Nell Newman: “Late Bloomer” to Organic Ecopreneur
By anyone’s reckoning, Nell Newman is a successful ecopreneur. She heads Newman’s Own Organics: The Second Generation, her original spin-off from her father’s Newman’s Own brand. In Part 1 of our interview, Newman told about the life experiences that fostered her dedication to environmentalism and sustainability. In Part 2, she speaks about her nontraditional educational path, her work on environmental projects, and the business of organic food production. We invite you to get to know more about this remarkable human ecologist and wonderfully human being.
BPGL: How did you decide to become a human ecologist?
NEWMAN: I was a high school dropout. Mom and Dad went cross-country a lot, and I went to so many schools. By the time I was about fifteen, I was so far behind (everybody let me slide; it was terrible) that I finally just got frustrated and quit. Then I worked at a peregrine release site.
I finally started trying to find someplace to go back to school when I was about 19. I took courses at University of Bridgeport, Sacred Heart University, Fairfield University. I really didn’t like any of them. Mainly, I didn’t like the teachers. I had one wonderful teacher at Bridgeport University, who was probably in his late 70s, maybe even early 80s. He invented the electric blanket. He taught a beginning chemistry course, Chemistry and You or Chemistry and the Environment. I think his name was Dr. Greenhalls. He was a fantastic professor.
It’s just interesting, when you’re trying to find someplace. You go to different schools. And they have great reputations. But their beginning biology teacher just graduated, and they’re boring. I was very disillusioned. I would sleep through the lectures. And I thought, What’s wrong with me? This is the thing I found so fascinating when I was a kid! Then I realized it wasn’t me. I had a lame professor. She was new, and she was really boring.
Finally, I discovered College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. I went back to college when I was 25 and graduated from there. I was a late bloomer.
BPGL: Did you get a GED?
NEWMAN: I got three-quarters of a GED. Somebody asked me, “Where’d you graduate high school?” But I couldn’t lie. When I was at College of the Atlantic, the teacher-student ratio was very high. It was the perfect place for me, because I could get all of the help I needed to catch up and be a functioning student after being out of school for so long. I had wonderful teachers, and that’s really what kept me going — having the attention that I needed when I finally went back to school. It was unintimidating, because it was small. And their only degree was human ecology.
BPGL: So, what is human ecology?
NEWMAN: It basically means that whatever area of interest you’re looking at — architecture, etc. — that you’re looking at the environmental and human effect as seen through the eyes of … an architect, for example. It takes into account, How is what you’re doing affecting the environment, if you’re an architect? Even then, when I was there, it was loosely defined. I basically focused on anatomy and biology.
BPGL: What was your next stop?
NEWMAN: When I graduated and got a degree, I worked at the Environmental Defense Environmental Defense Fund. I went from Maine to Connecticut, then moved to New York. That lasted about a year. I loved my job, but couldn’t handle the city. I tried commuting, and then I tried living in New York. I loved working for the Environmental Defense Fund. I put together the database for their recycling campaign, all the recyclers in 50 states — which, 15 years ago, was not a lot; and in some states there were none. But New York City was just too much for me. I moved there for February, March, April — but being surrounded by cement and trying to do that rat race of the commute was too much culture shock.
BPGL: What did you do when you went to California?
NEWMAN: When I moved out here, I got a job working for the Ventana Wilderness Sanctuary, which was in the process of trying to re-establish a population of bald eagles on the central coast of California, where they once had been. I worked at a release site for young bald eagles up in the Big Sur forest. It’s what they call a hack site. That’s an old falconry technique for releasing young birds.
We would go collect them from Vancouver Island, bring them back over. We’d put them in the box to be acclimated. They could see outside and see where they were and get acclimated to their new area. Then, when they were able to fly, we’d release them and track them until they were able to feed on their own.
BPGL: Was it a successful venture?
NEWMAN: It was, except they didn’t nest in that area as much as we would have liked, because there are not as many dead whales or seals on the beaches anymore. A lot of the traditional food sources are dragged away. I think it’s probably one of the difficulties in that area. And probably they were also feeding on salmon, and there were fewer salmon areas up and down the coast. I think it was mainly a limit of food source.
