The

EARTH’S BEST
Story
A BIT TERSWEE T TALE OF T WIN BROT HERS W HO S PA R K E D A N OR G A NIC R E V OL U T ION

Ron and Arnie Koss

“Grow Up and Get Real”
RON:

When I was growing up, my parents made a solid effort to instill morality in me. I don’t think their effort was out of the ordinary. The Golden Rule stands out as a memory, and the Ten Commandments
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The EARTH’S BEST Story

were well learned in Hebrew school. But basically the message was to be a good boy; do the right thing; don’t curse; don’t be selfish; don’t be greedy; be compassionate; be thoughtful; be sensitive; be loving. Love definitely held a place of prominence in my life as a kid. It was good and right, and I know how fortunate I was. I took all this grown-up advice to heart. I believed every bit of it completely and quite happily. I liked being good. My parents were good. It all seemed simple and straightforward and sensible. I rolled along the track toward adulthood with very few outwardly apparent glitches until I reached my junior year in college (1972). I remember it well. As usual, I went to the library to study, this time for my marketing midterm exam. I was a pathologically driven student. I opened my notebook and started flipping through the pages, just to size up the task at hand. I felt nauseous. The material was so dry and lifeless to me. I ignored the feeling, which wasn’t a new one. I tried to focus and memorize something. I gagged and dry heaved. I stood up and walked away from the notebook. I had to study, but my body was saying no. Every time I returned to study, I gagged. For the first time in my life I faced a fundamental truth about myself. I was sick and tired of trying to be good (actually perfect is more like it). My actions in life to this point were completely controlled by the fear of failing, making mistakes, and letting my parents down. Suddenly I could no longer act on their behalf or obey the demands of those deeply seated fears. The track was disappearing. In those profound moments of nausea, I took, in a very real sense, my first baby steps into my own life. Some very fundamental questions reached my conscious mind for the first time. What am I doing with my life? Where am I going? And who’s driving this cavernous womb of a bus I’m mindlessly riding? I answered myself much as you might expect: I’m going to college just like my friends and just like my family and teachers expected me to. I’m doing the right thing. And if I stay on track and get my degree, I will automatically have a successful and financially secure life and live happily ever after. Not bad.
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The Boys Behind the Men

And then I saw that the bus was being driven by the inertia of past lemming migrations. I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to catch the next wave over the cliff and into an ordinary life. Suddenly the strife and cultural upheaval I was surrounded by made an impression on me. I picked my head out of my marketing notebook and saw the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, environmental decay, and the aftershocks of Woodstock. Those rock-solid “answers” crumbled. They seemed disconnected and irrelevant. And it all happened instantly while I stared in vain at those four p’s (products, place, price, and promotion) in my marketing notebook. That class woke me from a deep sleep, a great example of an unintended consequence. I wasn’t groggy or disoriented. I felt exhilarated and ecstatic, and I did something I had never done before, the unthinkable. I knocked myself off the track to my future. I dropped my marketing class. This was a sea change for a guy like me. So I started to look at the world for myself and by myself for the first time. I did this just by sitting in that same library with an empty notebook and a pen and no other agenda but to discover myself and my destiny. Everything that I was supposed to do stopped, and everything that I wanted to do started. And all I wanted to do was to sit still and wait to see, hear, and feel what happened. I never knew until those moments of disrupted parental and cultural inertia that I was bursting with wonder, joy, and love for this Universe, this Earth, and all of its creation. I experienced myself reborn, a newborn at the age of twenty-one. I was not reborn into any particular dogma or spiritual belief. Rather, I became newly born in the sense that I discovered a door to myself, and for the first time began to listen, think, and feel for myself in a more complete way. I sat in that library oohing and aahing and wowing with a happiness I had never experienced. Epiphanies aside, all of this was simply translated by my parents as “Ronald went off the deep end.” I was genuinely sympathetic. Their “sure-bet” son derailed just short of success. Those days in the library led me to the discovery of food. It was as
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The EARTH’S BEST Story

