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More than Rice: Notre Dame’s Newest Food Supplier Sets the Gold Standard for Sustainable Agriculture

By Karim Tinoco

University Enterprises and Events has brought on a new partner to help feed our campus while maintaining Notre Dame’s dedication to sustainable procurement sources. That partner is the California rice producer, Lundberg Family Farms. Distinguished for its genuine flavors, Lundberg Family Farms rice supports its labeling and sustainable assertions with concrete actions.

A Family Legacy

Albert Lundberg's journey began in 1937 when he left Nebraska in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl, seeking a new start in the fields of Richvale, California. At nearly 50 years old, he had spent his life cultivating wheat and corn: crops ill-suited for the heavy clay soils of the Sacramento Valley. Despite the daunting challenge of starting over, Albert saw it as a pivotal moment. Having witnessed the devastating effects of shortsighted farming practices during the Dust Bowl, which stripped the land of its precious topsoil, Albert was determined to do things differently in California. His goal was clear: to leave the land better than he found it. This commitment to sustainability has become a defining ethos that continues to shape Lundberg Family Farms. The company holds a steadfast commitment to sustainability, from fields to facilities. They maintain Platinum TRUE Zero-Waste and ENERGY STAR certifications, generate more than 20% of their total energy on-site with a 1.9 MW solar array system, cultivate about 15,000 acres of organic rice, sustain collaboration with TerraCycle to help divert hard-to-recycle packaging, and support the biodiversity of Northern California by providing habitat for hundreds of species.

The Journey to Zero-Waste

In the face of mounting environmental challenges, waste reduction and sustainability have never been more critical. At Lundberg Family Farms, the pursuit of a zero-waste future is not just a lofty goal—it's an unwavering commitment that has guided their actions for over a decade. 

The seeds of the company’s waste reduction journey were sown in 2008, when mixed recycling bins became available in their hometown of Richvale. This was just the beginning of a transformative journey that would ultimately lead to an impressive 99.7% diversion rate. Over the years, their commitment to responsible waste management has grown beyond recycling bins. It has evolved into a comprehensive zero-waste program. The farm’s impressive diversion rate encapsulates the remarkable success of its efforts, which encompass not only traditional recycling practices but also innovative approaches that extract value from waste materials. Lundberg collects, sorts, and recycles just about everything—from packaging to scrap metal to uniforms (which are broken down and used as insulation in vehicles). They even sell rice hulls and bran to be used in animal feed, turning potential waste into a valuable resource. The company's journey towards waste reduction serves as a model for others seeking to make a positive impact on the planet.

While Lundberg is proud to divert so much material from the landfill, they are also committed to transparency and recognize that including byproducts in their zero waste reporting metrics can obscure the solid waste materials leaving their production facilities. Today, Lundberg Family Farms aims to divert 95% of its facility waste, excluding byproducts, to ensure effective recycling and minimize waste at its source.

Packaging Innovation: Pioneering Sustainable Solutions

According to the Climate Collaborative,  “On average, packaging accounts for about 5% of the energy used in the lifecycle of a food product making it a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.”, Lundberg understands this intricate relationship between a product's lifecycle and its packaging is essential for effective sustainability, so they continue to research recyclable and compostable packaging options, they’re looking for alternatives that maintain the integrity of their product—first and foremost—while maximizing their potential impact.

As the company explores avenues for sustainable packaging and waste management, its partnership with TerraCycle emerges as a pathway toward progress. Through this collaboration, Lundberg’s hard-to-recycle plastic packaging can skip the landfill for a second life as a park bench, a playground, or something else. Since April 2020, TerraCycle has collected more than 225,000 pieces of Lundberg packaging across more than 4,000 locations, amplifying the reach of its sustainability efforts.

Energy Star Certification and Beyond

Since 2019, Lundberg Family Farms has maintained ENERGY STAR Certification for its administration building, a testament to its unwavering dedication to energy efficiency. Not content with resting on its laurels, the company continues to push the envelope, embracing innovative strategies to reduce its carbon footprint and lead the charge toward a greener future.

Solar power stands as a cornerstone of Lundberg’s commitment to renewable energy. Their administration building, a hub of activity, outperforms about 80% of similar structures across the nation in terms of energy efficiency. Bolstered by this success, the company’s six solar arrays generate upwards of 20% of their total energy needs.

