Helge Hellberg

At the Helm of Marin Organic

He’s an anomaly. A non-punctual, somewhat impulsive German and a successful musician-turned-environmentalist who’s now at the helm of Marin Organic, an association of farmers and ranchers advocating for small-scale and sustainable agriculture. Hellberg and his crew have made impressive strides in just four years, an achievement brought to the world’s notice three years ago with the royal visit by Prince Charles and Camilla. “The publicity generated $30 million in comparable advertisement value of print articles and news stories promoting West Marin and local agriculture around the world,” Hellberg says. “For a week, it was all about where food comes from and who grows it and a sane, artisanal approach to food production. Because of their visit, we are now working (on these issues) with communities far beyond our county line.”

The buzz traveled as far as a hair salon in India, where Hellberg’s mother spotted a magazine cover picturing him touring the Point Reyes Farmers’ Market with the prince. “She was ecstatic,” he says, “and got her hair cut for free. Those are the perks you get when you work for a great nonprofit.”

We talked with Hellberg at Fish restaurant in Sausalito, where he sat with Timber, the black Belgian shepherd he adopted from the Marin Humane Society.

Your background was not in farming. How did you end up in the organic food movement? I fell into the organic movement by default, or rather fate. I was a musician, traveling 200 days a year—an unplanned dream had come true and I could live my passion. Only problem was my entire identity was wrapped up with my band, so while it was amazing to play in front of 3,000 people and have the audience sing along with every song, it was the most unsustainable lifestyle I could have chosen for myself. I hadn’t found myself, had no spiritual practice, had not grown my own roots. After 10 years, it was time for a change, so I quit my band and relocated to the Bay Area. I needed a break from the music business and with a degree in marketing and communications, I ended up working for Wild Oats Markets as their Northern California marketing manager. Quite a change from being a musician. So I understood the basic premises of organic agriculture and of course it seemed smart to avoid pesticides as much as I possibly could. I wanted to learn more, and I also always liked the people I met at health food stores; there was a lot of passion and knowledge in regard to nutrition and healthy living in general.

Were you an environmentalist in Germany? Not in the classic sense as “environmentalism” is perceived nowadays. Yes, I demonstrated against nuclear power in my teens, and since I grew up spending a lot of time on a sailboat, nature was a huge part of my life. In regard to food, in Germany, as in all of Europe, the organic movement is different than it is in the states. Here it comes from an ecological movement, originating from the ’70s and the oil crisis and back-to-the-land movement, with a strong grassroots social justice and equality connotation. In Europe, concern for food origin has been driven mainly by calamities such as Chernobyl—we were advised to not eat dairy or mushrooms for a couple of years—and then mad cow disease, which has kept us wary of our beef and meat sources. Just as bad was when they found antifreeze in wine, historically a staple of German culture.

It became very important to know where your food was coming from and who grew it and what exactly was in it. Eating healthier in Germany means basically the same as in the United States:  to eat “bio” foods, locally raised, and what we call organic.

Back to Chernobyl: what do you mean by “couldn’t eat dairy for years”? I think the reality of Chernobyl was never fully reported in the U.S. A nuclear power plant blew up and we (Germany) were just a couple thousand miles away. We had reports of cesium-137 levels in our rainfall every day in the news, you weren’t suppose to go outside in the rain for a few months, and we were asked not to eat locally made dairy products or mushrooms, among other foods.

I was surprised to learn that not many people in the United States knew all that much about it. Chernobyl had at a minimum 20 times the radioactive equivalent of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it had a huge impact on me personally. It still has an impact on the people living there. Deformations in children and all kinds of cancers are very common. It’s worth Googling the topic and taking in what 99 percent safety of nuclear power can mean. We have to create solutions that keep all beings safe, 100 percent.