if after twenty-one years of eating I had never appreciated, savored, or realized that food had anything consequential to do with my life, short of starving, if I stopped eating. My first trip into a naturalfoods store was something like a moon walk: strange, fascinating, and otherworldly. “Let’s see, I know I’m walking by food, but what do you do with it?” Good-bye Uncle Ben’s, hello brown rice, tofu, and hiziki. I reported my discoveries to my parents with endless enthusiasm, and while somewhat appalled, I think they got by okay by rationalizing that I was just going through a “rabbit phase.” I became an environmentalist in that library. I discovered what is now referred to as “Gaia.” I not only intellectually understood pollution, but felt the pain of the earth, felt my own pain and distress. I loved the earth and I knew that love would never fade into a phase, because I had discovered a piece of my own self-love. It all seemed so simple and so important to me. Yet rather than taking a giant leap toward adulthood, toward becoming a peer with my parents and teachers and friends, I became more distant and removed. I was the one who was regressing, going backward, not growing up. I was the dreamer, the idealist, the naïve one. I was failing in life. My father lectured me about not worrying about pollution or the world’s problems. I should think about myself and my own life. And of course I was. What I failed to communicate was that my connection to the earth was as deep as my dad’s love and concern for me. When I was a kid, it was okay to be a kid. And kids hear from their parents, family, and culture the laudable things that kids are supposed to hear. But when you get to be or are perceived to be a grown-up, the rules and the messages change drastically and dramatically. The Golden Rule mutates to “He who has the gold rules,” and the Ten Commandments are condensed to simply “Might makes right.” And so I understood that the warm, mushy, sensitive stuff is for kids, and the hardball, bare-knuckles, cover-your-ass ethic is for grown-ups. Grown-ups can curse, sweep their dirt under the rug, be deceitful, insensitive, selfish, corrupt, greedy, self-destructive, and ignorant and
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The Boys Behind the Men

(until recently) still become president of the United States. Kids who fit such a description are emotionally disturbed juvenile delinquents and burdens to society. I discovered for myself, heart and soul, that the enlightened values of my parents, imparted to me as a kid, were not the real, day-to-day, nine-to-five, adult values. Rather, they were the values that go nicely with church and synagogue; the values that would be nice to live by if the world was fair and just. With that in mind, the message from family and friends back then was “grow up and get real.” I left college in 1973 with 111 credits, 9 shy of graduating, and spent the better part of two years traveling throughout the United States hitchhiking, camping, sleeping in cheap motels, and finding a nice assortment of floors to crash on. I checked out communes in Taos and community-living groups in San Francisco, looking for an expression, a manifestation, of life that survived the transition into adulthood, heart and soul intact. It wasn’t to be found, and I didn’t understand it. I was the innocent fool questing for the Grail Castle. To my parents I was a just a plain fool, but a nice one. We were all in pain together. They could not ease mine, and I could not ease theirs. I was homeless during these wandering years. My childhood home in Ellenville, New York, had been sold in 1970. My parents, Milton and Judith, moved to south Florida. And the close circle of friends and community in Ellenville, which nurtured me far more than I ever realized, disappeared virtually overnight. It was not just the physical place or home that was missing. I was lost in the darkness of being overwhelmed by seeing no new tracks to get my life onto. The counterculture seemed to be infested with drugs and escapist indifference. The old career tracks, which were the only path in life I had known or imagined, continued to have that scent of a doomed lemming migration. The pain of seeing the earth raped and trampled was too great and the idea of a career too small. I felt alone and abandoned and paralyzed. For some reason, karmic or otherwise, I shared this paralysis with Arnie. There were two green plush swivel chairs in my parent’s south
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The EARTH’S BEST Story

Florida condominium. They sure could spin. Around and around Arnie and I went, talking in circles and going nowhere. So much energy to live and yet everything was pent up inside. The world seemed inaccessible, unapproachable, hostile, dishonest, and superficial. Around and around, searching intently for a place to stop and start our lives, to jump in, get wet, and escape from the stifling angst of being unexpressed, unfulfilled, and dependent upon my parents and their condo reality. My dad hated the idea of us wearing out those swivels. So did we. For the sake of movement, I enrolled at Empire State College’s independent study program (in 1975) to complete my bachelor’s degree. I remained lost throughout the process, pretending as best as I could to be in my life and hopefully finding my way. It beat the swivel chair! Interestingly, I started my first business during this time—a natural-foods lunch cart that I set up near the capitol building in downtown Albany. This was the summer of 1975. I liked being independent, and I liked being next to those hot-dog guys. Total investment was probably under $100. There were no stockholders and no debt. I was brilliant back then. My first taste of entrepreneurship was mostly satisfying. I didn’t need a lot of money, and, most importantly, I saw a way to express my values and politics in the world. This was empowering. I also worked part time in a natural-foods store called “The Store.” It was during the winter of 1976 that the idea of organic baby food was conceived. I remember standing in front of The Store talking to Arnie about this great idea. I just couldn’t imagine how to pull it off on a wood cookstove. The complexity overwhelmed the fantasy in five minutes, probably less, but we both knew the idea was right and necessary. Arnie has imagined a different story about how Earth’s Best was conceived, although at long last, he has yielded to me in the introduction to this book. Twins sometimes seem to confuse each other’s reality. Arnie does this more often than me. During the summer of 1976, I became a houseparent at Highland,
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The Boys Behind the Men

