's, I studied ecology and climate change, and began to understand that organic farming made ecological as well as economic sense. I then spent seven years at the New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod, where I received first-hand training and exposure in all aspects of intensive organic ag and aquaculture.  

I became Executive Director there and in tht role, as well as in my work as a water pumping windmill specialist, I travelled to many parts of the U.S. — and many countries around the world — meeting with agronomists and other organic practitioners. This only deepened my conviction that organic farming can be economically viable and highly productive at a very large scale

2.  Stonyfield Farm was founded in 1983 as an organic farming school.  How did the transition from school to business happen?

During my tenure at New Alchemy I became a Trustee of the Rural Education Center, a small organic farming school in rural Wilton, New Hampshire. Our goal back then was to teach people that food comes from the earth, and that the healthiest food begins with caring for the land. The school's Founder and Director Samuel Kaymen had a strong background in biodynamic farming. We used to eat his delicious yogurt at our board meetings and one day, soon after the Reagan budget cuts had forced us to rethink our funding strategy, we decided to start selling some of this yogurt to help fund the Center.    

Today, we remain passionate about that message and still consider ourselves to be educators, who just happen to be in the yogurt business. We didn't realize it at the time, but we were testing a hypothesis: Could we continue to educate about saving family farms, promoting sustainable agriculture and lessening our society's resource consumption and "ecological footprint" while running a successful, profitable business? Could we communicate on a yogurt cup instead of a blackboard? Could we think about the grocery store as a classroom?  

I joined Samuel full time as the Director of the Center and as the business manager for Stonyfield soon after the first yogurt cups began selling in local stores. When we began, we had seven cows, two families, a struggling organic farming school and Samuel's amazing yogurt recipe. We knew nothing about business, but we knew a lot about the coming perils of climate change and the importance of growing and eating organic foods that avoid adding toxins to our soil, water, air and bodies, and supports family farmers.  

A lot has changed since we started ... You can imagine what it was like to sell organic food in the early '80s. No one knew what I was talking about and ... the people who did know always thought that organic meant that you had to chew extra. Because the early organic foods were sold in sort of dark, dingy natural food stores and were not grown for your appetite ... And nowadays of course organic is equivalent with gourmet. It's better-tasting, fresher, healthier and so on. So now we're having a different kind of discussion than we had back then.

3.  It's often said that yogurt is the entry point to organic, as one of the first foods new parents buy for their children. Can you tell us about how you feel this influences healthy eating?

There's no question that organic is the right choice for children. Research published over the last 4-5 years has shown that pesticide exposures to the very young are much higher than previously understood, and scientists still have no idea about the cumulative or synergistic effects. Recent studies point to serious potential harms from individual pesticides, even at very low levels that are well below what's considered a "safe dosage." These safety standards are still based mainly on adult exposures, and don't fully look at potential effects on children. For instance, recent research suggests that:

  • Little bodies are the most susceptible to pesticide exposure because their immune system and internal organs are still developing so they might not be able to fight toxins effectively.[1]
  • Choosing food grown without pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and artificial growth hormones to help reduce your exposure to chemicals that may cause cancer. The President's Cancer Panel made a point to strongly encourage parents to choose foods that minimize children's exposure to these toxins throughout pregnancy and early life because that's when the risk is greatest.[2]
  • Organophosphate (OP) pesticide exposure may contribute to ADHD in children, according to a 2009 study published in Pediatrics.[3] OP pesticide residues are commonly found on non-organic fruits and vegetables like grapes, apples, and green beans. Children in the study with higher levels of these pesticides were more likely to have ADHD compared to children with lower levels. Similar findings have been released on brain and IQ development.

While we do need more research on the health impacts of pesticide exposure, the good news is that there's something we can do about it today. Research from a team at the University of Washington shows that we can immediately and dramatically reduce the pesticide content in a child's body by switching to organic foods.[4] In fact, principal investigator Dr. Alex Lu said, "Once the kids in our study switched to organic diets, the pesticide level disappeared.  Totally disappeared."
4.  Stonyfield is located in Londonderry, New Hampshire. Have you had any problems with pesticide drift from neighboring farms in the area? Other concerns about pesticide effects in your community (e.g. water or feed contamination)?

We produce our yogurts in a highly screened environment with micro-filtered air and positive pressure so the chances of exposure to ANY contaminants are both monitored and extremely remote. Our real concerns about drift is the hundreds of thousands of acres managed by the family farmers who produce our milk, fruits, flavors and sweeteners. We've been very active in promoting buffer zones and liability penalties to protect organic growers.  

This is also one of the reasons that we are so active in promoting GMO labeling ... we believe that if consumers know more about the explosion of herbicide use that has accompanied GMO proliferation, the marketplace will demand alternative practices that reverse these trends.

5.  Can you share with us an example of how Stonyfield's farming practices have helped make your farms successful?

Our pay price to the family farmers who supply our milk through the farmer-owned Organic Valley/CROPP cooperative averages between 35% an 60% more than what they would receive for non-organic milk. Since the average dairy herd for our roughly 1,500 family farmer partners is 71 cows, this higher pay price is key to their economic viability. In addition, we work with OV to sponsor an enormous amount of research on nutrition, crop and soil management, manure and grazing strategies and other techniques to help improve on-farm economics. We were the lead funder of the UNH organic dairy research farm, the nation's first organic research farm at a Land Grant university.  

