Farm Tank Interview with Clover President & CEO Marcus Benedetti

From by Daniel Stein
Farm Tank Interview with Clover President & CEO Marcus Benedetti

Food Tank is convening leaders from the food system in Sacramento, California this week for the Inaugural Farm Tank summit. Food Tank had the opportunity to talk with one of our speakers, Marcus Benedetti, President and CEO of Clover, a Petaluma, CA-based dairy company.

Food Tank (FT): How does Clover do business differently to further your company’s sustainability efforts?

Marcus Benedetti (MB): At Clover, we’re proud of the path we’ve paved for our business and for the dairy industry. In 1994, Clover Stornetta Farms became the first dairy processor to elevate milk from a commodity to a specialty food by establishing the North Coast Excellence Certified (NCEC) program. NCEC standards are the most rigorous in the dairy industry, far surpassing those of the state and federal governments.

Our dairy families and Clover govern the NCEC program. Among its tasks are defining sustainable agriculture and identifying a new requirement the dairies are to meet each year in order to enhance sustainable agriculture practices and continue participating in the program. Clover pays our NCEC dairy producers a premium to produce milk to meet these rigorous standards.

NCEC milk comes from small family-owned dairies in Sonoma and Marin Counties that follow sustainable agriculture practices and tend small herds on spacious ranches, where the cows are well treated and healthy. These dairy families have signed contracts, including affidavits and indemnification clauses, with us guaranteeing they do not use the controversial synthetic growth hormone, rBST. Each dairy is also visited at least once a year and judged on its appearance and ranch maintenance practices.

Clover also helped write the program standards, which include the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare:

○   Freedom from hunger and thirst

○   Freedom from discomfort

○   Freedom from pain, injury or disease

○   Freedom from fear and distress

○   Freedom to express normal behaviors

(FT): What initiatives have you launched recently, or are planning to launch?

(MB): We recenlty announced that we have committed to convert our fluid conventional milk to be Non-GMO Project Verified. Clover has always dared to be different to benefit its consumers. And we are proud to announce its next major milestone to continue those traditions--elevating the brand to a new level of excellence. In the next two years, Clover’s fluid conventional milk products will be Non-GMO Project Verified with our first non-GMO conventional milk product hitting shelves in the first quarter of  2017.

We’ve always taken an innovative approach to the dairy business through driving industry progress, building trust with consumers, and setting our own high standards. Our focus on non-GMO reaffirms our commitment to invest in the future of our dairy cows, family farms, and communities. Our hope is to lead the way by creating an industry-wide movement towards more non-GMO feed options for our dairy cows. We look forward to working closely with our dairy partners to make this goal a reality.

(FT): What drives you and your company to push for sustainability?

(MB): Clover’s founder and my grandfather Gene M. Benedetti was a World War II veteran who lived through the invasion of Normandy on D-day, and returned home to Petaluma, CA to found Clover Stornetta Farms. He became a pillar of his community, known for his generosity to those less fortunate. My father Dan Benedetti succeeded him as President in 1986. Both my grandfather and father believed in building a strong network of sustainable family dairy farms that stood for quality, integrity and family. We strive to live up to the high standards of excellence, that they both established all those many years ago, in everything we do at Clover. We believe that being a sustainable business is the only way to do business, and we’ve done just that for three generations.

(FT): What is the biggest food related issue facing our planet right now? How is your company working to solve that problem?

(MB): Although there is an overabundance of food options for American consumers, there is still a lack of quality options and alternatives that consumers can trust. With the recent acquisitions of many food companies, we are facing a world in which big agriculture is pushing on the American consumer. At Clover, we want to be able to look ourselves in the mirror and feel good about the products we are delivering. Consumer trust is paramount and Clover always puts quality and integrity first.

(FT): Do you have any enlightening stories to share of collaboration between your business and other businesses or organizations that have changed your business practices?

(MB): Working with our family farms and the American Humane Association (AHA) has been one of our most significant partnerships to date. When we started working with the AHA they had not created the animal welfare standards for dairy cows. We worked together, along with our dairy families, to help create the standards. These informative discussions in the living rooms of our dairy families led to the AHA creating the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare program standards. These animal welfare program standards set the benchmark for standards that the AHA still uses today.

(FT): What changes would you like to see from the U.S. government to support sustainability in the food system?

(MB): With the Farm Bill, there are immeasurable resources steered towards traditional agriculture that support the status quo. Not enough resources are given to organic and non-GMO agriculture, and we need more representation in that area to create more viable alternatives to the current food system.

(FT): What was a turning point in your company and why?

(MB): Building our own set of high standards with the NCEC program sets us apart from other dairy companies. We continue to set the bar high and hold ourselves and our dairy farms accountable to the consumer, so they can trust in the brand that they bring home to their families.

(FT): What three things do you want your customers to know about your company?

We have built our company on quality, integrity and family, and we stand by our sustainable dairy practices and the products we deliver to the consumer. They are some of the cleanest milk products on the market. And since we’re family-owned and operated, we treat our family farms as integral to the business. Non-GMO is our next investment in the future that reaffirms our commitment to our dairy cows, family farms, and communities.