The Quiet Face Behind Good Earth Natural Foods
By Ed Reither – August 18, 2015
In 1969, when 16 year old Mark Squire, and his 19-year-old brother, Hart left their Connecticut home, they had no idea what was in store for them. Today at 62, sitting in his cozy upstairs office above the hustle and bustle of life below, Mark, one of the founding owners of The Good Earth Natural Foods in Fairfax, reflects on his journey. “When I left home with my brother, I remember my mother crying: she had NO idea where we were going to end up, but trusted we knew what we wanted to do. Somehow she seemed to know we would be alright.”
Mild mannered, soft spoken Mark Squire, bears little resemblance to the fact he has become one of the nation’s most recognized leaders in the Natural and Organic Food Industry. People come from all over the Bay Area to shop at the Good Earth, located in Fairfax, a Marin community of 7,500 residents. The Good Earth, an independently owned and operated natural food store, has become a shining beacon for residents and travelers alike. It is an emblematic and trusted source of fresh, organic food and ingredients, as well as by-products that incorporate sustainability, and a profound consciousness towards the sources and resources of our Planet Earth.
Good Earth’s new 22,000 square foot square building, lined with solar panels, is a far cry from the 2,000 square foot Bolinas Rd store, where Mark and his brother started working in 1969. When we arrived in Fairfax, we knew this was where we wanted to be.” There was one big problem though: the original owners couldn’t afford to pay them. Undaunted, the brothers worked out a deal by pitching a tipi on the hill behind the store and agreeing to work for $3.00 a day. They started to work immediately.
“We didn’t know what we were getting into” Mark reminisces with a rueful grin. “We only knew we were dedicated to “good food” and knew that the natural foods world was where we wanted to be.” The original owners of Good Earth were not business people. As Mark recalls, they had other interests. After managing the store for three years, the brothers, along with their new partner, Edwin Cariati, purchased the business for $10,000, and the foundation of today’s Good Earth Natural Foods store was established.
Historically, in the seventies, the natural foods industry was in its infancy. Early in 1972, a few growers and retailers banded together and formed Organic Management (OM), a small nonprofit, in an effort to identify and define what ‘organic’ meant. Some of the early pioneers, like Rachel Carson, Jethro Klauss, Adelle Davis, Euell Gibbons, and Mishio Kushi, were influences who had a great impact upon Mark. A whole generation of consumers and producers were becoming aware of non-sustainable farming and production practices, which were then overtaking the United States. Petrochemicals, pesticides, non-organic fertilizers and genetic engineering (GMO’s) techniques were becoming dominant forces in agriculture, and few knew what the long term effects of these new products and commercial practices would be. The clamor to assuage “world hunger” and the drive for corporate profits were drowning out the voices raising the alarm bells. The food products that were lining the shelves across the nation were now being sold by marketers: the Mad Men of Wall Street. The food choices for Americans were in the hands of advertisers, while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was asleep at the wheel. But there were also pivotal books like “The ‘Greening of America’ by Yale Professor Charles Reich, which were beginning to awaken the public and the food industry to a Consciousness movement that lay ahead.
“If we had tried to define what ‘natural’ was in the early days, as much as we did the term ‘organic’, things would be a lot different today,” Mark sadly remembers. Along with many others in California and the nation, Mark was involved in a revolution that was quickly changing how the food and health industries did their business. Mark was learning about organic practices and what defined an organic farmer by working with the California Certified Organic Farmers, and the Organic Crop Improvement Association. Mark was also educating himself first hand about farming. At the same time the Good Earth was growing into a truly organic store, he and his brother were also tilling an old family farm in North Carolina.
Working from the premise of Seed to Shelf, Mark was instrumental in pioneering legislation in the organic world. In the 1970s, grassroots organizations were springing up in all areas of the culture. The agricultural world was in need of standardization and definition as the “organic world” was in its nascent stages. During the decades of the 70’s and 80’s, Mark and many other tireless workers were instrumental in getting state and Federal legislation passed by 1990, which defined, regulated, and established standards still in use today.