The interesting thing is that 20 years later, while people are still suffering intensely in that part of the Ukraine, some reports state that wildlife has come back to the area around the reactor and it is now a habitat for endangered species such as wolf, bear and bald eagle. Truth is that animals have a different radiologic tolerance than humans, which again shows the intelligence of nature: there is infinite wisdom in the web of life and all its interconnectedness, and we humans often don’t understand or accept this. We have some ways to go, but luckily, through the great work that is being done, this awareness is changing and expanding. I feel blessed to be part of Marin Organic, which does its share of the work that is so urgently needed. Through food awareness we are actually changing people’s awareness of ecology and ultimately how people relate to their internal and external environment. That’s when true healing begins.

Local or organic? What is the best choice for the planet? Neither is sufficient. You might have pesticides or genetically engineered crops closer to your home, making “local” without any other commitment not enough. And “organic” could mean a couple thousand acres of one crop shipped in from halfway around the globe. So don’t get me wrong: we are lucky to have organic standards that actually define how things can and cannot be grown, but the true answer is our food, as much as possible, has to be local and organic. We as the food supply must go even beyond organic to address the environmental, cultural, social and economic challenges we face as a society. In Marin we are creating a model where on fairly small acreage a farmer can survive and be economically viable, where we protect riparian habitat through Marin Organic’s Salmon Safe Program to ensure the salmon is coming back, and where we offer healthy food to 12,000 students a week through our School Lunch and Gleaning Program. In addition to our events and educational efforts, we are bringing community together at the Point Reyes Farmers’ Market.

However, nationwide we are losing more than 400 farms a week. According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, this amounts to over 2 million farms lost in the past four decades. And it’s not only the farms and rural communities that are lost, but in most cases—because somebody thinks we need yet another shopping mall—the topsoil is plowed over and that’s really what it’s all about: topsoil.

I’ve read about it for the past 10 years and I understood it intellectually, but it took a while for me to fully get it and have it become an experience. With the loss of topsoil we are virtually losing our future. We depend on those few inches of rich, healthy organic soil for our food, feed and fiber. But it even goes beyond that, as we are now learning that soil is the key to reversing global warming. There is only a finite amount of carbon on the planet—it’s either in the ocean, in the atmosphere, in the soil or in life forms such as humans. Because of excessive plowing since the mid-1900s we have released too much carbon into the atmosphere, and we know that stopping all greenhouse emissions today would not be enough to reverse global warming. We must pull additional carbon out of the atmosphere and store, or sequester, it back into our soils.

So the phrase “ashes to ashes” provides a key to our future? Yes, we do not just depend on our soil, we are our soil. Ashes to ashes, from carbon back to carbon. A group of dedicated soil scientists and ranchers in West Marin under the name Marin Carbon Project are now researching which land management methods would be the most successful in sequestering carbon back into our soils.

First, a baseline of carbon is defined throughout different soil types, and then will be remeasured every few months. We are hopeful that practices such as management-intensive grazing will prove successful. The thought is that grass responds to being cut with intensified growth, and this new growth takes carbon from the atmosphere and puts it into the soil. So all of a sudden that grass-fed burger is looking pretty darn good. While industrial livestock feedlots have been a significant contributor to global warming, properly managed and “carbon-focused” herding could be the solution. Excellent stewardship of our soil is the key to addressing global warming, and the key to our survival. The answer is right in front of us, or rather under our feet. Again, it’s about creative problem solving, and connecting the dots more wisely than we perhaps have in the past. 

Despite being a community of farmers who could be adversely affected by the light brown apple moth, Marin Organic was opposed to the spraying. Why? Marin Organic was the first agricultural organization in the state that opposed the aerial spraying of urban areas until all environmental and public health concerns were addressed. Unfortunately, though, it’s not that simple, and stopping the spraying does not make the pest go away. And if the apple moth will not cause any economic damage to our farms, we already know that the next pest is just around the corner. There are hundreds of invasive pests on the federal watch list that would enjoy California’s climate, and it’s only a matter of time until they will get here. We have reduced border controls of crop and nursery stock inspections and at the same time have opened up our markets for international trade—a perfect scenario for pests to travel and enter our state.

We have to work on solutions, on how to manage any pest properly and responsibly. Marin Organic stands for local, small-scale, organic agriculture—the healthiest way to produce food. And our producer members are constantly trying to strengthen the ecological balance they are living and working within.

