Organic award winners: Inspired and inspiring

Organic Farmer of the Year Benny McLean of Uncle Matt’s Organic says it makes him feel good to see his 12 grandkids work in the soil and learn how healthy food is grown. Growing the Organic Industry recipient Tom Harding of Lehigh Valley Organic Growers says after 30 years advocating for organic, he still feels like he’s just beginning the trek for organic. And Rising Star winner Michael Berger of Elevation Burger says his commitment to advancing organic and selling healthy fast food to American consumers has never been stronger.

These well-deserved winners of the OTA’s 2015 Leadership Awards brought an enthusiastic crowd to its feet more than once at OTA’s annual awards dinner Sept. 16 at the Port Discovery Children’s Museum in Baltimore as a kick-off event to Natural Products Expo East.

William “Benny” McLean converted his citrus operation to organic farming in 1999, growing such organic citrus varieties as Pummelos, red grapefruit, Valencias, red navels, and honey tangerines. He was the first certified organic citrus grower in Uncle Matt’s Organic farm plan, and operates as its production manager.

He is responsible for converting close to 1,500 acres of citrus in Florida to organic, and has assisted other growers—including avocado, blueberry, blackberry and peach growers in Florida—to convert to organic. He has also been actively involved in research to find a cure to citrus greening through grants to Uncle Matt’s and with his own resources. McLean is often sought out to share his knowledge on pesticide usage, nutrient density and organic methodology. 

Tom Harding has been involved with the organic industry for over 35 years, working directly with or as a consultant in business development, farm management, farming, and food distribution. He helped found the Organic Foods Production Association of North America (OTA’s precursor) and went on to become the founding president of the OTA Board. 

A tireless worker for the organic industry, he continues to be active in furthering organic’s role in D.C., with advocacy efforts on the Hill and development of OTA’s Organic Political Action Committee (PAC). He has been a constant monitoring force concerning standards and related regulations for organic, including the work of the National Organic Standards Board, U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Organic Program, and Congress. 

Michael A. Berger, Founding Partner & VP Supply Chain of Elevation Burger, has led the rapid growth of Elevation Burger and its popular organic offerings to America’s fast-food lovers, first starting with organic grass-fed beef, and later expanding to include organic chicken and organic bacon.

Under Berger’s leadership in establishing the Elevation Burger restaurant group, the chain has grown its organic beef supply program into the largest such program for any restaurant group in the United States and one of the largest organic beef programs of any U.S. retailer or end user. The company historically has partnered with farmers and ranchers to sponsor certification of their herds to grow their supply. He was recently named to The Organic Center’s Board of Trustees and Food Tank’s Board of Directors.

Introducing Harding, Senator Jon Tester of Montana said that converting to organic farming in the late 1980s enabled him to keep his grandfather’s farm: “I am certain that without organic agriculture, and without the [organic] methods to help us be sustainable from a financial and agricultural standpoint, we wouldn’t be on that land today.” 

Anne Alonzo, USDA’s Administrator for the Agricultural Marketing Service, said in her introduction of McLean that “it has been a landmark year for the organic sector,” with booming growth in consumer demand for organic, the completion of an important organic trade understanding with Switzerland, and more recognition of organic among policy officials and lawmakers in Washington.  //