Organic bean processor supplies Chipotle Demand growing for natural foods, owner says
MERRITT TOWNSHIP, Mich. - About a decade ago, Jim and DeAnn Sattelberg, co-owners of Everbest Organics, saw that the future of farming was in organics. "We were conventional farmers that switched to organic," Jim Sattelberg told The Saginaw News, "because of the growing market in organics for, especially, dry beans and soybeans." The couple owns Thistledown Farms, an elevator corporation that operates under the trademark Everbest Organics. Everbest Organics contracts with farmers to grow organic and non-GMO, or non-genetically modified organism, crops that are cleaned, processed and packaged for shipment to domestic and international markets. One of its fastest growing markets is Chipotle Mexican Grill.Their new, $5 million facility cleans, processes and packages a variety of dry beans and soon will be set up to do the same with soybeans. The beans come from 50 to 100 farms, Sattelberg said. Sattelberg said demand for organic food is growing. And as Chipotle grows, so does its demand for organic beans. "Because we're such a good and big supplier for Chipotle, we can't grow enough beans in this area (to meet its demand). I'm buying beans in other states," he said. Organic Bean & Grain Inc., in Caro, also sells to Chipotle, said President Mark Vollmar. Vollmar said both Everbest Organics and his company have sold beans to Chipotle for several years but only recently began washing the beans at their own facilities. Vollmar agreed that the demand for organic food is growing. "We're having a difficult time, actually, keeping up with the demand right now," he said. "We don't have enough organic acres. The demand is bigger than the supply." When the beans arrive at the facility, they are sorted by size, then by bulk density. Another machine removes any remaining stones. An "electronic eye" scans the beans and sorts out any that don't match the ideal. Some are washed, then dried. Others go straight to packaging. The soybeans and dry beans - which include black beans, navy beans, dark red kidney beans, white kidney beans and cranberry beans - are to be processed separately because of food allergies, Sattelberg said. After the beans are packaged, some of them are sent to other facilities to be cooked and then sent to end users, such as Chipotle. Some of the beans are sold to canners and brokers. "This plant is capable of doing three truckloads in an eight-hour shift," he said, noting that a truckload is about 42,000 pounds of beans. Sattelberg said they bought the facility in 2011 and started processing dry beans there in May. However, there's still work to be done to get soybean processing going there. He expects the new soybean line to be ready by the end of the year. The availability of the facility and the acreage that came with it were part of what drew the Sattelbergs to Merritt Township. The facility also has tall ceilings that allow the equipment to be stacked. The project, including all of the equipment, will cost an estimated $5 million, Sattelberg said. The facility brought jobs to the community. Sattelberg said they have about 15 employees, including themselves, plus construction workers employed by the project. Merritt Township Supervisor Dave Schabel said he's glad to see the once-vacant building put to use. "We're just happy somebody bought it," he said of the former cement factory. "There's not very much tax base out here. "That was just sitting there empty, and they put millions of dollars in it." Members of the public were invited to tour the facility earlier recently, and at least 275 people showed up, Sattelberg said. He said they want their neighbors, other businesses and other farmers to see what they're doing. "We invited other conventional farmers to come through here to see (if) maybe they would consider going organic someday. And we have this facility to help them transition," he said. "There isn't too many places like this around." Vollmar said he too would like to see more farmers switch to organic, but there are clear reasons they don't. "It's more labor intensive. It's different. You have to learn how to control weeds and pests without the use of chemicals, and how to feed the plant and soil without using synthetic fertilizers," he said. "You have to learn a whole new way of farming." Additionally, he said, the last few years have been fairly good for farmers - prices have been reasonable, yields have been good - so there hasn't been much of an incentive to try something new. Though switching from conventional to organic farming was a business decision for the Sattelbergs, it's a reflection of their personal choices, too. "We chose to live organically about the same time we went organic," Sattelberg said. When it comes to food, his philosophy is organic, fresh food is best. "Anything you cannot pronounce, you shouldn't be eating it," he said.