A passionate steward of the environment, Gunther Fishgold had many childhood experiences that connected him to the natural world.
By Jeff Simms (Recycled from May/June 2018, Edition 25)
Photographed by Karen Pearson
Gunther Fishgold is living proof of the incredible power of the natural world—not just as a place to center oneself when life gets hectic, or as an outlet for exercise and well-being, but a deeper, more eternal power. An influence on our psyches insofar as the people we become.
Now 48 and the father of two, Gunther parlayed a childhood interest in the outdoors into an education in natural living and, ultimately, a hugely successful organic foods company. But here’s the thing: he’s a passionate steward of the environment who’s refused to lose sight of where he came from along the way. He has recognized that wealth isn’t everything, and he’s given much of it away—to the people who work with him and to the community in which he lives.
Corporate responsibility? Not exactly. It’s more like a lifelong sense of ethics he learned from the outdoors.
“My parents were ’60s hippies,” says Fishgold, who grew up split between Long Island and the Hudson Valley. Both locales impacted him as a boy, whether it was gardening in an urban environment or hiking and camping throughout New York State. “My family was more about core values and less about the dollar, and that stayed with me as I went into the business world.”
After dabbling briefly in political lobbying, Fishgold, then 23, purchased a 25-acre farm in the Finger Lakes in 1993 and began growing organic lettuce and other greens. As an entrepreneur, he’s always been market-driven, and baby salad mixes were a hit in the market at the time. The region’s climate lends itself to growing microgreens almost year-round, and bagged salads became the core product for the small but emerging farm.
Fishgold was growing for a 165-member community supported agriculture organization, but he found it tough to retain staff during the Finger Lakes’ harsh winters.
“I thought it would be a good idea to start a bakery as well, and an offspring out of that was granola. Then I saw the market opportunity to start roasting almonds,” he says.
He began selling roasted nuts at the farm—named Tierra, the Spanish word for Earth—and to markets and grocery stores in central New York. As the operation expanded, Tierra moved to Albany and then, after a three-year stint there, Fishgold relocated to Columbia County, the farm’s permanent home, in 2004.
It was there, says Tierra CEO Todd Kletter, that the business really began to evolve, reaching greater heights than ever before.
“We were running Tierra as a community business; we didn’t even always have specific working hours,” Kletter says. “Around 2015, we realized that we really needed to start treating this like a more traditional business, but it was critically important to Gunther that he didn’t lose sight of where he came from.”
Remember the phrase ‘think globally but act locally’? Now headquartered in the 1,800-person village of Valatie, Fishgold realized that Tierra had a chance to truly make a difference in its own community. By now expanded to include sales of coffee, chocolate, dried fruits and dozens of varieties of nuts, all of it organic, the company made sure it was selling only Fair Trade products that had been grown and produced in an environmentally sensible way.
But on top of that, Tierra now had a growing stable of employees, nearly all of whom lived within 10 minutes of the farm.
“Even though we could make more money as an organization, we start all our employees at $15 an hour—right now, minimum wage in New York State is $9.70, and you could probably count on your fingers the number of those jobs that come with the benefits Tierra does—with health care and a home-cooked, organic meal every day,” Kletter says. “When we had 10 employees, it was easy to do. Now with more than 60 [on staff], we have a full-time cook to provide lunch every day.”
The expense for employee meals is about $100,000 each year. Health care is a quarter-million. Those are huge numbers for Columbia County, or anywhere else.
But, “the business has never been about chasing money,” says Fishgold. “We have 65 employees here that need to make a living.”
The key to the whole company, he continues, is sustainability. From the products Tierra grows (lettuce and salad greens are still a specialty; the on-site farm provides food for the staff) to the snacks it sells (all still organic; all still sustainably sourced), the company goes to great lengths to minimize its impact on the environment and is committed to fair business practices.
The reason? Because corporate responsibility and sustainability are buzzwords? No; sometimes the simplest answers are the best ones. Because it’s the right thing to do.
“Gunther is true to his core,” says Kletter, who has worked for Tierra since 2016. “He wants to make enough money to be successful, but enough is enough. He doesn’t like the idea of squeezing people for a profit.”
Last year, the company gave away more than $50,000 in charitable donations to the Humane Society, local hospitals and programs like D.A.R.E. The Family Resource Center of Columbia County had to call Tierra to make sure the $20,000 donation it received, unsolicited, wasn’t a mistake.
Tierra also purchased the historic Madison Theater, a neighborhood institution in Albany, in 2014 (and later spun it off into its own holding and operating company), when it was in danger of being shut down. “Here’s this awesome block in Albany,” says Kletter, “and it’s going to just sit there and get boarded up.” The theater remained open until the end of 2017, showing classic and current films and serving organic popcorn. It closed at the end of the year for long-overdue renovations but will remain a vital part of the community’s infrastructure when it reopens. Again, Fishgold just felt it was the right thing to do.
Meanwhile, Tierra continues to thrive locally and through mail order. Each year, the company exceeds $2 million in sales in Vermont alone, while doing another $1.5 million in the Hudson Valley and Capital regions of New York. It ships more than 10,000 pounds of products—using the most environmentally friendly packaging it can find—all over the country every day. Two years ago, a Tierra store also opened in Denver to meet the growing demand in the western part of the country.
When asked to describe the roots of it all, Fishgold talks about a farm his parents rented when he was a child in Fonda, NY, at the foot of the Adirondacks.
“There was an incredible pond there,” he says, “and I spent a lot of time as a kid in a canoe in that pond, being out in the natural world and really immersing myself in the outdoors.”
Those childhood experiences framed nearly the entire world for Fishgold, and to this day he credits that farm with its pond, a micro-ecosystem of its own, with teaching him about natural resources and the role each living being plays in the diverse but intricately connected natural world.
“When you pollute the earth, eventually—one way or another—it’s going to make its way into the water,” and that, he says, is the most valuable resource on the planet.
It’s why Tierra has always been an organic farm, dating back to the single 50-foot row of lettuce in Cayuga County, and the company has forgone profit to ensure that they treat the earth, and their employees, with the respect they deserve.
“If you’re able to grow food quickly with chemical fertilizers, all that impact on the environment is the true cost of food,” Fishgold says. “At a certain point, when does it stop? But the growth of organic farming, from a fringe movement to something that’s now more front and center in our society, that’s a big change in the world.
“Just as important to us as making money is our footprint,” he continues. “We want to make a big footprint as far as our values and have a small footprint as far as our environmental impact.”
Because it’s the right thing to do.
For more information, visit www.tierrafarm.com. █