The California rice producer has helped establish the first standards for regenerative rice and set a goal for its entire crop to be ROC by 2027.
With four generations of roots in California rice farming, Lundberg Family Farms has a reputation as environmental stewards in its portion of the Sacramento Valley, near Chico.
Lundberg was an early adopter of organic farming and now counts roughly 75 percent of its total crop as USDA-certified organic. The brand is one of the more easily recognizable names in rice available on the shelves of natural food stores across the country.
Given Lundberg’s size and scale, its announcement of the first US-grown Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) rice heading to stores next month rings in a significant milestone for an agricultural category that up to this point had no defined standards.
“We see regenerative as an ‘also’ on top of ‘organic’, not an ‘and’,” Lundberg Family Farms chief growth officer Suzanne Sengelmann told Sustainable Brands® (SB).
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The single-SKU launch of a White Basmati rice in 32oz bags appears to be more than just another rice on the shelf — it’s the signal of an expansion of a solid regenerative standard into a new agricultural space.
“The Lundbergs were always lifting and pushing with the Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA),” says ROA executive director Elizabeth Whitlow, whose organization oversees the Regenerative Organic certification.
According to Whitlow, five new “regenerative” certifications were founded in the last year alone — on top of those already in use in consumer products. However, Regenerative Organic Certified earned its trademark in the US last year, more recently in Europe and “soon” in Japan — meaning that it has verifiable merit as one of the leading regenerative standards in a space that has almost no governmental oversight or regulation.
The launch of the White Basmati ROC product is only the first step for Lundberg, which also announced plans to have its entire organic crop RO-certified by 2027.
Collaboration for creation
The realization of the first US-grown ROC rice happened because of a collaboration between Lundberg, the ROA and Whole Foods Market — where the product is set to go on sale next month.
“Whole Foods has been a tremendous partner in this movement,” Whitlow says.
According to a Whole Foods rep, the grocer requires "third-party certification or substantive information about soil health to back up regenerative claims. If a supplier does not have a certification, they are asked to complete Whole Foods' Soil Health Survey to demonstrate that their agriculture practices are actually improving soil health and, therefore, regenerative."
Whole Foods currently accepts ROC, along with the Savory Institute's Ecological Outcome Verification (EOV) or Regenified as standards. The goal is to provide some continuity on the shelf in choice and education when consumers are looking for regenerative products.
“The environment has always been a key stakeholder for Whole Foods Market, and we know regenerative agriculture practices are increasingly important to our customers,” says Whole Foods’ executive leader of grocery, AnaMaria Friede. “Regenerative Organic Alliance is one of the certifying bodies Whole Foods Market regularly engages with on this important agriculture movement.”
Although Whole Foods declined to discuss details of the collaboration, both Sengelmann and Bryce Lundberg say that getting this product to market with the labeling and information control required for a regenerative product would not have happened without the grocery giant’s help. White Basmati also happens to be one of Lundberg Family Farms’ biggest sellers.
“(This product) was born with Whole Foods,” Lundberg adds.
Refining the standard
The collaborative conversation began about a year-and-a-half ago, when Bryce reached out to his cousin, Grant — who is on the Board of the Rodale Institute — who made the Lundberg team aware of the ROA. However, Lundberg Family Farms didn't formally engage with the ROA until the company was approached by Whole Foods and recommended ROC as an option. Bryce says Lundberg Family Farms was somewhat concerned about the existing ROC agricultural standards, as they were more rigid than the company wanted to work with based on what it takes to grow rice.
“The standards were being put together by farmers, environmentalists and consumer advocates; but the ROA didn’t have any rice producers,” Bryce tells SB. “We started talking with them about joining, and their pillars of soil improvement, animal welfare and fair trade/caring for farmers and team members. It came down to soil improvement, as our farm systems are different in rice.”
As Bryce explains it, rice is an aquatic product with heavy soils supported by hardpan ground material three feet below the surface. Since rice requires so much water to thrive (as much as five acre feet/acre), it’s considered a much more demanding crop and one that’s unique in US agriculture. After much discussion, Lundberg Family Farms saw a clear path to Regenerative Organic Certified rice and began the process of formalizing a permanent standard for rice with the ROA.
Since Lundberg Family Farms has such a high percentage of certified organic rice, the company has an easier pathway to ROC — which requires organic certification as a baseline. Sengelmann expects that, because of this high operating organic standard, transitioning that portion of the crop to ROC is more of a formality based on the certification process and should keep the company on track with its 2027 goal.
“We’re close to 50 percent of our product capable of meeting ROC, and we’ll make a big dent in our goal in 2024 with the 2023 crop,” Sengelmann says.
Bryce Lundberg says the initial volume of the ROC product equals about 1,500 acres (out of a total of 15,000 acres farmed last year). The company isolated four kinds of rice out of the 17 it grew; and ultimately, decided on the basmati variety to take to market. For 2023, he expects the ROC rice crop to grow to over 4,000 acres.
“(Because of certain requirements), we have a lot of ROC rice that won’t make it into an ROC bag,” he adds.