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Recognition: Robert Lichtenberg, an organic pioneer retires after a long California career

By
Tim Linden

Born in Brooklyn but educated in the fine art and science of organics in California, veteran organic grower and salesman Robert Lichtenberg retired from San Francisco’s Earl’s Organic Produce in mid-December. He had spent 24 years with that well-known wholesaler, located on The SF Market, retiring as director of purchasing.

During his lengthy career, he split his time evenly between organic farming and wholesaling, following the rebirth of organic farming in the 1970s to its significant growth in the 21st Century.

Lichtenberg grew up in New York in the 1950s in the borough of Brooklyn. While it might seem like a big jump from the crowded streets of New York to farming in a small community in the foothills of the San Joaquin Valley, it was a natural progression for this New Yorker.

Rob Lichtenberg with Jim Durst of Durst Organic Growers in Esparto, CA.
Rob Lichtenberg with Jim Durst of Durst Organic Growers
in Esparto, CA.

“I was born with a green thumb,” he said. “I knew how to do cuttings when I was 6 years old. I wasn’t great with people, but I knew how to grow plants. I always did.”

After high school, Lichtenberg attended SUNY Binghamton, but did not stay there long. He moved to Santa Barbara, CA, selling house plants from his own shop as well as offering landscaping and gardening services. Eventually, he became involved in a project in the area teaching people how to farm so they could teach others. The mission of the program was to send these farmer/teachers to South America and Mexico to help rural farmers improve their farming using a technique called fresh market gardening, which utilizes a raised bed approach to achieve enhanced yields in small spaces.

Ultimately, Lichtenberg took that learning to the Sierra Foothills in Central California. He grew crops for a spiritual community, gaining a lot of knowledge about organic farming. He stayed there for about a decade before moving to Bolinas, CA, which was a small counterculture community about 30 miles north of San Francisco. The area was at the forefront of California’s organic farming movement. Lichtenberg went to work for Star Route Farms, which lays claim to being the first certified organic farm in California. Organic farming pioneer Warren Weber started the farm in 1974. He was very involved in writing California’s first organic farming standards.

“I wanted to find the largest organic farm that I could so I could learn more,” Lichtenberg said.

Rob Lichtenberg is flanked by Rogelio Ponce Jr. and Stephen Ponce, third-generation Watsonville, CA, strawberry growers who produce organics under the Driscoll’s label.
Rob Lichtenberg is flanked by Rogelio Ponce Jr. and Stephen
Ponce, third-generation Watsonville, CA, strawberry growers who
produce organics under the Driscoll’s label.

He worked at that farm for a dozen years. The company had operations in both Bolinas and California’s Coachella Valley. His first few years of his employment there aligned with the packaged salad revolution. Star Route grew many specialty lettuce varieties among its organic crops and had a great following among Northern California food stores, especially natural food stores, higher-end independent grocers and cutting-edge restaurants.

In 1997, Lichtenberg transitioned from grower to wholesaler when he joined Earl’s Organic Produce. “My years as a grower were very helpful,” he said. “I have a natural affinity for growers. Farming is the hardest job in the world.”

He has been a daily participant in the growth of the organic produce sector for close to five decades. Over the course of his career, Lichtenberg said the organic produce industry has gone through three major changes. “Initially we were focused on ‘how do you grow a crop organically?’” he said, noting that the art of farming without synthetic pesticides had waned over the years. “The last time (prior to the 1970s) there was much organic production was pre-World War II.”

The last couple of decades, as production increased and farming expertise matured, Lichtenberg said the focus was on “developing and building markets.” The growth in market share and distribution has been phenomenal with virtually every retail chain in the country now offering a significant number of organic produce and year over year sales almost always in double digits.

Lichtenberg said the third phase is now upon the industry. “How do we make this work and make it profitable for growers?” he wondered.

Rob Lichtenberg with Alex Madrigal and family of Covilli Brand Organics, based in Nogales, AZ, with production in Mexico.
Rob Lichtenberg with Alex Madrigal and family of Covilli Brand
Organics, based in Nogales, AZ, with production in Mexico.

Today, Lichtenberg sees a far different grower community than the one he joined in the mid-1970s. “The best organic carrot grower is also the best conventional grower. The best organic garlic grower is also the best conventional grower,” he said, adding that many growers are producing both organic and conventional crops.

While Lichtenberg sees that as a good thing for long term growth, he still wants to see organic production be a special thing. “I don’t want to see the organic standards watered down,” he said.  “But the dream is to make organics accessible to everyone and you can’t do that without the big growers getting involved.”

He also has an opinion about hydroponic techniques, and whether that technique should qualify for organic certification. His roots as an organic farmer seem to inform his viewpoint. “I don’t see how you can take soil and soil life out of the equation. It is such an instrumental part of growing the product.”

At the same time, he marveled at some of the farms he has visited and their use of hydroponics and technology to produce good, healthy food. Lichtenberg wants to see the grower make money, but he also wants to see organic produce sold at a reasonable price that allows everyone the opportunity to buy it. It is a balancing act.

He said that his success and that of Earl’s Organics is that the needs of the grower were always at the forefront. “We never forgot the grower,” he said. “I believe getting out and visiting growers and seeing the product in the field is very important. I visited farms every chance I could.”

Upon his retirement, the 67-yer-old Lichtenberg expressed no grand plan for his future. He loves gardening and has what he calls a “very big garden in rural/suburban West Marin (County in California). I have lots of cactus and succulents and Japanese maple trees.”

Articulating a produce man’s challenge, Lichtenberg did reveal that he wants to learn how to sleep later. His first retirement stop was Europe. Lichtenberg is married with a stepson and two grandchildren living in London, which is where he spent his first weeks of retirement.

He also noted that in retirement, he is going to be the best organic consumer there is. “Call me when you want to get the consumer’s perspective on organic produce,” said Lichtenberg.

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