a group home in the Adirondacks. One of the kids there was a fiery sixteen-year-old named Donna. I was scared of her, but I tried to out-nice myself to win her approval. The harder I tried, the sweeter I was, the more antagonism and verbal abuse came my way. I was raised to believe that “Nice guys finish first.” Donna was telling me that “Nice guys finished last.” My worldview was not holding up, and I wanted to leave this job for safer territory. On a warm summer day, I found myself face-to-face with Donna in a confrontational situation. She threatened me by saying, “Ziggy (my nickname at the time), cross this line and you are a dead mother-you-know-what-er.” I was scared, but also tired, and tired of being abused, and I do have my pride. So I took a step across this imaginary line drawn on the living room floor. Donna broke into a big smile and spontaneously told me how she couldn’t trust me and didn’t feel safe around me, because I was scared of her and wasn’t honest. She didn’t trust my “Mr. Nice Guy” persona and was angry with me for bullshitting her. She was right. I didn’t know a thing about genuine relationship until that moment. I learned that niceness for the sake of being safe and toughness for the sake of being in control (and again safe) will not solidify or deepen human relationship. It was not the act of being nice or tough per se that was problematic, but the fear (of rejection) that controlled my nice behavior. I did not want to be vulnerable, and as long as the nice-guy charade worked in my life, I could hide. Donna nailed me, and I am very grateful. As a historical aside, I met Ben Cohen (of Ben & Jerry’s) at this group home in a rather amusing away. It was my first night at Highland, and I was temporarily staying in a very nice log home on the property. I had just completed a three-day meditation retreat in Albany with Amrit Desai, and I was full of chanting energy and 5:00 a.m. wake-ups. I thought I was alone in this house; at least I was when I fell asleep. I woke up at 5:00 a.m. and began to loudly chant these beautiful melodies that I had just learned. I was full swing into my thing when I heard a few bearish groans from the loft area. There stood a very groggy Ben wrapped in a blanket, wondering who
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this chanting idiot was. I was embarrassed and apologized. I don’t remember chanting for the rest of the summer. Ben, who was the resident potter, and I were so different. We had to take note of each other. He was always eating junk food and I was always eating brown rice, tofu, and hiziki. I think we grossed each other out in a friendly way. Our paths did cross again as Arnie and I journeyed into the Earth’s Best story. But that story will have to wait until we get there from here. I felt pretty good about myself when I left the group home that fall of 1976, but still very much on the fringe of identifying a career path, a future plan, and a life direction. I wanted to live Helen and Scott Nearing’s The Good Life. I wanted to retreat into simpler times and a simpler life. And I came to Vermont with Arnie in January 1977.

Sprouting in Vermont
Arnie and I rented a big house in Plainfield. I think noting the size of the house is important because a characteristic of our relationship has been thinking big, dreaming big, and in the case of Earth’s Best, doing big. And big certainly has its glamour and allure, but as I have learned, it does not come cheap. Once we got the big Vermont house under our belt, we attempted to heat it with two small wood stoves. We didn’t know what we were doing. First we bought log-length green wood, and then we tried to cut it all with a crosscut saw. The logs were all frozen together and covered with snow, and we could barely get enough wood into the house to keep the fires going. The water in our toilet bowls kept freezing and so did our pipes. But I loved using that crosscut saw. It was real and invigorating, and I felt alive. It seemed that almost every moment was in the present. Looking for a job was out of the question for both Arnie and me. We dreamed up our first business enterprise together, called the “Vermont Sprouting Family”—alfalfa sprouts, mung-bean sprouts,
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The Boys Behind the Men

