The Good Farmer

Jason Kaplan
Chuck Eggert

Food entrepreneur Chuck Eggert has a bold plan to revitalize organic, small farms and educate the public about sustainable food systems. 

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In the lush green countryside of the Willamette Valley near the town of Aurora, a dairy dating back to the early 1900s is going through a decidedly 21st-century multimillion-dollar revamp. Workers are installing a robotic milking machine in which cows, grazing on pasture nearby, will be trained to enter of their own free will.

A large glass screen separates the dairy from a viewing area where members of the public will be able to watch cows being milked. Robotic milking is proven to be more beneficial to cows’ health. A glass bottling factory is planned on site. And then there is the pièce de résistance: A cheesemaking facility is under construction in the same building. The public will be able to watch how cheese is made and take classes on the craft.

The new and improved Rock Ridge dairy is the brainchild of Chuck Eggert, an agricultural and food-business entrepreneur, who co-founded Pacific Foods in 1987. Eggert sold Pacific Foods — which specializes in organic soups, broths and nondairy milks — to Campbell Soup Company in 2017 in a deal worth $700 million. He is now onto his next new venture, an ambitious project to create and nurture small-scale organic food brands, build partnerships with family-owned farms, and educate the public about sustainable food systems and nutrition.

JEK 1321Hundreds of books on agriculture line the shelves of Eggert’s office in Tualatin. Photo: Jason E. Kaplan

E ggert’s passion for traditional, pre-industrial farming techniques is on display at his head office in Tualatin. Lining the walls of his office are bookshelves containing hundreds of old volumes on farming, mostly dating from the 1860s to the 1920s. “I have read pretty much every one,” he says.

He is particularly proud of an early edition of Samuel William Johnson’s How Crops Feed, a treatise on the role soil plays in providing nutrition to agricultural plants. Johnson, born in 1830 in Kingsboro, N.Y., was an early proponent of education in agricultural science and bringing science to the aid of U.S. farmers through the creation of agricultural experiment stations.

A food scientist by training — and an admitted introvert — Eggert likes to perform his own experiments in food production. He preferred to work in the background on product development at Pacific Foods — a company he helmed for 30 years — while colleagues ran the operations.

When it was founded, Pacific Foods was a pioneer in the natural-foods sector. Organic foods were just starting to gain traction at the time. Growing 20% a year for almost 30 years, Eggert realized the business had expanded to a point where he felt it wasn’t a sustainable model anymore. “It was super capital intense,” he says.

Eggert, 70, credits his wife for pushing him to the next stage of his career at a time of life when many people consider retirement. “My wife basically said, ‘You might have 10 years left. Are you going to do the projects you want to do or are you going to keep running this mammoth?’”

Campbell Soup’s interest in Pacific Foods gave Eggert the chance to completely divest ownership. In the two years since the sale, the projects he is working on, which form an assortment of brands under the Wild Rose Foods company name, are coming to fruition.

He already owned some of the brands when he ran Pacific Foods, such as three dairies in the Willamette Valley and Dayton Natural Meats, an organic meat processor. He bought the dairies and meat processor because it was difficult to find organic dairy products and meat for the products developed at Pacific Foods. He also founded Aurora Valley Poultry, which raises organic free-range chickens in the Willamette Valley, in 2009.

Since the sale to Campbell Soup, Eggert has expanded his portfolio of small food brands. Among recent acquisitions and creations are Gwendolyn’s Organic Eggs, a brand he launched in 2019; artisan cheesemaker Willamette Valley Cheese, which he bought in 2018 and which recently gained organic certification; and Dundee Fruit Company, a maker of jams and teas, also acquired in 2018.

Dairy farming is a big part of Eggert’s portfolio. Most of the 2,000 acres of farmland he owns in the Willamette Valley is used to support dairy farming. His approach is to have all production vertically integrated: His workers grow 90% of the feed for the cows, making their own silage by growing grass, alfalfa and corn. “The only things we buy are flax meal and vitamin mixes” for the cows to feed on, he says.

JEK 3283Dairy cows at one of Eggert’s dairies in the Willamette Valley.  Photo: Jason E. Kaplan

Though he strives for self-sufficiency, his broader aim by renovating and expanding his dairies is to build capacity so smaller dairies that struggle to compete with larger producers can sell their products to him and stay in business.

“Most dairies in Oregon have people running them in their 60s and 70s. That is just not sustainable. Every time you lose a dairy, it goes to a factory farm,” says Eggert. “Our goal is to create enough demand to save some of the family farms.”

The Rock Ridge robotic dairy will mean only two staff will be required to operate it — a necessity, he says, given the difficulty of finding experienced dairy farmers these days. Rapid consolidation in the sector has resulted in medium and small dairies disappearing in Oregon. The state has about 200 dairies today, down from several times that number 60 years ago. Dairy farmers have been squeezed by tight margins that make it uneconomical to produce small amounts of milk because of the way distribution favors large producers.

