The Crunch: The story of Lundberg Family Farms begins with the Depression-era exodus of Albert Lundberg and his family from the Dust Bowl of Nebraska to northern California’s fertile Sacramento Valley. It was there that Albert started a rice farm. Mindful of the poor management practices that had impelled his family’s move, Albert taught his four sons to respect the soil that sustained them. “We’re here to leave the land better than we found it,” he would tell his family. From those modest beginnings, a different kind of farm business grew — one that, four generations later, continues to treat the soil, air, and water as precious resources worthy of respect. As a pioneer in sustainability and a leader in growing organic, healthy rice products, Lundberg Family Farms is working to usher in a healthier tomorrow for the environment, family farmers, and the brand’s loyal customers.
As one of the farmers supplying product to the rice co-ops in California’s Sacramento Valley in the late 1960s, the Lundberg family had a reputation for going its own way. Patriarch Albert Lundberg, who had moved his wife and four sons from Dust Bowl-ravaged Nebraska to Richvale in the heart of the valley in 1937, had long resisted the trend toward chemical farming in favor of natural land management techniques.
In those years, the fertile Sacramento Valley was also becoming a kind of nexus of 1960s counterculture — the back-to-the-land movement. Outsiders were moving there to escape the fast pace of city life and live closer to the earth.
A few of those newcomers operated a business that adhered to a macrobiotic lifestyle that was popular at the time. Based on the tenets of Zen Buddhism, macrobiotics eschewed chemicals and overprocessing in favor of a predominantly vegetarian diet based on locally sourced whole foods.
In search of chemical-free brown rice, a macrobiotic staple, the newcomers approached the Lundbergs — and the family’s journey into organic farming began.
In Nebraska, Albert had seen the consequences of poor farm management — depleted soil and lost dreams. As he built his rice operation in California, he vowed to do better by the land.
He brought his four sons into the business in the early 1950s, and together they refined techniques that allowed them to minimize the use of chemicals — cover-cropping, which protected the soil, and straw incorporation, which returned crop residues to the soil so they could break down and make organic matter.
“My grandfather came to California with a commitment to leave the land better than he found it,” said Jessica Lundberg, the daughter of Albert’s second son, Wendell Lundberg, and today the VP of Administration at Lundberg Family Farms. “He instilled in my dad and uncles the idea that the soil is a living organism and that we need to put something into it in order to get something back. And that has shaped the way we farm to this day.”
Growing Customer Connections from a Grassroots Milling Operation
In talking with their soon-to-be macrobiotic business partners, Albert and his sons discovered that going completely organic wouldn’t require much of a transition. In fact, they were already most of the way there.
“They realized that building an organic business fit their farming philosophy and how they wanted to raise food,” Jessica said. But to supply the macrobiotic business — and others like it that surely existed — they needed to differentiate their crop from the product they and their competitors sent to the co-ops and out to consumers as generic California rice.
“They couldn’t get the big mills to agree to mill their rice per order,” Jessica said. “So they decided they were going to have to do it themselves and built the smallest rice mill in California and got to work.”
The Lundbergs had become the first rice growers in the state to sell products under their own brand. But business was slow going at first.
“It started out as a very grassroots operation, milling on demand for just that one business,” Jessica said. “But soon enough they were able to mill most of their crop. Eventually they were selling to small grocery and natural food stores up and down the Pacific coast.”
Those were bulk sales — rice in 50- and 100-pound burlap sacks stenciled with the family brand. The next step in associating the Lundberg name with individual shoppers came with the late-1970s purchase of a packaging machine that allowed the company to sell 1- and 2-pound bags of rice to consumers.
“That was a big deal,” Jessica said. “Now we could tell our story on our packaging and enhance our connection with individual consumers — who could now connect this high-quality brown rice with a name and a brand, and decide it was something they wanted to buy again and again.”
Brand Innovation in a Vertically Integrated, Family-Owned Structure
Soon after addressing the needs of individual consumers, demand for Lundberg Family Farms rice outstripped what the Lundberg’s own land could supply. The company faced a defining moment.
“We had to decide whether we were going to buy more land or invest in the business and brand,” Jessica said. “We decided to invest in the business and partner with other families in our area who wanted to farm organically and sustainably. In addition to our own farm, we now work with about 38 families to produce the raw materials we need for our products.”
Those partnerships opened the door to further vertical integration of the business. Lundberg Family Farms began expanding into packaged goods categories including baking products, like rice syrup, snacks, like rice chips and rice cakes, and ready-made entrees and side dishes. “We’re somewhere around 250 distinct product units now,” Jessica said.
Today the operation extends far beyond organic brown rice — although that product continues to sell well. “In addition to farming, drying, storing, and milling rice, we do our processing, production, and sales and marketing,” Jessica said. The company also operates a field research and seed production operation alongside its robust product development team.
Meanwhile, Jessica, a third-generation Lundberg, exemplifies her family’s continued involvement in the business having served on the board of directors along with other family members.
Her cousin Grant is the company’s CEO. And through a family employment policy that Jessica spearheaded in her role as VP, fourth- and even fifth-generation Lundbergs are learning ways to channel their passions to further grow their vertically organized organic farm and food business.
Leadership in Healthier Food Options and Industry Advocacy
When Jessica was growing up, she would go with her parents and extended family to food shows where she helped showcase Lundberg Family Farms products to retailers and consumers. As a child, she said, she took the lasting connections the brand was building with its customers for granted.
“As I grew up, I realized that other farmers and other brands don’t necessarily have those connections, and that many consumers don’t know where their food comes from,” she said. In college Jessica had planned on entering medicine, but, as she learned more about the business, she came to see it as a way to make an even greater impact on people’s health than she could even as a doctor.
“Food is health, and we have a unique role in delivering healthy food options to people,” she said. “The connections we have with our customers are special, and very important.”
And, as the food marketplace catches up with Lundberg Family Farms’ heritage of sustainability and organic production of healthy foods, those connections are growing broader. The company now cultivates quinoa and produces quinoa-based products, and has begun experimenting with heirloom beans. And, to meet the need many consumers have for convenience, Lundberg Family Farms has introduced a line of healthy, ready-made frozen entrees.
Lundberg Family Farms continues to lead the industry it pioneered, working to see the passage of a federal organic labeling law and promoting non-GMO labeling standards. “We’re in a position to have a major voice in connecting people to their food and where it comes from, Jessica said. “Our work helps people make smart food choices.”
Jessica is confident her grandfather, who passed away in 1970, would approve of where the company’s at today. “Consumers are more engaged today than ever before,” Jessica said. “And we’re asking questions too. I like to think my grandfather would be proud of how far the company — and its customers — have come.”