(Editor’s note: This story appeared originally in the Ruralite magazine. Reprinting here because it tells of an interesting business operating out of the limelight but making significant strides. It’s hiring, too, as recent ads in local papers attest.)
DUFUR — Not many farmers here can point to the day they got fired by Bob’s Red Mill as the day they got fired up to start what 30 years later has become a national distributor of organic foods generating annual sales of around $50 million.
Dave Stelzer, chief executive of Azure Standard, smiles when he thinks about the company’s crisis point, when his family’s farm was forced in the mid-1980s to shift emphasis from growing to marketing and distributing.
His family and its 160 employees still produce 180 different products from 1,000 acres of dry land and 3,000 acres of cultivated soil — some of it their own, some of it leased — stretching from the home farm 9 miles east of Dufur to irrigated land along the John Day River.
They harvest a mix of grains, orchard crops like cherries, peaches, apricots, apples and pears, and row crops including potatoes, onions and squash. A greenhouse produces tomatoes, squashes, peppers and, yes, bananas.
But most of what they sell, they buy from other growers.
“Sales has outgrown production,” Stelzer says, noting that his own emphasis leans these days to the marketing side. “Marketing and distribution is 10 times the farming side of the business.”
In the mid-1980s, however, Bob’s Red Mill was about the only customer. It was a good contract, Stelzer recalls, but it almost literally left all the family’s eggs in one basket. When Bob’s went away, Stelzer was left with a lot of grain to sell, much of it rye – and the local grain co-ops weren’t buying rye.
Stelzer says he arranged for some custom milling in Yakima, bagged up the flour and started knocking on doors of food retailers in Portland, Salem, Bend, the Tri-Cities and Yakima. He promised delivery every other week, and did.
The buyers liked his product – all organic, since his father Alfred had converted away from chemicals in 1973 – so they asked Stelzer if he could add a few things to his deliveries.
“So I added lentils,” he recalls. “I was young and stupid, so I said ‘yes’ more than I should’ve, then figured out later how to do it.”
It worked. The company adopted the Azure Standard brand in 1987. Stelzer says “azure (blue)” is often associated with law and justice. To him, it seemed appropriate to symbolize the family’s goal of creating a “right and just standard in organic foods.”
Stelzer talks with passion about eliminating chemical fertilizers and pesticides from growing practices, while at the same time feeding the soil the nutrients it needs to produce crops that themselves are rich in nutrients.
Growing demand among consumers fed right into Azure’s objectives.
Connie Davis of Carson, Wash., is like many of Azure’s customers, people who live in small towns or out in the country, far from any grocery store, let alone stores like Whole Foods, which specialize in organic product.
Davis came slowly to Azure. She likes to see and feel her food. Catalogs weren’t her thing, until a friend in North Bonneville, Wash., suggested she try Azure Standard.
“The big thing that won me over was raw milk,” she recalls. “More and more, as I got involved, I’m going, ‘Oh my gosh, everything I could possibly want is here.’”
Now she coordinates delivery dates for 35 customers who live within a short drive of her home. Azure Standard sells through online and print catalogs, but delivers through a team of 23 contractors who manage 59 delivery routes all over the country. When the delivery truck shows up at Davis’s house, customers jockey their rigs into position to unload the truck, sort orders, load up and head home.
“The drop takes maybe 20 minutes,” Davis says. “It’s a social affair. We have a chance to swap produce or eggs.”
Wyatt Wall lives in Hood River, and delivers to buyers like Davis, except that all his delivery routes begin 1,450 miles from home – in the Dakotas, northwestern Iowa and western Wisconsin.
He and his wife Kristi leave Hood River on Saturday, pick up their cargo at Azure’s 68,000-square-foot warehouse in Moro, and head to one of three routes they service each month. They’ve cover 1,000 miles, stopping 40 to 60 times for drops.
Wall says they’ve been driving for Azure for a little more than a year. “They really put a premium on serving their customers’ needs,” he says. “They really try to make customers feel they’re part of a journey to bring organic and healthy food to the masses.”
Stelzer says Azure has barely scratched the surface of appetite for its products. Demand has outstripped the capacity of the Moro warehouse, which opened in 2007. That’s why Azure is looking at a possible distribution center in the eastern United States.
“We’ve had double-digit growth for each of the last 10 years,” Stelzer says. “We can grow as fast we can handle it. There is a lot of market opportunity.”
His dream is to increase sales ten-fold in the next decade. That would boost revenues to the neighborhood of $500 million.
“Maybe that’s crazy for a farm kid, but I think it’s totally possible,” Stelzer says. “There are a lot of wholesale markets we haven’t reached. It’s kinda fun.”