In retirement, Robert Lichtenberg claims he is going to be the best organic consumer there is. “Call me when you want to get the consumer’s perspective on organic produce,” he quipped.
The now former director of purchasing for Earl's Organic Produce (one of the nation's premier organic produce wholesalers) was also a pioneer on the farming end of organic produce, growing crops at the beginning of the concept's rebirth in the 1970s.
Robert Lichtenberg, Director of Purchasing, Earl's Organic Produce
Lichtenberg’s story begins in 1950s Brooklyn, NY, where he spent his youth. The leap from populated urban America to growing organic produce in rural California, which he did for many years, was not as big as one might think. “I was born with a green thumb,” he said. “I knew how to do cuttings when I was six years old. I wasn’t great with people, but I knew how to grow plants. I always did.”
After high school, Lichtenberg took a stab at college at SUNY Binghamton but did not find it to his liking. He moved to California and settled in Santa Barbara, selling houseplants from his own shop as well as offering landscaping and gardening services. Soon he got involved in a project teaching people how to teach others to farm. The project’s mission was to send farmers/teachers to South America and Mexico to help rural farmers improve their farming using a technique called fresh market gardening (a raised bed approach to achieve enhanced yields in small spaces).
“I was born with a green thumb,” Lichtenberg said. “I knew how to do cuttings when I was six years old. I wasn’t great with people, but I knew how to grow plants. I always did.”
Lichtenberg himself did not go out of the country, but he did take his newfound knowledge to the Sierra Foothills in Central California. He farmed for a decade for a spiritual community and continued to learn about the art and science of farming organically. By 1985, the city-kid-turned-rural-farmer was ready to move on.
“I wanted to find the largest organic farm that I could, so I could learn more,” he said.
Earl Herrick and Robert Lichtenberg at Star Route Farms
That mission took him to Bolinas, CA, a small community about 30 miles north of San Francisco, which at the time could be considered the epicenter of California’s organic farming movement. Lichtenberg went to work for Star Route Farms, which is said to be the first certified organic farm in California. Organic farming pioneer Warren Weber started the farm in 1974, and soon after he was materially involved in writing California’s first organic farming standards.
Lichtenberg farmed for a decade for a spiritual community and continued to learn about the art and science of farming organically. By 1985, the city-kid-turned-rural-farmer was ready to move on.
Lichtenberg worked for Star Route for a dozen years, from 1985 to 1997, in the company’s Bolinas and Coachella Valley locations. He noted that the first few years of his employ coincided with the beginning of packaged salads. Star Route grew many specialty lettuce varieties among its organic crops and had a great following among Northern California food stores, especially natural food stores and higher-end independent grocers. They also sold to many top restaurants such as Chez Panisse and Zuni Café in the Bay Area.
In 1997, Lichtenberg transitioned from the farm back to a career in the city when he joined Earl’s Organic Produce (which is located on the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market) as a buyer.
“My years as a grower were very helpful,” he said. “I have a natural affinity for growers. Farming is the hardest job in the world.”
Over the course of his career, Lichtenberg believes the organic produce industry has gone through three major phases. “Initially, we were focused on how you grow a crop organically,” he said, noting that the art of farming without synthetic pesticides had waned over the years. “The last time there was much organic production was pre-World War II.”
Rogelio Ponce Jr., Robert Lichtenberg, and Stephen Ponce
The last couple of decades, as organic expertise and production have increased, Lichtenberg said the focus has been on “developing and building markets.” The growth in market share and distribution has been remarkable, with virtually every retail chain in the country now offering a significant number of organic produce SKUs every day of the year.
“My years as a grower were very helpful. ... I have a natural affinity for growers. Farming is the hardest job in the world.” – Robert Lichtenberg
“Now we are in the third phase, which is figuring out how do we make this work and make it profitable for growers?” he said.
Today, Lichtenberg sees a different dynamic at play. “The best organic carrot grower is also the best conventional grower. The best organic garlic grower is also the best conventional grower,” he said, adding that many growers are operating on both sides of the aisle, if you will.
This longtime player in the organic produce business does worry a bit about that trend. “I don’t want to see the organic standards watered down,” Lichtenberg said. “But the dream is to make organics accessible to everyone, and you can’t do that without the big growers getting involved.”
The growth in market share and distribution has been remarkable, with virtually every retail chain in the country now offering a significant number of organic produce SKUs every day of the year.
Treading lightly into the CEA (controlled environment agriculture) debate and the argument over hydroponic techniques, he said, “I don’t see how you can take soil and soil life out of the equation. It is such an instrumental part of growing the product.”
At the same time, however, he marvels at some of the farms he has visited and their use of hydroponics and technology to produce good, healthy food. Lichtenberg wants to see the grower make money, but he also wants to see organic produce sold at a reasonable price that allows everyone the opportunity to buy it.
Robert Lichtenberg and Jim Durst
Lichtenberg reflected on one of the secrets of his success during his tenure at Earl’s. “We never forgot the grower," he said. "I believe getting out and visiting growers and seeing the product in the field is very important. I visited farms every chance I could."
At this point, the 67-year-old Lichtenberg does not have a grand plan for retirement. He loves gardening and has a “very big garden in rural/suburban West Marin. I have lots of cactus and succulents and Japanese maple trees," he said.
“I don’t really have a retirement bucket list. I want to learn how to sleep later,” he added. “I’m going to play it by ear and see what comes my way.”
“We never forgot the grower. I believe getting out and visiting growers and seeing the product in the field is very important. I visited farms every chance I could.” – Robert Lichtenberg
Lichtenberg is married with a stepson and two grandchildren in Europe, so a trip abroad is planned for mid-December, shortly after he hangs up the phone for the last time at Earl’s.