They ended up going inland to Lake Nacimiento and feeding on the fish that were in that lake, because there wasn’t enough of a food source out in the ocean. The road kill would probably have been good, but [highway workers] tend to pick them up. They don’t leave them now for birds of prey to eat.
The birds are still around, but they didn’t end up utilizing the coast the way we wanted them to. Now they’ve been doing condor releases there, but I think last year, the hack site burned up in the fire. I was just down there, and you can see the fire came right down to Route 1.
BPGL: So now you’re in another kind of environmental work, making and selling organic food products. One of the quotes attributed to you is, “My niche will be to support the growth of organic agriculture.” Besides selling your products, is there anything else you’re doing to promote organic agriculture?
NEWMAN: What I meant by that quote is by utilizing certified organic ingredients, we were supporting the growth of sustainable agriculture. By utilizing these ingredients, we’re growing the percentage of organic agriculture in the United States today, which is unbelievably small when you look at the big numbers.
BPGL: Tell us a little bit about your certification process. Why did you choose Oregon Tilth as the certifying agency?
NEWMAN: When we started, it was under the Organic Food Act of 1990. We came in before any standards were actually implemented, but they had been passed. The reason we picked Oregon Tilth is they were the only independent, third-party certification agency that would certify a processing plant. Everybody else was just concerned with farm processing. Now, of course, it’s standard procedure.
I went with Steve Harper, who was the certifier, when they certified the pretzel plant that was making our pretzels for us. I just wanted to learn what things they’re looking for. What they’re really looking for is maintaining the integrity of your organic ingredients, that there isn’t any opportunity for cross-contamination in the factory, or confusing bags. They have to be stored separately, they have to be labeled as such. There has to be a complete clean-down before anything’s run through the machinery, and there’s very careful tracking from the farm all the way through the process. So that’s what they do in a plant certification.
That’s pretty much standard practice now. It’s certainly growing pains in terms of the growth of the industry and the government regulating it.
BPGL: So the farm must be certified organic, and the processing plant must be certified organic. What else?
NEWMAN: The main point is that you’re maintaining your organic integrity the whole way through the process. Every step of the way, there’s a certification process. The farmer’s certified, the transportation is certified, the processing of the grain is certified. There is a tremendous amount of integrity all the way through the process of manufacturing an organic food product.
The trucks have to be cleaned out before grain is put in them. They have to think about the processing of the grain before it gets to the plant. They really do go to a lot of effort trying to maintain the integrity of that product as it goes through the process.
BPGL: How big a staff do you have? If you can’t trust regulation, somebody has to be involved in product guidance.
NEWMAN: We have a food technologist, who travels to all the plants. She checks on all of that at each plant. She goes there for the runs of products so that she gets to see. She gets products sent to her house from every run and has to go through it and check, and make sure it’s the same size and same color for things that she’s keeping an eye on. There’s somebody in the office that does tracking of ingredients, etc. But you really do depend on collecting your paperwork from Oregon Tilth, because that’s why they’re the independent third party. Our food technologist does the review of products.
BPGL: I wanted to ask you about the cacao used to make your chocolate products. You’re quoted as saying that it’s grown in an ancient way.
NEWMAN: If I’m not mistaken, all organic cacao is shade grown. The way it grows now is the way it’s always grown, which is in the jungle. Because it’s shade grown, it preserves the forests. That allows migrant species of birds to continue to exist there and works within the natural ecosystem.
We just reformulated chocolate. It’s such a difficult thing to make, and you’re so dependent on who’s making it and the quality of your manufacturer as well as your beans. There are so many elements. This new chocolate’s really lovely.
BPGL: We tasted the caramel chocolates, and they were delicious.
NEWMAN: Those are the kinds of things I don’t keep around. Actually, my new favorite, which I don’t keep around either, is the peanut butter sandwich creams. I had one bag in the house, and I was taking it apart and double sandwiching them. And I said, “I can’t even have these in the house!” There’s not a lot of things I can’t have around, but that was one of them. [Laughs.]
Part 1: Fishing with Nell
Part 2: Nell Newman: “Late Bloomer” to Organic Ecopreneur (Top of Page)
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