The robotic dairy is designed to milk 200 cows once operational. He also owns another dairy near Aurora and a third near Millersburg, which is semi-robotic. In total, Eggert’s three dairies produce 8,500 gallons of milk a day. He sells to the Organic Valley milk brand, but over time Eggert wants to use all the milk his business produces and buys from other dairies to create value-added products, such as cheeses.

Eggert sees partnerships with small dairies as key to their survival. “We like the concept of co-ops,” says Eggert, citing the examples of cooperative dairies in Denmark, a common model there. In the European country, every six to seven dairies in a co-op has a farmer partner who grows corn and grass silage to feed the dairy cows, leaving the rest of the farmers to focus solely on milk production. Eggert’s own approach to dairy farming follows a similar structure.

“One of the issues with family farms is that they are trying to buy feed, mix feed and take care of calves. We have a group that handles all the manure; we have a group that handles all the calves, so that the guys at the dairies are focused on the health of the cows.”

JEK 3252Chuck Eggert stands with his dog, Buddy, and curious herd of cows at one of his dairies near Aurora

One of his bold experiments is his foray into the grocery store sector. Eggert’s Basics Market grocery store concept creates an avenue for him to bring farm products to market, which supports his own brands as well as those from small, family-owned farms.

The origin of the grocery store model came from Eggert’s philanthropic involvement with the Faubion School in Northeast Portland while he was CEO of Pacific Foods. Most of the school children qualify for Portland Public Schools’ free-lunch program, and teachers found the children were going hungry while they were not in school.

Kevin Matheny, interim president of Concordia University Foundation, recalls discussing the problem with Eggert, whom he met several years previously when he worked at the Providence Child Center, an organization that supports medically fragile children. Eggert was a volunteer at the time. Concordia University-Portland used to be located next to the Faubion School and now shares a building.

Eggert had the idea of giving Faubion kids free organic, protein-rich foods to take home each holiday break. At first, the school had a table stocked with donated Pacific Foods products in its hallways. After the school was rebuilt thanks to a bond measure passing, Concordia University-Portland, which contributed $15.5 million to the school renovation, moved in. Kaiser Permanente and Trillium Family Services also moved in to provide wraparound services for the kids in a partnership with Concordia known as 3 to PhD

Eggert started a small grocery store in the school — the original Basics store — to improve families’ access to groceries at affordable prices. The school still provides free food donated by Eggert to children on Fridays before they go home for the weekend.

The food-assistance program at Faubion is unique in the U.S. Matheny credits Eggert’s philanthropy for removing hunger at the school, a barrier to childhood education. “He cares deeply about kids and families,” says Matheny. “It is one of the most generous and wonderful things I have seen anyone do.”

Eggert hadn’t planned to establish a series of grocery stores after the Faubion School initiative. Then Dick Clark, CEO of the Portland Clinic, got in touch.

In 2018 the clinic opened a new health care center on Northeast 50th Avenue and Sandy Boulevard in Portland’s Hollywood District. The clinic occupied 20,000 square feet of the 32,000-square-foot building. Clark thought of partnering with Eggert to fill the rest of the space. He had been impressed with the food entrepreneur’s generosity at Faubion and wondered if he could team up on a health-related partnership at the new location.

“I wanted to make sure we had a neighbor that was synergistic with us,” says Clark. “I felt something good could be done for the community at the new location.”

Eggert came up with the idea of expanding the grocery store concept started at Faubion. The first Basics Market store opened in August 2018, downstairs from the Portland Clinic. The store builds on the concept of providing seasonal and organic food at affordable prices, but it also has an element of educating the consumer about health and nutrition.

Eggert’s Vertical Enterprise

The Basics stores each stock about 4,000 items. (On average, large supermarkets sell about 50,000 items). Produce, such as fruits and vegetables, is seasonal.

It supports local farmers by sourcing products from farms that prioritize sustainable farming practices, such as soil health and animal welfare. Some of the food is sourced from Eggert’s own brands, while it also stocks food from well-known producers.

“We try to say, ‘What are the 30 things a month people buy?’ And then, ‘How do we make them affordable?’”says Eggert.

Some of the prices are cheaper than in other grocery outlets because the products are sold directly from the farm, doing away with traditional distribution channels that increase the price for the consumer.

The stores cut down on packaging, which also tends to increase consumer prices. This summer, Basics started to offer milk in glass bottles instead of cartons under a new brand created by the Eggert family of companies, called Lulubelle’s.

About one-third of the site is dedicated to classroom teaching. A portion of the free classes provide health coaching, such as living with diabetes and cancer. The Portland Clinic has integrated the classes into its own programming by recommending them to patients.

Eggert’s team hired nutritionists to teach the classes, including an educator with a Ph.D. in prenatal care to provide nutritional advice to pregnant low-income mothers. Another third of the classes provide instruction on cooking skills. The rest teach how to cook a particular menu item.