Cultivating Soil Health: Nurturing the Earth, Nourishing the Future

In a world where discussions about environmental sustainability often gravitate towards high-profile topics like energy and emissions, the vital role of soil health tends to be overshadowed. Yet, as Bill Gates aptly noted, "We should discuss soil as much as we talk about coal." At Lundberg Family Farms, this sentiment resonates deeply, guided by the wisdom of their founder Albert Lundberg, who encouraged his family to: "Leave the land better than you found it." Through a holistic commitment to organic, sustainable, and regenerative organic farming practices, the company is sowing seeds of change from the ground up.

Cover Crops and Nutrient Management

Lundberg Family Farms believes that healthy soil is the bedrock of a sustainable future. To nurture their soil, they employ the practice of planting cover crops in their Organic fields. These green blankets of vegetation, akin to nature's fertilizer, can replenish the soil’s nutrients without the damaging effects of chemical fertilizers. Planting cover crops during winter allows for nitrogen fixation and carbon sequestration. This process not only enriches the soil but also provides a thriving environment for beneficial organisms, which play a pivotal role in soil health. On its Sustainable non-Organic fields, Lundberg does use chemical fertilizers for their crops. However, by thoroughly investigating their various rice species and soil types they can ensure no excess quantities of these fertilizers are ever deployed on their soil. Through these soil management tools, Lundberg can avoid some of the adverse effects of excessive fertilizer application such as soil acidification and eutrophication.

Returning Rice Straw: A Natural Cycle

One of the company's foundational practices is incorporating rice straw back into the soil instead of burning it. Long before regulations limited the practice of burning rice straw, Lundberg's founders recognized the value of returning it to the earth. Despite initial skepticism from others due to the labor-intensive nature of the task, they embraced it. Today, returning rice straw to the soil has become common practice, preserving air quality and building organic matter.

Natural Weed Control through Water-Based Solutions

In its Organic fields, Lundberg Family Farms has innovatively turned to water as a means of managing weeds without chemical herbicides. After planting, they raise the water level just high enough to drown the grass weeds but not so high that it harms the rice, which can only survive underwater for about 48 hours longer than the grass weeds. Then, they dry up their fields to control the aquatic weeds until they shrivel in the sun and loosen their grip on the growing rice.

Water Stewardship: Protecting Life’s Most Precious Resource

As we talk about water, it is no secret that this year’s floods notwithstanding, California experiences periodic droughts, with 2022 marking one of the driest in the state’s history. However, rice is more water efficient than many people realize–and it has an important place in California’s conservation landscape. Lundberg Family Farms grows rice in the Sacramento Valley, where heavy clay adobe soils hold water like a bathtub. This means water sits on top of the soil instead of sinking into it and can be used for multiple benefits. According to the California Rice Commission, 40% of the water used to grow rice gets recycled, flowing to neighboring farms to help irrigate different crops, traveling to wildlife refuges for reuse, or returning to the environment downstream.

Harmonizing with Nature

In their quest for protecting/supporting biodiversity, Lundberg Family Farms embraces the role of stewardship by flooding a large portion of their fields to mimic their region’s once abundant wetlands, 95% of which have disappeared due to development. Through this process, their fields become sanctuaries for an array of species including ducks, geese, swans, sandhill cranes, shorebirds, and other waterfowl who depend on California rice fields for 60% of their nutrition as well as a place to nest as they continue to travel through the Pacific Flyway. As these birds fly away, water is returned to the rivers and streams, where zooplankton (fish food) that propagated on the fields nourishes endangered salmon species.

Lundberg’s fields of winter cover crops also provide nesting habitat for ducks. Therefore, before they prep the fields for rice planting in the spring, Lundberg checks to see if ducks have nested. If so, they partner with the California Waterfowl Association to rescue the eggs by hand, saving them from the tractor’s path. These eggs are then taken to local hatcheries, where they are incubated, hatched, raised to about five weeks of age, and released into the wild. Since 1993, Lundberg has helped rescue more than 30,000 duck eggs.

Embracing Sustainable Excellence: Notre Dame’s Partnership with Lundberg Family Farms

Lundberg's journey from the Dust Bowl to the forefront of sustainable farming is a testament to the power of resilience and transformative change. The company’s holistic approach to agriculture is an embodiment of the symbiotic relationship between humanity and nature, painting a picture of responsible business practices and land stewardship. In welcoming Lundberg Family Farms into our University's fold, we align ourselves with a real partner in sustainable agriculture and conscientious stewardship. Their dedication to authenticity and action sets them apart as a remarkable example of responsible farming practices, resonating deeply with our own commitment to ethical procurement.

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