And our Greener Cow project demonstrating that cows and milk can be healthier while reducing methane emissions has led to a resurgence in the interest and understanding about the benefits of pasture and grass for healthier food and farms. Did you know, for instance, that organic cows live and produce twice as long as nonorganically raised cows? 

6.  How has working in the organic industry affected the way you feed your family?

You have to understand that when we started Stonyfield, there was no organic "industry."  This meant that if we wanted to feed ourselves and our family organic foods, we either had to grow them or buy in bulk or travel long distances. Today, the refrigerator and pantry that supplies my wife, our three yogurt eaters and me is completely stocked with every imaginable kind of organic food that we have purchased right in our small town at our Co-Op, CSA, farmers market and supermarket. 

And local restaurants offer plenty of organic alternatives. While still more expensive than conventional foods, our household believes that the so-called "cheap" non-organic alternatives are not cheap at all for we are paying for the costs of chemical farming in our broken and expensive health care system, the decline of pollinators, contamination of waterways and in countless other environmental and economic ways.

7.  Which area of PAN's work do you think is most important? And why?

A recent independent national survey commissioned by Stonyfield found that 71 percent of Americans are worried about pesticides in their food and almost three out of four respondents (74 percent) would like to eat food produced with fewer pesticides. PAN's work to raise consumer awareness about the negative impacts of pesticides on human health and the environment is critical.  

We know that over 40 percent of all Americans will be diagnosed with cancer in our lifetimes, and in 2009 the President's Cancer Panel recommended eating food produced without the use of pesticides and other chemicals as one of the best ways to reduce cancer risk. PAN's work is so important because it helps people understand how they can reduce their own exposure and risk, and puts pressure on government to do a better job regulating pesticides.  

8.  PAN partnered with Stonyfield last year to bring attention to colony collapse disorder. Has the decline in honey bee's affected your production? How?

While we haven't yet felt the impact of declining honeybee populations on our own ability to source organic fruit for our yogurt, we know that in the not-too-distant future this could have a real impact on our supplies. Nearly all of the fruit in our yogurts comes from plants that are pollinated by honeybees, so this issue is of incredible importance to us. PAN's work to save our pollinators and push for the removal of neonicotinoids from the market is so important for the future of so much of our food production.

9.  You published Stirring it Up in 2008. Can you tell us about the book?  Does it tie into Stonyfield's support of PAN? What updates might you make in 2013 given all of the shifts in recent years?

I wrote Stirring it Up based on Stonyfield's and many other companies' proven track records that investing in positive environmental measures actually reduced business costs and increased profits. In the five years since then, the number of completely compelling and irrefutable positive economic examples has quintupled as more and more industries and businesses have figured out that attacking their carbon, water, energy, waste and toxic footprints yields fantastic financial benefits.

10.  You are very involved in bringing pesticides into the GMO conversation. What should people know about the connection between genetically engineered crops and pesticides? Why is this important?

I have come to understand that proliferation of pesticides is the story of GMO's.  In fact, my advocacy for GMO labeling is not because I believe that GMO's by themselves are safe or unsafe. No one can make that case either way because there has not been enough long-term testing of these crops by sources that are independent of the patent holders.  

But peer-reviewed, published research makes it absolutely clear that (a) herbicide-resistant GE crop technology has led to an overall increase of over 527 million pounds of herbicides since 1996, with annual usage increasing rapidly [5]; (b) the US Geological Survey has now measured unprecedented levels of glyphosate herbicides in 100% of air samples collected at various times during the growing season in Iowa and other states; (c) the resultant explosion of over 28 herbicide resistant superweeds is now leading to the widespread increased use of 2,4-D, dicamba and other stronger and more toxic compounds; and (d) while Bt corn has in fact resulted in a reduction of insecticides being sprayed, we are now finding Bt insecticide in the cord blood of pregnant women [6] and the corn rootworms that used to be effectively controlled by smaller Bt dosages are also now resistant [7] [8].  

In short, the proliferation of these genetically engineered crops has absolutely led to a dramatic increase in pesticide use, which should come as no surprise since the patent holders for the GMO seeds are also agrichemical companies.

Published: November 04, 2013

[1] Washington State Department of Family and Child Health. Reducing pesticide exposure in children and pregnant women. Fall/Winter 2006. Available at:

[2] President's Cancer Panel. Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What we can do now. Annual Report 2008-2009. Full report available at:

[3] Bouchard MF, Bellinger DC, Wright RO, Weisskopf MG. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and urinary metabolites of organophospahte pesticides. Pediatrics. 2010;125e1270-1277.

[4] Lu C, Toepel RI, Fenske R, Barr D, Bravo R. Organic diets significantly lower childrens' dietary exposure to Organophosphorous Pesticides.Environmental Health Perspectives. 2006 Feb;114(2):260-3.

[ 5 ]Benbrook, Charles M. Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the US – the First Sixteen Years. Environmental Sciences Europe (24): September 28, 2012

[ 6 ] Aris A, Leblanc S., "Maternal and fetal exposure to pesticides associated to genetically modified foods in Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada." Reproductive Toxicology (2011), doi:10.1016/j.reprotox.2011.02.004.)

[ 7 ] Gassmann, Aaron J. "Field-evolved resistance to Bt maize by western corn rootworm: Predictions from the laboratory and effects in the field." Journal of Invertebrate Pathology (2012).

[ 8 ] Gassmann AJ, Petzold-Maxwell JL, Keweshan RS, Dunbar MW. "Field-Evolved Resistance to Bt Maize by Western Corn Rootworm." PLoS ONE 6(7) (2011).