and lentil sprouts (my favorite). We designed our sprout room in one of the second-floor bedrooms and tried to keep it warm. We came up with a sweet little package, thanks to a Goddard College student, and we set our sights on the P&C supermarket chain. These were exciting times. I loved the adventure of doing my own thing. Our sprouting room was my first experience with production. Stuffing each bag with a quarter pound of sprouts with tongs was an art in itself. It was tedious. Sifting through twenty-five pounds of lentil seeds searching for little stones was a chore. Arnie was a great partner. We set up an appointment with the buyer at P&C, and we dressed up ourselves and our little sprout bags as best as we could. There were several other salespeople also waiting to present at P&C’s headquarters in White River Junction. They looked pretty snazzy with their three-piece suits and leather cases. Arnie and I held our future in a medium-size paper bag. The bag itself wasn’t much to look at. We knew that, but I think we were also feeling a little smug about the dynamite package and product we had hiding inside. We also desperately needed this business to generate some money. Finally it was our turn to present the Vermont Sprouting Family product line. I think the buyer was amused by our appearance. Long, bushy brown hair, full beards, no ties or jackets, and a wrinkled, brown paper bag holding our product line. I can’t remember too much more about our P&C meeting. Arnie pitched the product. The buyer seemed skeptical and reserved. He took a wad of our alfalfa sprouts, put them to his mouth like he was about to kiss a spitting cobra, grimaced, and politely refilled the bag. “It’s an acquired taste,” Arnie reassured him. I thought to helpfully add that we carried anti-sprout venom with us, but wisely held my tongue. When there was no more to be said by us, I heard him state matter-of-factly, “Give me 48 of each.” That was exciting. As we stood up to leave, Arnie restated what he heard the order to be: “You want 48 alfalfa; 48 mung; and 48 sprout mix with lentils.” The buyer said, “Yes, 48 dozen each.”
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The EARTH’S BEST Story

Unbelievable euphoria. I thought he wanted 4 dozen of each. With a 144-dozen order, we had established our business as a going concern. I was passing Go and about to collect $200. Despite this great (relatively speaking) entrepreneurial accomplishment, our parents were still devastated, believing that both their precious boys were still refusing to grow up, lost in a phase that others had already left for medical school, and still eating like rabbits. It was a scramble to deliver the sprouts. The house was cold and the sprouts grew slowly. The packing kept us up late into the night, but we did it with the help of some friends. And on the appointed day, we proudly drove to White River Junction with our Chevette packed to the gills. There were problems. The sprouts got stranded in warehouses and were old and ugly by the time they got to the stores. Sometimes they weren’t refrigerated properly. Arnie and I raced around, talking to the produce-management people and fluffing up and beautifying our little bags as best as possible. P&C reordered, and we kept stuffing our wood stoves with green wood and watching expectantly to see if our little sprouts were growing. They did grow, and we did deliver, but the cash did not flow in on time. We didn’t ask about payment terms in our interview presentation. It’s hard to ask for what you need when you feel vulnerable and dependent. Arnie and I assumed that the money would come in time, but we never imagined waiting months and more for a check. One of the greatest challenges for an entrepreneur is to be willing to see, to bring into focus those things that tarnish, spoil, and threaten the vision, the ideal, the dream. Avoidance is deadly and yet very understandable and perhaps even necessary at times. An entrepreneur needs to learn to recognize that the red flags, voices, twitches, and butterflies that surface momentarily are gifts from your entrepreneurial angel and present opportunities to “morph” now so as to succeed later. Unfortunately, I hadn’t met my wife yet. She can see a red flag before the red paint dries. Actually, even if I had met
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The Boys Behind the Men

her I probably wouldn’t have listened. I had to learn humility the old-fashioned way—through experience. Our cash-flow dilemma was demoralizing. There was nowhere to go for help, and the sucking sound that most every entrepreneur has heard at one time or another, as he or she descends into the swirling vortex that leads to the business graveyard, was in earshot. This sound is not a rhapsody. But businesses have a life of their own and seemingly, in my experience, a will to live apart (and even in spite of ) any intention of the businessperson. This was certainly true in the case of Earth’s Best, and I think it was true of our fledgling Vermont Sprouting Family. Two friends purchased our business for $1,000 and moved it to New York State, where it thrived for many years and even made a star appearance in Mother Earth News magazine. There was no entrepreneurial encore to follow the sprouts. Arnie reluctantly fell back into estate and caretaker work and left Vermont to care for an elderly gentleman in Connecticut. I fell back into working with adolescents and applied for a group-home job at the top of Maple Hill in Plainfield, Vermont. I liked group-home life, because I liked feeling a part of a community. I liked the camaraderie with the other staff. It did have its hellish moments, and the pay was inconsequential, but Maple Hill served as a haven for me, a place to hang out and avoid the regular nine-to-five world and routine that my dad belonged to and that alienated me.

