In the fall of 1976, Ron Seibold and Steve Malone set out to make dehydrated cereal grass a staple in the American Diet. Their dream is not yet fully realized, but you only need look in any natural food store to see their legacy. As a result of their pioneering work, cereal grass products and other green foods are now common place and virtually hundreds of products now contain cereal grass as an ingredient.
Pines Wheat Grass first appeared on health food store shelves years before stores devoted shelf space to a category called “Green Foods.” Before the pioneer work of these two founders of Pines, the idea of using a supplement to increase the green in your diet was not a part of the consciousness.
Four years after advertilsing and promoting their message of “Eat More Greens,” another cereal grass product hit the market, and the first algae arrived a year later. As these new products joined Pines on the shelf, Steve and Ron came up with the term "green superfoods" to describe this new segment. Five years after that, scores of wheat grass and barley grass products were sold in stores as well as various forms of chlorella and spirulina. All the new products used Pines’ message of increasing the intake of dark green vegetation by using a naturally concentrated green superfood in a tablet or powder form.
Co-founders, Ron Seibold and Steve Malone, sat down with me recently to talk about their first 35 years.
Q: Ron, I notice that the nutritional content on your food facts panel is considerably higher than companies who claim their dehydration method is revolutionary. How do you explain that?
Seibold: Processing methods vary between manufacturers for any food. The most important factor is how good the food is before you dry it. We follow a tradition in Kansas that goes back more than 80 years. We know how to do it right, but when it comes to how we dry the product, the dehydration method Pines uses is still is the best.
Data show that our drying method, which was researched and adopted by the scientists who discovered the high nutritional density of cereal grass and alfalfa, produces the most nutrient density. On a cost-per-nutrient basis, this time tested low-temperature process is superior to freeze drying, spray drying or any of the other method.
But again, the most important factors are the way the product is grown, Glacial soil, natural rain water and harvesting a just the right time are all related to achieving the maximum nutrient density. We know the right way to grow cereal grass and the right time to harvest it. We know the importance of keeping product under nitrogen and in storage conditions that greatly reduce nutrient loss. We know that glass bottles with special caps are the only way to seal in an oxygen-free environment.
In addition to the loss of nutrients and the effect of humidity on green superfood products packaged in plastic, our processing method creates a denser product than those from other producers. One teaspoon of Pines weighs as much seven times more than some other cereal grass products. Even if Pines were nutritionally equal to them by weight, if a dehydration method causes a product to lack density, Pines would provide up to seven times more nutrition per teaspoon because it weighs seven times more per teaspoon.
Q: Steve, I can see why a consumer would appreciate using only one teaspoon of Pines instead of many teaspoons of another product to get the same nutrition, but doesn’t Pines cost more?
Malone: That’s a good question. Actually a bottle of Pines is very comparable in price with similar sized bottles of other products. Our oxygen-free bottles simply have more nutrition in them, so it is really costs much less on a cost-per-nutrient basis. For the same price, you can significantly increase your nutrition with Pines by using the same number of teaspoons or tablets. Best of all, if you keep your opened bottle of Pines in your refrigerator, you will always have the freshest possible green superfood for your recipes or just to use in the tablet or capsule form. Compared to other mammals or to our ancestors, very few of us consume enough dark green, leafy vegetables. Any green food provides important green food nutrients, but Pines provides the most nutrition for the price.
Q: Ron, I notice both you and Steve mentioned "oxygen-free" bottles. What do you mean by that?
Seibold: All nutrients deteriorate through the process of oxidation. Because some of the nutrients discovered in cereal grasses and alfalfa are very sensitive and oxidize very quickly, the scientists recommended that the product be packaged in an "oxygen-free" atmosphere. The simple fact is that since nutrients loose their potency because of oxidation, removing oxygen prevents loss of nutrients. All Pines products are sold in glass bottles with special caps designed by the scientists to keep an oxygen-free atmosphere in the bottle for ten years or more. The seal is very much like the seal used in home canning. When it is screwed down tight against the lip of the bottle, the oxygen-free atmosphere inside the bottle cannot mix with the outside air. It is frustrating to see so many companies ignore what the research taught. The are using plastic bottles, which easily allow outside air and humidity to transfer through the walls of the plastic, something that is not possible with glass. When you open a bottle of Pines Wheat Grass, it is as fresh as the day it was packaged. In the case of plastic bottles, oxidation has been occurring for months or even years while the product was in transit and sitting on the shelf.