Mark’s journey was by no means a solitary one. In 1976, he met the thoughtful and caring Patricia Walters in the Good Earth and they formed a team, working closely together and marrying after two years. In 1978 their first child, Oona was born,followed by their son Ezra. It was an exciting time, Mark remembers. “We were all involved with so many aspects of the store that it became our own Graduate University, I like to say that I graduated from the University of Good Earth.”
The work that Mark and Patricia were doing during this period did not come without a cost. In the mid 1980’s,Patricia began showing signs of what was later to be diagnosed as Multiple Sclerosis. A debilitating condition, which after a a decade, took her life in 2003. It was during the time of Patricia’s illness that Mark, now a care-giver, husband, father, and business owner saw the Good Earth’s growth continue. By 1992, it was obvious to Mark and Edwin that a larger store was needed. After a long search for a new location Mark and Edwin found their new store partner, Al Baylacq, at the Food Villa a few blocks down the street on Sir Francis Drake Blvd. Plans were developed, financing secured and the second generation of The Good Earth, now affectionately know as “Middle Earth,” was opened in 1999.
As the business continued to grow Mark’s involvement in education and local politics expanded. Mark says, “One of my most successful accomplishments was the passage of Measure B in 2004, preventing the outdoor cultivation of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) in Marin County. It was my first real involvement at the grassroots level in the political process, and I really saw how democracy, community and political involvement could change the landscape of our lives.”
Mark not only remembers his education in politics, he also fondly remembers how the work he was doing bonded his relationship to his daughter Oona. He enjoyed working side by side with his now teenage daughter, “For me, it was one of the fondest memories of my life”. Today both his children live in the Bay Area; his son Ezra works as the Bulk Food Manager at Good Earth and his daughter Oona, now a mother, lives and works in Oakland.
Health and Business Practices
“Personally could never see how health, food, and business practices could be separated, I believe we are All One.” Health, sustainability, and education are foundational elements that go into the philosophy of the Good Earth today, Mark muses. Mark understands what every successful CEO knows, ‘Surround yourself with good people’. This philosophy is exactly what you feel when you walk into the Good Earth today. There’s a vibration here, one customer states, “You feel better just by walking into the store”. It is easy to see why Good Earth is not just another “health food store.” It is as much a place to buy trusted organic, sustainable, and non-GMO products as it is a place to meet your friends or conduct business while enjoying free internet. Walk into Good Earth any lunchtime and you’ll see crowds of people selecting delicious meals from an ever-expansive Rachel Carson Cafe, deli counter, and bakery.
Business practices at Good Earth extend out into the community in many permutations. Good Earth has an organic school lunch program that provides ten local schools with hot, healthy, delicious organic school lunches. There are monthly newsletters and informational bulletins. Their website: (www.genatural.com) is a great resource for related topics. The business practices extend to their employees in the form of excellent working conditions, livable wages, profit sharing, and health benefits.
Pursuant to the success and growth of the Good Earth, Mark now spends much of his time on his true passion: Education. Having established a viable and thriving business, he now focuses on bringing awareness to the consequences of GMO technology. Mark is now on the Board of Directors of Non-GMO Project, North Americas only third-party verification and labeling for non-GMO (genetically modified organism) food and products. He is also currently working with Moms Advocating Sustainability which is working to promote biosafety as a scientific discipline on a new website called GMOScience.com. He is also working with the Biosafety Alliance and is speaking on Synthetic Biology at their upcoming Soil Not Oil conference in the Bay Area.
Today you can find Mark walking to work every day from his home in Fairfax, where he lives with his partner Jen who has created much of the artwork that line the walls of the Good Earth. For Mark and many others, their work is still in its infancy. “There is still lots of work to do to ensure that not only our customers get the healthiest, safest, and best food products from our store but that the word gets out about the dangers and impact the techno-argi-business food-producing practices are having on our children and the planet. Fortunately for us, this awareness is growing, along with the continued emerging consciousness. We can change the way foods are produced and improve our own health as well as that of our home, Planet Earth.