The Land
November 3, 1978, was the brightest day in my life since that Florida-bound U-Haul truck sat darkly in our Ellenville driveway stuffed with whatever wasn’t thrown away from a wonderful childhood. Arnie and I plus a friend plunked down a chunk of change on 128 acres of heaven in East Montpelier, forever known to us since as “The Land.” How did we do it? Dear old dad had a collapse
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The EARTH’S BEST Story

in judgment and lent us $10,000. The Milton could just not stop being a generous, sympathetic, loving father. He knew better, but he couldn’t help himself or resist us. Maybe he understood the pain of our uprootedness and our obsession with being at home again. Or maybe it was Mom pulling the strings behind the scenes. This moment was the end of an eight-year quest. (I continue to live on The Land, now more than thirty years later.) The relevance of buying land to the Earth’s Best story was the entrenched resistance that now lived deep in our bones to leaving this long-sought-after home. There was such a strong emotional attachment in play, tied to our childhood, that skewed our judgments and perceptions and led to rationalizations about where to locate or not locate the company. This dynamic may have ultimately sealed the fate we eventually met in our Earth’s Best lives. We’ll never know, but the question lives on for me. Arnie and I set off into the woods that winter of 1978 to fell the trees for his post-and-beam house. Generally when tackling trees sixty feet in height and twenty inches in diameter, you use a chainsaw. Arnie and I chose differently. We pulled out our trusty five-foot-long, two-person crosscut saw, bought an antique block and tackle, a peavey, and some chains, and walked into the silent woods. “Arnie, this tree is too beautiful to cut. What about that one to your right?” “I think we should take it Ronnie. No wait a minute. Doesn’t this smaller one look like the daughter? We can’t take the mother away, can we?” We were such novices. We had no teachers and no experience. Our dad came back from his two years (1943–45) in the infantry in North Africa and Sicily hating the outdoors. To him the outdoors spelled danger, malaria, and loss, and the only mentoring we received regarding the outdoors was to be afraid of it. The closest we ever got to the woods with our dad was a picnic table along the side of a Catskill mountain road. So as young men, Arnie and I shared the same ignorance and naïveté. It was a given. We took turns at making mistakes, laughing hysterically at our folly, and screaming at each other from time to time
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The Boys Behind the Men

in the numbing cold. But one by one those logs added up. We were becoming the men we wanted to be and reclaiming in part what our father lost in World War II and what we had desperately wanted him to give to us. With all of our might and youth we dragged the heavy green logs through the deep snow to the building site. Dad, the world is safe again, the woods are beautiful, the mosquitoes are asleep. It seems almost like Arnie and I had made a pre-incarnating agreement to make the task as difficult as possible. No power equipment, no experience, deep snow, and freezing cold. Why? To cultivate singlemindedness; to learn to be present with feelings, opinions, ideas, and love; to discover that with a unified purpose, we both could lead at the same time by situationally taking our lead from each other; and to experience the surrender of our egos for that unified purpose. Arnie’s experience of success and satisfaction was as important, if not more important, than my own, and vice versa. Imagine the trust, commitment, and synergy that then follow in such a dynamic. Why have it any other way in business or in any relationship? All for one and one for all. It worked for us. Nonetheless, I grew restless. I turned twenty-eight in March 1979, feeling pretty disappointed with my post-swivel-chair progress in life. The faraway future was becoming the present. What was I waiting for? I guess I still had some time to bide and youth to expend. I fell in love. It was far easier to commit to a woman than a career track. I directed and projected all of my pent-up longing for an object of desire to fulfill me in life onto Carley. Of course I was unconscious of this at the time and felt completely smitten by this beautiful, smart, spunky, and independent woman. My center of gravity began to shift. I imagined spending the rest of my life with Carley. With a new raison d’être, I made a bold move to throw off my Hamlet-like yoke of indecision. The question was no longer “to be, or not to be.” The answer was “to be!” My dad used to say “shit or get off the pot.” I’m not sure which I was doing when I enrolled at the University of Vermont to take premed classes for a four-year naturopathic medical program, but I did feel relief.
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The EARTH’S BEST Story

I jumped into my studies with the full force of my old perfectionist student self. I got my As, but I was always obsessively studying, just like I did at SUNY at Albany before I got enlightenment through marketing. Before I knew it, I felt like I was fighting for my life. I was being suffocated by the inner experience of constantly fending off failure. Organic chemistry knocked me out, and not because I wasn’t doing well. I had an A in the class, but the stress of falling back into my old ways and the separation from my vitality proved to be too much. Why was I wired this way to self-destruct when I had the ability to do so well in school? I know the answer, and it proved central both in my decision to start Earth’s Best and how I approached each and every day on the production floor. I have to digress so you can appreciate the dynamic operating so powerfully within me.

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