Brown Goes Green

When organic finally makes more business sense


Idaho dodged a bullet. While much of the nation was scrambled in fear over half a billion bad eggs, Idahoans ho-hummed in passing interest. The Gem State was one of only a handful of states where the contaminated eggs had not been distributed.

On the morning of Aug. 20, it was learned that there were more contaminated eggs in the United States than there were people. Matt, Meredith, George and all the TV morning newsboys and girls looked into the camera that morning and screamed, "Shell shocked! How safe is your breakfast? How could this have happened?" The short answer is simple: because a cheap and easy system of production and delivery allowed it. The longer answer isn't any prettier. Mega-farms cram 150,000 hens into a single barn, which means six or seven to a cage about the size of an open newspaper, allowing infections to spread quickly.

Compare that to an organic egg farm, where birds have ample room to move around and are fed flaxseed meal, which increases vitamin A and omega-3 acids. But the fact remains that according to a national study in this week's Time, a dozen grade-A large organic eggs are still 70 to 80 cents more a dozen compared to the "conventional" variety found in our supermarkets.

Simply put, healthy eating costs more. Re-engineering production, distribution, convenience and consumer taste is as challenging as turning an ocean liner around. And you'll find no more unlikely a captain than Rachel Brown, a soft-spoken Idahoan who has some impressive shipmates: Idaho's Small Business Development Center, Boise State and the City of Boise are all aboard as Brown steers into uncharted waters.

"We think we've got a pretty good opportunity to take Rachel's vibrant business and help take it to the next level," said Rick Vycital, SBDC's regional director. "Their company will be one of our first tenants at the Greenhouse."

The Greenhouse is the City of Boise and SBDC's new incubator, specifically engineered to help create and/or sustain green businesses (BW, News,"Boise's Greenhouse is Ready to Open," Aug. 18, 2010).

"We'll have quite a team to back Rachel up," said Vycital. "They'll have a Boise State business strategy and marketing class working for her, and we'll even have a team of interns that will do special projects like financial modeling."

But for all the economics that may drive growth, it is Brown's personal story that is so engaging.

"I was living what most of us would consider a conventional life," said Brown. "My husband and I ate pretty standard food purchased from the local supermarket. We thought very little about where it came from. I assumed, as many people do, that the bright and shiny exterior of the produce was nutritious and safe. I struggled with my health in my 20s, and I chalked it up to bad genes. Many of the people I worked with had equal health difficulties that they dealt with daily. We were all treating our symptoms with medications and failing to question how we might help the problems behind the suffering."

Brown's infectious smile widened.

"We met a family that was, in all honesty, the opposite of us. They lived on a farm and asked if we'd like to visit. We looked at their farm like a bit of a vacation compared to our office jobs. They'd send us home with big boxes of food they had grown. I took a few cooking classes to find new ways of preparation, and it quickly became a passion. Naturally we started purchasing produce from them."

It was six months later, when Brown had a checkup and her doctor was a bit puzzled.

"He asked what I'd been doing differently," laughed Brown. "He asked if I was less stressed at work. Was I taking different medicine? No. The only thing different was our diet."

The Browns moved from the Seattle area to Redding, Calif. They began visiting certified organic farms and decided to create a business delivering produce to the homes of city dwellers. Brown did all the deliveries herself with her newborn son in tow.

In the summer of 2006, the Browns moved to the Treasure Valley. It wasn't long before Brown was visiting Idaho's certified organic farms. Within a month, she and her husband started Brown Box Organics. They soon had 40 to 50 customers. But in spite of its local nature, home delivery of groceries is still uncommon to Idahoans.

"Even Albertsons spent tons of money on a home-delivery concept in Idaho and they failed," said Vycital.

"It's interesting to note that many of our customers have moved to Idaho from other parts of the country where home delivery was more common," said Brown. "Native Idahoans tell us that before they sign up for our deliveries, they want to come meet us and our farmers, so we're ready to take that to the next level, too."

So, this month while the best of Idaho's bounty is expected to be harvested, Brown Box Organics will move into downtown Boise's Greenhouse and at the same time it will swing open the doors to its first storefront, at Boise's 36th Street Garden Center.

The weekly deliveries will include dozens of types of local produce, chicken, meat, dairy and, yes, eggs.

"Who knows?" asks Brown. "Maybe this problem with eggs will be the light that goes off in people's heads. I'm hearing more and more safety experts saying we simply need to eat more locally."

If they do, it will be Brown Box's windfall. They're banking on it. And the City of Boise and the SBDC is betting on it, as well.