Of course, that’s the goal: ecological balance, where pests are largely managed by natural predators, and the farmer merely stimulates and supports the beneficial forces at work. Throughout the U.S., agriculture is far from this model and it will take a few years to return to it. So as a community, while we were successful in stopping the spraying, we need to be bigger than the challenge and understand that it will take a systems change. It will take working with our local, state and federal government, working on solutions, going to meetings, over and over again.

Fighting the system is one way, but I believe there is enough fighting going on already on this planet and conflict is not a wise use of resources. We have to stand firm on what we believe in and need to engage with every level of public policy and reclaim our responsibility and opportunity in this democracy.  Engagement, that’s Marin Organic’s way.
We need to realize that we are the government. Only half the population voted in the last presidential election, and even less [did so] locally. Our state election in June had a 22 percent turnout—22 percent!

We need to take full responsibility for having created the system we are now living within—which means we are also the ones who can change it. And change it we will. It’s very empowering when you see it this way. I am excited about the future. 

Taste of Marin, Marin Organic’s yearly fete/feast is not happening this year, why? Taste of Marin is a collaboration between Marin Organic and our partners Marin Agricultural Land Trust and Marin Farmers Markets. This year, we want to support Slow Food Nation, which is all about sustainable artisan food production, and in a way celebrating nationally in San Francisco what we have already created here in West Marin. Slow Food Nation is expecting 50,000 people for that Labor Day weekend at Fort Mason and I believe the event will change food awareness nationally taking author Michael Pollan’s (of The Omnivore’s Dilemma) message into the mainstream media; “Eat only food that your grandmother would recognize.” I hope things like equality and social justice will come into play as well.

We have some of the best food producers in the nation in Marin—award-winning cheeses, dairy, olive oil, varieties of meats, fruit, a great variety of gorgeous vegetables, seafood, and so much more—and we will incorporate this abundance as much as possible into Slow Food Nation. The weekend schedule is packed with educational events, film screenings, tastings and dinners where you can meet the farmers and ranchers and fisherman who actually produced and harvested this food. We will have a great opportunity to raise the awareness about real food, and to showcase our many programs and initiatives that Marin Organic, MALT, Marin Farmers Market, UC Cooperative Extension, the Marin County Farm Bureau and many other organizations are working on in Marin. We are also offering tours of organic operations in West Marin.

Last words?  We have an unprecedented opportunity here in Marin and we need everyone’s support in this work. We are creating a model of small-scale organic agriculture that works: it’s a win-win-win, for the farmer, the environment and the community. Sometimes people ask me why local food seems to be more expensive, and I explain to them that when you buy “locally” the price reflects the true costs of what it took to grow this food. In the supermarket, most items contain ingredients that are heavily subsidized by your tax dollar, such as high-fructose corn syrup, for example, so you paid for it already.

Then there are costs for cleaning up soil, air and water that industrialized production pollutes—usually paid for by our tax dollars again. So cheap food, or cheap anything, is an illusion. Someone else pays for the difference in price compared to the real costs of what it took to produce a product. Usually who pays for it is the laborer who gets pennies for his or her work, or the environment, or our health. There is no shortcut in production. Someone will pay for it.

If we can show the world how to successfully manage our land and the ocean sustainably, then we can truly invoke positive change. We have a choice—there are over 50 restaurants and businesses in Marin that are partners of Marin Organic on our website, committed to doing their share in this work. From restaurants to “green banking” with New Resource Bank, from Good Earth and other retail stores to Marin Solar, from Ode Magazine to EO body care products to Cavallo Point, the new lodge at Fort Baker—all these businesses are local and run with the same ideology and passion for the environment and for one another.

Take this restaurant as an example, Fish. The best seafood in Marin, and with every dollar spent here, literally with every bite, you are creating the future you want. Healthy, safe, fair and abundant. The opportunity to change the world is right on our plate. Isn’t that amazing? It’s all up to us.

To learn more about this topic:
Visit marinorganic.org, marincarbonproject.org and marinclimateinitiative.com.

Categories: People, Q&A