Recognition: Organic Pioneer Bill Sutherland calls it a day
- by Tim Linden | September 03, 2018
After more than 40 years as a packer, broker and sales agent of organic produce, Bill Sutherland has closed up shop and retired.
In a farewell letter to friends, suppliers and customers, the 70-year-old Sutherland succinctly articulated his motivation for this new path in his life.
“What I won’t miss is the phone waking me up at 2 a.m. with some pissed off receiver screaming at me about where their truck is.”
As he went through his career and feelings about organic produce with The Produce News, Sutherland’s love for the organic produce community came through loud and clear. He won’t miss the yelling, but he will clearly miss the relationships and camaraderie that have developed since his chance entry into the business in the 1970s.
After high school, he went to four different colleges in the late 60s and early 70s, finally earning a teaching credential from UC San Diego. Before embarking on a career, Sutherland spent time “roaming the earth, backpacking and surfing and eating clean food,” he said. “I was always interested in that.”
He went to Hawaii, got married, had a child and came back to the Fallbrook/Temecula area in north San Diego County to begin his teaching career. To earn extra money, Sutherland sold Indonesian goods from a kiosk in a cultural center in the summer.
A chance encounter with a local organic packer named Jon Mielziner led to a summer job and a new career. It was 1977, he had a family and needed to make more money than the teaching opportunity paid so he began working fulltime in the organic produce industry for Jon Mielziner & Friends, who Sutherland credits with being the first organic produce packer in Southern California. “I loved it. I was doing something I believed and making a living.”
About a year later, his boss took a year-long trip around the world leaving the keys to the shed in Sutherland’s hands. “While he was gone, I quadrupled the business,” he said, which was basically buying, packing and selling the organic output of a gaggle of local growers in the Fallbrook area.
When Mielziner returned, the two tried negotiating a deal but couldn’t agree on terms to continue working together so Sutherland went out on his own and formed Fresh Start Farms in 1980. “I sold a lot of specialty items, including cherimoyas, sapotes, guavas, persimmons — three or four varieties of persimmons,” he said. “Back then there were a lot of persimmons in Fallbrook. Most of this fruit came from backyard organic farmers who had a few trees.”
Next he partnered with another organic produce pioneer, Charlie Heerman, and the two merged their firms into West Coast Organics. A couple of years later that company was sold and in 1987 Sutherland Produce Sales was launched as a one-man sales agency for organic produce farmers. For the past three decades, Sutherland has been representing organic growers throughout California and selling their products to retailers, wholesalers and distributors, mostly on the West Coast.
He added a bookkeeper and had assistants along the way but he mostly made his living as a sole proprietor creating relationships on both sides of the buy/sell equation. He’d work with growers — usually small ones — to sell their crops to distributors, who also were often the smaller wholesalers, distributors and retailers committed to the organic sector. He says the “sales agent” moniker fits his operation better than being called a broker.
“When I started selling organic produce all you needed was a signed affidavit from the grower saying it was organic,” he said. “Charlie and I were big supporters of certifying it as organic. We worked with CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers) and other certifiers to make sure there were standards.”
Sutherland said he was also one of the early backers of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organics Program. “We wanted the law and we were early supporters of it.”
He credits the development of the USDA organics standards and seal in the 1990s as being very instrumental in building the organic produce industry into what it is today. But, Sutherland points to a 1989 60 Minutes show blasting the use of the fumigant Alar by apple growers as the seminal moment for the organic industry. Actress Meryl Streep became a spokesperson for the anti-Alar movement and sales of conventional apples plummeted.
“She scared everyone,” he said. “Everyone wanted organic apples. The market went crazy with organic apples selling for $60 to $80 per box.”
During those early years, Sutherland said he registered 20 percent growth in sales virtually every year. Organics was booming, but it was booming from a small base, with a dozen or two of industry believers.
As he surveys his own impact on the industry, Sutherland said he is most proud of “saving so many growers from going out of business. The big boys were buying up their farms but we’ve been able to get them good returns and keep them in business. ”
He also mentioned that he has given many people their start in this organic produce industry, including Albert Lusk, founder of the nationwide Albert’s Organics operation. He calls his early partner, Heerman, one of the most important people in the entire organics produce industry.
“He started in the business before I did and helped growers start a lot of co-ops and was very important in the certification movement. He still is,” said Sutherland.
Sutherland continually harkened back to the early years of the organic movement noting that there was a camaraderie and a spirit of community of people doing the right thing for the right reason. He noted that he attended the Sustainable Ag Conference in Sylmar for 30 years along with a group of organic produce devotees that were his suppliers, customers, colleagues and competitors, but most of all they were his friends. He talked often about the socializing and partying and haggling with this group. “Most of my life has been spent with these people,” he said.
As Sutherland rides into the sunset, he looks at the current organics industry with mixed emotions. He is clearly delighted that organic produce has come out of the shadows and is an important product for virtually every retailer in the country and that many conventional grower-shippers are heading down the organic path. That also makes him wistful for the old days when a small farmer with 10 trees in his backyard was the backbone of the industry. He said the bigger grower-shippers are getting into the business and pushing the small guys out.
“I’m sure they are doing it right, but they don’t care as much as we did about organics. We were committed to the concept,” he said. “The Birkenstock people have been pushed out by the three-piece suit guys.”