2000s Archive

Sunnyside Up

Originally Published July 2001
Entrepreneur David Cole is hatching ideas that may change the way organic farmers do business, reports Trish Hall. Is his Sunnyside Farm the next best thing?

David C. Cole doesn’t exactly fit the mellow stereotype of an organic farmer. It’s hard, when I first meet him, to accept that this high-intensity multimillionaire has been flourishing in the worlds of both high technology and free-range poultry. It’s equally difficult to believe that Cole, who could pass as a suburbanite out for a day’s antiquing, embodies the first major change to hit organic farming in two decades. Call it the greening of the organic movement. Greening with money, that is. Lots of it.

The time when “organic” meant “alternative” is fast disappearing in this country. With federal guidelines for use of the term now established, agribusiness companies are moving into the field. Cleaving to the letter of the law, they are intent on widening and taking over a market that has traditionally been the province of smaller farmers interested in reforming the very way agriculture is conducted.

Some people in the “organic community” consider Cole, the AOL mogul turned organic farmer, part of this effort to co-opt organics and to turn a movement into nothing more than a marketing tool. But it may just be that Cole represents the “third way.” A strange amalgam of venture capitalist and committed environmentalist, he doesn’t think big is bad. He believes that organic farming can go mainstream without abandoning its original principles. Or at least that’s what he says.

Cole talks the talk on organic food. He cares about biodiversity, and he knows the damage that monocropping does to the earth. He was on the board of the Nature Conservancy for more than a decade. He makes his breakfast omelets with organic eggs and soy cheese.

But in other important ways, Cole is nothing like the organic farmers who have been toiling away on small plots of land for the past few decades. For one, he is very rich, with money made in the communications and publishing businesses. When he wanted to become a farmer, he bought a family farm in Virginia and sank millions of dollars into rehabilitating it and planting hundreds of varieties of new fruits and vegetables.

Unlike many rich farmers, however, who have turned to the natural world after subduing the unnatural one, Cole is no hobbyist. He is a capitalist in the most conventional sense. He takes risks, he has capital to put behind his vision, and he is not sentimental: If something isn’t making money or isn’t efficient, he won’t keep it going.

So, after establishing his new farm, he wanted to acquire a vehicle for expansion into packaged organic goods. In 1999, he bought a majority interest in Walnut Acres, a venerable family business in Penns Creek, Pennsylvania, that was one of the nation’s best-known purveyors of organic foods.

In the beginning, there was talk of Cole’s company forming a partnership with the founding family, but that didn’t work out. Finding that the existing operation didn’t suit his needs, Cole bought the rest of the company a year later, then basically closed it, keeping only the brand name.

He shut the factory because it struck him as antiquated and too remote, and he threw out nearly all of the company’s 1,500 products (many of which were not organic). Now, the brand name, Walnut Acres, is the cornerstone for his new company, Acirca. The plan is to develop organic products for supermarket distribution, and to that end he has attracted venture capital.

Gutting Walnut Acres entailed laying off about 100 people, which had a big impact on a small town. None of the previous owners or top executives are allowed to talk about Cole; because of an agreement they signed when he invested, they risk lawsuits if they say anything about what happened at the company. But in organic circles, Cole is known as a man who trashed a struggling but beloved company, a pioneer in the nation’s organic foods business.

“It is something people are talking about inside the industry,” says Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association. “It puts him a little on the outside. He has not engaged himself.”

Cole is the kind of guy who makes your head spin because of the apparent contradictions in his worldview. He talks about wanting to create jobs for indigenous people in their native spheres, and yet he put people out of work in a small rural town with few other industries. He talks about wanting to create a vital center for organic farming at his farm in Virginia, and yet his actions led to the destruction of just such a place in Penns Creek. And his entire foray into the world of organic farming began because he was a vegetarian who had just had his first taste of beef in more than ten years.

Cole had been invited to the annual dinner given by The Herbfarm restaurant, outside of Seattle. One course was Kobe beef. Tempted by the smell, he took a bite and was immediately smitten with its flavor and texture. He also recognized an unexploited market niche. That night, he swore he would develop this Japanese delicacy for the American consumer.

The production of specialty meat might seem as out of place in the organic movement as venture capital, but the decision to produce Kobe beef was a catalyst for Cole’s 1995 purchase of Sunnyside Farm, a 425-acre property in Washington, Virginia, a village in the Blue Ridge Mountains that is known mainly for its fine restaurant, The Inn at Little Washington. Cole added 125 acres to the farm, installed his eldest son, Bill, also a former AOL executive, as the day-to-day manager, and began growing organic produce on a grand scale, as well as raising a 700-head herd of beef cattle. Although everything Sunnyside produces is important, it may be Cole’s beef that sets him apart from the competition.

People say, ‘I hear you’re doing a lot of secret things over there,’ and I say, ‘I’m not allowed to tell you,’” Cole says, laughing at his trickster side. Dressed in jeans and a windbreaker, he is showing me around the hilly terrain of Sunnyside Farm, which, when he purchased it, was a distressed landscape, its soil depleted of nutrients by chemicals and monocultural practices.

He re-created the farm and got organic certification in just three years, a very expensive proposition. He removed thousands of old, sick trees and in their place put in new plants. He developed an irrigation system of ponds, wells, and water capture channels. Currently, the farm sells eggs, pork, beef, 50 varieties of tomatoes, 12 of eggplants, 25 of sweet peppers, 20 of hot peppers, 17 of potatoes, and 20 of lettuce, along with apples, pears, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries, many of them heirloom varieties. And it continues to expand; last year, 5,000 peach and cherry trees were planted. The farm’s produce is sold at its market in the village and the farmers market at Dupont Circle, in Washington, D.C., as well as to restaurants and to some Fresh Fields stores.

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