NY Nut Butter Producer Sticks Close to Its Sources

2/9/2013 7:00 AM
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant New York Correspondent

Some food processors, especially those in specialty or organic niches, maintain a close connection with their food sources.

But Once Again Nut Butter in Nunda, N.Y., has taken that philosophy the extra mile, not only staying close to its sources but also founding some of its source farms.

The company started several international and domestic farms and helped shape organic peanut farming regulations in order to obtain the raw products it wanted.

Now selling 59 varieties of natural and organic honeys and nut and seed butters (peanut, almond, cashew and sesame) around the world, Once Again Nut Butter was founded in 1976. At the time, husband and wife Jeremy Thaler and Connie Potter were operating a bakery, when a local museum requested old-fashioned peanut butter.

That started Thaler and Potter on the path to crafting natural and organic sandwich fillers. They had already started several co-ops, including Clear Eye Distribution in Rochester. Therefore, they were “once again” opening another business. The couple had existing relationships with many retail stores, which provided the infrastructure for marketing their products. The company distributes its products in natural food stores and through co-ops.

For one of these products, organic peanut butter, the couple wanted to find certified organic peanuts and, in the process, helped establish the current industry certification standards.

All of Once Again’s items are certified by Oregon Tilth, an Oregon-based nonprofit research and education organization that provides organic certification services to organic growers, processors and handlers internationally, according to its website.

As the Once Again company grew, the couple wanted to make sesame butter, also called tahini, but domestic sources did not yield the quality they wanted.

“Sesame seeds don’t grow well in the U.S.,” said Gael Orr, spokesman for the company. “The best tasting in the world is from Nicaragua. We’ve purchased seeds in the past from other countries and it doesn’t have the same taste.”

After observing the poverty in Nicaragua, the couple helped found Jubilee House, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization whose mission is to generate fair-wage employment opportunities in the country so its people can provide for their families.

The couple even built a house in Nicaragua and made it their full-time residence for a few years. One facet of Jubilee House has been helping establish 11 sesame growing co-ops from which Once Again purchases seeds.

“When we started working with Jubilee House, the country was more impoverished than Haiti,” Orr said. “We’ve helped them create jobs. Jeremy and Connie are very passionate about addressing poverty there.”

The co-ops represent 2,000 farms in Nicaragua. Jubilee House has helped the farmers in Nicaragua learn about crop rotation. The farms rotate peanuts, cotton and sesame. The farms sell to Once Again and other companies, as they are not under obligation to sell only to Once Again.

The company also supports other fair-trade initiatives, such as importing organic honey from Brazil, and works with thousands of farms in Argentina.

Domestically, Once Again is trying to generate interest among organic farmers to grow sunflowers in New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio for organic sunflower seed butter.

“They can grow in this area and we want to get them locally,” Orr said.

The natural honey, under the name Once Again Dawes Hill Honey, is all locally produced. Once again has worked with some of the beekeepers for more than 20 years. Some farms sell their entire crop to Once Again. The farms range from small hobby farms to larger production operations.

Thaler and Potter have retired. Once Again’s 40 employees own the company, which is led by an employee-elected board of five. Three of these are employee/owners.

Staying in close contact with their sources is important for Once Again to remain aligned to its founders’ vision for the company’s culture and philosophy. The company motto is “We spread integrity.”

The company’s general management doesn’t make more than 3.5 times the income of the janitor. The company also offers profit sharing among employees.

“There are people who have more education or skills that they bring to the table, but there’s a check and balance so people are taken care of,” Orr said.

For example, the company pays 100 percent of employee medical benefits.

The company’s ethics extend to suppliers, too.

“We can ensure everyone in the supply chain is receiving a fair and living wage,” Orr said. “We talk directly to the farmer and negotiate what we’ll pay for the crops directly to the farm. We hire people to harvest and import it.”

She added that since many food companies purchase from the food processors, the processors rake in the lion’s share of the profit while the farmers receive pittance for their crops.

Staying close to its sources also can help Once Again maintain its supply chain. Last year’s worldwide organic peanut shortage didn’t put a dent in Once Again’s production because the company worked with its farms to ensure an adequate supply.

“We have an open dialogue with the farms so we are the only organic peanut producer that didn’t have a shortage,” Orr said.

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