Gary Bascou comes from a family of French bakers. When his father immigrated to America, he continued baking bread but wanted his son to get an education. Gary studied anthropology, but during his time at the London Film School his interest in recording ethnic change (and travelling the world) was sparked. When his father died, the ‘spirit for baking’ passed onto Gary, who found himself wanting to continue the family tradition and make nourishing, peasant-style bread as a healthy alternative to the poor national ‘diet’ of Wonderbread.
With the help of his business partner, Richard Josephson, they opened a small bakery in 1969 called ‘Staff of Life’ (a biblical reference to wheat, a staple food and the main ingredient in bread) in Santa Cruz, California: the heart of the American organic revolution. Wanting to ensure the best quality raw materials, Gary sought out old wheat farming families in the Mid West who were still practising traditional agricultural methods that were pesticide free and healthy for both individuals and the planet. Essentially, the principles of what is now considered organic farming.
Gary’s ethics were evident at work and at home: he formed a small, communal agricultural land conservation called ‘Happy Valley Farm’ with 19 other members – and this is where he and his family still live today. It was 235 acres of land with 80 acres of fruit trees which was zoned as an Agricultural Reserve. While the initial focus was on bread, a mere four years later they had what Gary terms “a half way decent sized market”. Gary did his own baking and distributing and then began selling pears from the farm – until agricultural inspectors deemed the fruits inedible because of their blemishes.
An Organic Battle
The University of Santa Cruz began a non profit of Californian Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) in 1973 and Happy Valley Farm was one of its founding members. Battling against the California Fruit Trees Association which deemed any fruit with blemishes ‘not edible’, Gary had to go in front of a commission in Sacramento to prove that ‘organic’ was a definition, another grade of produce. His partner’s attorney collaborated with the CCOF to help get the ruling passed: eventually the Pear Commission agreed to allow a minor amount of russet (a ‘natural’ blemish) and the Organic Food Act of 1979 was passed, finally giving a recognised definition to the term organic produce.
Organic = Big Business
As more individuals are educated, care about what they are eating and are aware of the impact food production and pesticides have on environment, they become increasingly sensitive consumers. To the risks posed by Monsanto and GMO, they are willing to pay premium for organic foods as it is cheaper than the long term medical costs of treating associated illnesses. Gary notes that there’s a strong client base of young mothers who are committed to feeding their children more ‘natural’ & intrinsically wholesome foods. Organic products and stores are proving profitable for corporate America: the WholeFoods chain (which began long after Staff of Life) now has over 200 stores the US and even COSTCO (massive food wholesaler) stocks organic options to meet the growing demand.
Staff of Life partners, Gary Bascou & Richard Josephson (image courtesy Silicon Valley Business Journal)
Looking to the Future
Staff of Life is still run like a family business: they focus on offering the best possible products and run a tight ship with regular meetings around the dinner table, analysing monthly cash flows and profit and loss statements. Where many of the other natural food stores are now out of business as organic becomes increasingly ‘big business’ forcing ‘old timers’ to sell out to corporate, Staff of Life has prospered and expanded. Buying and supporting local is also very important to the company. Their current premises house a 24 square ft market in addition to the bakery with a massive outside awning, fresh juice and coffee bar providing the community with a place to meet and engage. In February, Gary’s son Jason (a qualified lawyer and natural foodie who loves cooking) joined the Staff of Life team, starting at the bottom to learn the business – full of ideas and enthusiasm.
Things on Happy Valley Farm are changing too: the orchards are being phased out to make way for vineyards. Because of its climate & cold ocean mist, Santa Cruz is an ideal Pinot Noir growing area – much like the Hemel en Aarde Valley and our Overberg Highlands. Gary plans to sell organic grapes at Staff of Life and try his hand at making wine. Which is essentially how he came to meet Bruce Jack: an American wine broker told him The Drift Farm’s There Are Still Mysteries was the best Pinot Noir in South Africa. When he and his wife Peggy visited SA earlier this year, they made a point of confirming this – and found that they had much in common with Bruce.
We look forward to sampling their Pinot!
(Organic Revolution graphic courtesy Natural Mantra)