Clark is pleased with the results so far. A survey of patients who took part in nutrition classes over eight weeks reported large increases in health and wellness. “It is creating a complete ecosystem of wellness and nutrition,” says Clark.

A second Basics Market store is planned to open in Portland’s Pearl District this fall. Other locations are planned in Tualatin and Beaverton. Like the inaugural store in the Hollywood District, the rest of the supermarkets will be affiliated with health care providers.

The grocery store concept is also designed with a young workforce in mind. Employees work four days a week in 10-hour shifts. Stores are closed on Sundays to give staff time off. “One of our regrets at Pacific Foods is that we worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is hard on young families. We asked ourselves, ‘What is the best environment we can create to attract workers?’”

This kind of thinking impacts the work environment at the company’s Tualatin headquarters. At Pacific Foods, the mission of the company was to be the most respected brand. Eggert’s new venture has a mission statement anchored more in the realm of corporate social responsibility. The main part of the new mission statement reads: “We are conscious of our impact on others.”

The statement was inspired by Charles Handy, an Irish business guru who has written extensively on how businesses can go beyond the sole pursuit of profit. Every two weeks, the company holds a meeting that any staffer can attend. The meeting — called “Deep Thoughts” after a “Saturday Night Live” comedy skit — is where staffers can get anything they want to say off their chest.

“We try to create an environment where there isn’t a hierarchy. Every other week, people can come here and talk until they get tired of talking about whatever is on their mind,” says Eggert.

A nother ambitious project is Eggert’s move into Eastern Oregon, where his acquisition and refurbishment of an old sawmill in Harney County builds on his desire to revitalize the rural agricultural economy.

In March this year, Eggert bought an abandoned sawmill in Hines, which first opened in 1930. In the 1960s, it was one of the largest pine mills in the world, yielding more than 134 million board-feet of lumber. Like many sawmills, it shut down several years ago as the timber sector went into decline.

Eggert, who owns 6,300 nearby acres of alfalfa, has led a conversion of the 220,000-square-foot facility so that it can process alfalfa into pellets to feed his own livestock under the Silver Sage Farms brand. Local alfalfa farmers will also be able to sell their products to the business. When fully operational, it will employ 18 people.

mill kimMooreJerry Staley, manager of the pellet mill in Hines, shows the pelletizer machine.

The facility is also outfitted with state-of-the-art technology to process timber waste logs into wood pellets that can be used for animal bedding and heating. A machine for drying the wood products will be powered entirely by biomass. Invasive western juniper, which is a pest in the eastern part of the state because the thirsty tree depletes groundwater, will be used as fuel to power the facility, creating an avenue for local foresters to sell wood products.

The Silver Sage mill is designed to be adaptable and operational year-round: Alfalfa will be harvested in the summer and wood pellets made in the winter so workers can receive a year-round, living wage.

Like the dairies in Aurora, Eggert’s Hines property will be open to the public, a rarity in farming. “We try to look at everything as an opportunity to educate people,” says Eggert.

Local economic development officals welcome the investment in the Hines mill. “It demonstrates that you have to be flexible and innovative. This project reflects that,” says Greg Smith, director of Harney County Economic Development. “For those communities that no longer have timber, there is hope for them. This creates family-wage jobs.”

Brad Hunter, senior business lender at Craft3, which is financing the $22 million project, says the initiative fits with its mission of supporting projects that drive rural agricultural and clean-tech development. Hunter points out that organic alfalfa growers in Eastern Oregon struggle to sell their product because local distribution infrastructure supports larger producers.

“His whole focus is creating a local food system. That is really hard to do. There are a lot of challenges,” says Hunter. “If he can be an additional outlet for organic alfalfa, that is strengthening the system.”

Eggert shows a genuine desire to protect the land from nonagricultural development as we drive through parts of the Willamette Valley where he owns fields for making silage and organic feed for his livestock.

“None of this will be developed in my lifetime,” he says. “I want it to be passed on to generations.”

Ultimately, the food entrepreneur says he is not that concerned about the businesses not making money in the short term. His long-term view is shaped by his desire to leave behind a legacy for “doing something constructive with farmland.”

“Part of the reason we are financing these things is to show that you can do these things and make money,” says Eggert.

Without a concerted effort to help support small farmers, Eggert predicts there will be a crisis in food production as small agricultural producers are squeezed off the land. Farmland in the Willamette Valley is too expensive for many midsize farmers to own. This has resulted in farmers renting land and growing crops that lack diversity.

“You cannot justify paying for land from what you make on it. That is why you see a lot of hazelnuts put in: they are low maintenance, they don’t take a lot of people to grow. We are heading for a food crisis if we don’t find ways to get higher-value things to the farm,” says Eggert.

With approximately 180 employees, Eggert’s company is growing quickly, but he maintains that his new venture will remain rooted in supporting small-scale, local farmers and not getting so big that innovation becomes stifled.

“People who got involved in natural foods were activists. But they got too successful. We want to show that you can have nutritious local foods that are not Unilever.”

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