Q: What about after I open the bottle, won’t the nutritional level start to drop?
Seibold: Yes, it will, but you can pretty much stop all oxidation by putting the bottle in the refrigerator or even freezer. However, one should remember that Pines' products are already much fresher than anything packaged in plastic and most people will use up a bottle of Pines long before any significant nutritional loss, but if you can keep it in the fridge, that's all the better, but not necessary.
Q: Steve, Pines is a very respected company in the Natural Foods Industry. People point to your commitment to organic farming, wildlife habitat, your feeding programs and other charitable work. Has that always been the case?
Malone: Definitely, back in 1976, these ideas were the center of our discussions. It has always been the case that our primary goal has been those kinds of things. It took quite a few years of hard work to get to a point where we could make a real difference. For most of our first 15 years, Ron and I did most of the work. Ron lived at the office and took phone calls. I typed the orders and did all the shipping. We both worked on making tablets and filling bottles, but as our sales increased, we did start to use part-time college students to help.
Q: How did you get the product into the health food industry?
Malone: Initially, Ron and I traveled through 35 States and walked into 2,000 health food stores. After we successfully would get the product on the shelves of a good number of stores and then contact local distributors to supply them. Once we had a good distribution network, we could then focus on mailings, advertising and attending trade shows to build on our initial work.
Q: Who ran the office and made your product when you took your trip through 35 States?
Seibold: We closed the office we had been using to get the company organized and moved the phone to the home of two of our stockholders, who volunteered to fill orders out of their garage. When we first started out, we did not own any land, drying facilities or inventory space except for that garage. We contracted with farmers, dehydrators, tablet-making and packaging companies. That started changing as soon as we returned from our trip late in 1977.
Q: Wasn’t that expensive to do that much traveling?
Malone: It should have been, but we stayed at KOA Campgrounds during the first several months we were on the road. When we started making more sales and had a little more operating capital, we decided we could stay at motels as long as they didn’t cost more than $15 per night. We’d hit a town, I'd make up each store in the telephone book and Ron would mark them on a map. The next day, Ron would navigate, and I would drive. We’d hit as many stores as we could between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. each day.
Q: You mentioned stockholders. Were you well financed?
Seibold: Not really. We started with $50 that Steve contributed. With that, we opened a Post Office box and photocopied a prospectus. Within a few months we had about 40 stockholders. Most of those who invested money only invested a hundred dollars or so. We only had $8,000 in cash. Most of our stock was issued for services. We paid our landlord in stock. We paid the farmer in stock. We paid the dehydrator in stock. We paid our employees in stock.
Q: That’s interesting. Most companies start because of one or two large stockholders or from a single loan.
Malone: It didn’t work out that way for us. Part of it was our philosophy. Our goal was to make a difference in the environment, in people’s health, in agricultural methods and in land use patterns. We wanted the company to be an example of using the free enterprise system to work for the common good. We wanted a broad number of stockholders. We didn't want just one family involved. We wanted a hundred or more families and individuals involved. The year was 1976, America’s Bicentennial. Our Nation had just been through the transformations of the sixties and the Vietnam War. We wanted to prove that free enterprise could still work. We wanted a company that was broad-based and that cared about more than just the bottom line.
Q: It seems like you have done that. So what is ahead for the next twenty-five years?
Seibold: More of the same. So far we’ve brought nearly 2,000 acres of our own land into organic certification. We’ve set up a foundation to protect about half of that acreage as permanent wildlife habitat. We have helped set up and support another 3,000 to 4,000 acres owned by other organic farmers. We have provided several million servings of wheat grass to feeding programs around the world. We have supported scores of organizations dedicated to protecting the environment and helping people. Certainly, we intend to continue to spread the health message of “eating more greens” to people around the world.
Q: Continued good luck to you. I hope that you will see your dreams accelerate even faster rate in the years ahead.