OPN Connect: How did you find your way to organic produce?
LA: I came to Washington in the early 1980s as a high school foreign exchange student in Cathlamet, WA. After a couple of years back in Chile, my host family helped me apply to Lower Columbia College, which I attended before transferring to University of Washington (UW).
At UW, I majored in political science because I wanted to be a lawyer and work in environmental justice. I graduated in 1990 and went to work for an environmental consulting firm that was working on soil remediation of Superfund sites. The work fueled my passion for environmental protection.
In 1992, by chance, I met Roger Wechsler (head of the fresh produce division of heritage organic brand Cascadian Farm, which eventually became Viva Tierra Organic) who introduced me to Gene Kahn (founder and head of Cascadian Farm). At the time, organic was on the rise and Roger thought the two of us could do great work together to expand organic. So I joined Cascadian Farm and we built the South American apple and pear import program, starting in Argentina, and then Chile.
Gene Kahn, founder, Cascadian Farm
OPN Connect: In 27 years, what has changed?
LA: It’s a very dynamic industry. At first, we thought of ourselves as an organic community, then an organic movement, and now an organic industry. It’s a mix of the family farmer that remains across America to large companies taking organics to a new level.
OPN Connect: What has that meant for Viva Tierra?
LA: My passion is still with the family farmer. They are skilled and dedicated growers who need the support to compete effectively with mass production. We can provide them with market access that really highlights the special quality of their fruit. And we have proven that there are consumers out there for everyone.
OPN Connect: How has your work with retail customers evolved over the years?
LA: We are fortunate to work with retailers who appreciate our values-based business model: the fact that we work with family farmers, and that we can stand behind our quality. Because we’re smaller, we’re flexible, we’re highly responsive. They want to make their produce offering stand out and we can help them do that.
OPN Connect: What are some of the biggest issues your growers face?
LA: The recurring theme when I spend time on the farms whether it’s here in Washington state, in California, or in South America, is climate change. It has affected farming in a measurable way. There is a lot of denial about it, but farmers are the first to tell you that it’s real.
OPN Connect: What keeps you in this business? What’s most gratifying?
LA: I really admire the resilience of our organic family farmers and I see myself as an advocate for that model of agriculture, based on living processes, that benefit people and the environment. It’s extremely gratifying to get a heartfelt thanks from your growers, especially when it’s been a tough season.
OPN Connect: Is there an event or an accomplishment that feels like a defining moment in your career so far?
LA: Back in the early 2000s, I put a lot of work into the Organic Trade Association (OTA) committees. And some of the original organic pioneers encouraged me to take more of a leadership role because they believed in me. That recognition by such visionaries was a defining moment for me – that they entrusted the legacy of what they had built to me. They inspired me to run for the board of OTA and wound up serving two terms, from 2002 to 2008.
OPN Connect: If you could pick a movie, book, or song to convey your work, what might it be?
LA: Joe Smillie gave me a book that he wrote with Grace Gershuny -- The Soul of Soil. He and the book impressed upon me that there is soul in the soil, and there’s soul in farming, and there can be soul in companies.
OPN Connect: If you could share one thing you’d want civilians who buy Viva Tierra food to know, what would that be?
LA: We care. We care about our farmers. We care about growing food that’s the best we can offer. Our team at Viva Tierra is more than a business. We’re like a family – we have our disagreements, like any family, but we come together at the end of the day because it’s work, but it’s also a mission.