(Beyond Pesticides, May 14, 2010) As the current economic climate forces spending cuts on health benefits, salaries, and bonuses, many companies are offering their employees a trendy new perk: an organic corporate garden. The New York Times reports that dozens of companies from various industries have started or plan to start organic gardens for their employees. Employees may spend a few lunch breaks planting, weeding, and watering, in exchange for all the fresh beans, tomatoes, and zucchini they want. Some of these gardens also supply the company cafeteria, or the local food bank. Companies have put container gardens on rooftops, converted former smoking areas, or simply dug into the office park lawns. In some cases employees lobbied for a garden in others it was a manager that decided to create one.
It may come as no surprise that famously progressive companies such as Google have created gardens for its employees but more traditional companies have also joined in the trend. PepsiCo, the $60 billion manufacturer of highly processed products, including Mountain Dew, Amp Energy Drink, Doritos, and Cap’n Crunch, has created an organic garden a five minute walk from corporate headquarters in Purchase, New York. The garden at Kohl’s Department Stores’ headquarters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin provides not only food, but a place for children from the company day care center to play. Other companies that have added organic gardens for their employees to tend include the Toyota Plant in Georgetown, Kentucky, the corporate headquarters for Yahoo and Sunset Magazine in Silicon Valley, and Best Buy has planted a garden at its headquarters to supply the company cafeteria.
Providing employees with organic produce at little to no cost also makes smart business sense. Human Resources Executive magazine named the organic garden of the public relations firm Haberman one of the five best benefits ideas of the year. Companies see it as an inexpensive way to improve morale. Having employees from the mailroom working with middle management to build tomato trellises is great for teambuilding without the constraints of office hierarchy. In addition, employees eating more fresh organic fruits and vegetables may also help to reduce health care costs.
The size and cost of corporate organic gardens varies greatly. Some have created a small container gardens for under $1,000, while others take a much more ambitious approach. Chesapeake Energy, a power company based in Oklahoma City is building a $500,000 garden that will fill a city block.
Starting an organic garden in a city or corporate office park can be a challenge. Soil may be contaminated by heavy metals, and fill from building construction, and turf in corporate office parks is usually treated with many pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Depending on the pollutants, remediation may be necessary, or a container garden may be more cost effective. Companies must also deal with waning employee interest. Last year 200 of PepsiCo’s employees signed up to work on the organic garden, compared to 75 this year. A number of the plots are empty or overgrown with weeds. However, cosmetics company Aveda recognized the need for careful planning to ensure the success of their organic garden. An employee devised a chore calendar with email reminders to program participants when they are signed up to work.
This new trend of corporate organic gardens tended by employees can be attributed to an increased awareness of human health and environmental issues stemming from agriculture. It reflects the rapidly growing movement in the United States toward organic locally grown produce. Gardening’s increasing popularity also plays a part. A survey by the National Gardening Association shows a 13% increase in the number of Americans who grew fruit and vegetables from 2008 to 2009.
Beyond Pesticides supports organic agriculture as effecting good land stewardship. Hopefully these organic gardens will spur companies to transition away from pesticides, not just in the foods they supply their employees, but in the products they produce. For more ideas and tips, please visit Beyond Pesticides’ Organic Food program page.