Eric and Pattie Boudier saw potential in Peaceful Valley.
They weren’t gardeners or farmers when they bought their pioneering organics company two decades ago, but they were sure more people wanted to eat food grown without synthetic chemicals.
That hunch paid off, and their audience keeps growing. From its Grass Valley base, Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply provides the seed for organically grown food nationwide – plus much more. Celebrating 40 years in business under different owners, the nursery and mail-order house continues to be an industry leader, thanks to its robust catalog and website.
Experienced businesspeople well versed in e-commerce, the Boudiers brought years of management expertise to nurture their nursery and grow its market for the 21st century.
“We both came from the corporate world and had a dream to find a perfect business in a perfect place,” said Eric Boudier, a native of France. “It was either Northern California or the south of France.”
Once considered a tiny agricultural niche, organic farming continues to boom. California is home to an estimated 5,000 certified organic farmers, about a quarter of all organic farmers nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Sales of organic food in the U.S. rose 16 percent in 2014, continuing a decade of double-digit annual increases.
That put Peaceful Valley in the right place at the right time with the right stuff.
Born during a counterculture era in a haven for ex-hippies, Peaceful Valley still combines that easy-going vibe with down-to-earth basics. Want open-pollinated heirloom vegetable seed grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides? This is the place. Need all the stuff to make those veggies thrive? It has that, too.
The Boudiers have kept much of the business’s old values such as attention to detail, commitment to social principles, and a dedicated and knowledgeable staff. An antique 118-year-old seed-packing machine still fills the company’s little paper packets, churning out 62 of them per minute.
But they’ve kept pace with competitors by creatively using social media, online videos and e-newsletters – while still handing out ubiquitous Peaceful Valley bumper stickers. They’ve also taken advantage of a new online business model that lets local businesses quickly reach nationwide markets.
On Saturday, Peaceful Valley celebrates its 40th birthday with a ’70s-style bash in the parking lot of its only retail nursery, voted the best in Nevada County by readers of the local newspaper The Union.
“We’re hoping to see a lot of our longtime customers,” Pattie Boudier said.
Both of the Boudiers started their careers in big business; he worked for a French big-box retailer, she was the sales manager for an office equipment company.
Living in Houston, they bought Peaceful Valley in 1996 after a nationwide search for a business with a future where they could work together in a place they wanted to live. They viewed organic farming and healthy eating as a safe bet for a growing market. Making their home in the Sierra foothills had its charms, as well.
“We absolutely love it here,” Eric Boudier said. “We made the right choice.”
After buying Peaceful Valley, the couple immersed themselves in the organic gardening and farming world. Pattie Boudier became a master gardener. They personally test everything they sell.
“Every year, we continue to offer more and more,” she said. “So many people are eating healthy these days. They want organics.”
Its roots may be a throwback, but Peaceful Valley has kept up with technology. With 53 employees, the company fills and tracks orders electronically. About 95,000 subscribers receive Peaceful Valley’s weekly e-newsletter. For the company’s YouTube channel, Pattie Boudier and her staff created almost 300 how-to videos, which have received nearly 9 million views.
“Using (social media) to sell an old product is a way to differentiate ourselves,” Eric Boudier said. “Twenty years ago, we were the only kid on the block, the only organic supply on the West Coast. The Internet lowered the barrier to everything; now, a lot of people want to get into (the organics business). So, we have to keep differentiating ourselves.”
The business still mailed 640,000 paper catalogs nationwide in 2015, with about half going to California residents. To celebrate its birthday milestone, the company rolled back prices a dollar on many of its seed packets to $1.99 each and rebranded its catalog with its website name, GrowOrganic.com.
“We completely revamped the website, too,” he added, estimating that half of Peaceful Valley’s business is generated online. Another quarter come from phone orders, often generated from the catalogs.
During this busy spring season, Peaceful Valley ships about 500 parcels a day, the most by a Nevada County business, the Boudiers said. In winter, it stocks 25,000 bare-root fruit and nut trees in 150-plus varieties, more than any West Coast nursery. Its product list numbers 4,366 items, including more than 1,100 varieties of organic and non-GMO seed.
Those products pack Peaceful Valley’s 20,000-square-foot warehouse, the former home of a Budweiser beer distributorship. Now, the refrigerated rooms chill kernels, not kegs. Recently, the company installed 207 solar panels on its roof.
“I like to think of us as a large small business,” Boudier said. “It keeps us busy. … We’ve grown 25 percent since 2010 – and that was during the drought.”
Customers have responded with intense loyalty.
“PV has everything I need as a home gardener who avoids pesticides and herbicides,” said Charlotte Germane, a former Grass Valley resident who works for the American Horticultural Society. “I now live in the Washington, D.C., area, and I haven’t found any garden center remotely like PV.”
“They are dedicated to helping us garden/farm successfully and without the use of harmful pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers,” added Grass Valley garden guru Susan Gouveia, founder of the garden discussion and help group, The Society of Garden Goddesses. “They are committed to ongoing community education and have made lots of healthy gardening products readily available to us via the Internet.”
The popularity of organic gardening should only climb, Gouveia said.
“So many people are fed up with the crap that goes into packaged and many commercial foods,” she said. “Kids and adults are finding that growing your own food is rewarding, tasty and an opportunity to bring families and community together.”
“People woke up,” added Germane. “Just look at the increasing demand for organic food in mainstream grocery stores. It’s no longer a hippie, Birkenstock thing. Organic gardening and food are important to people who care about their health and their children’s health. It’s not going away.”
Organics on the rise
Peaceful Valley’s own growth as a business “coincided with the growth of organic gardening and farming nationwide,” said founder Amigo Bob Cantisano, who sold the company in 1989. “It was one of the originals and benefited from that reputation. The organic gardening movement has been growing nationally since the ’70s and Peaceful Valley grew right along with it.”
Cantisano, now one of the nation’s top organic farming consultants, expects this agricultural category to keep booming.
“When I started, .01 percent of farms grew food organically; now, it’s 2 percent,” he said. “Organics represent 5 percent of all food consumed in the U.S. That indicates a lot of room for growth.”
Demand is also outpacing supply, he said.
“There’s a shortage of a lot of organic crops (such as nuts, grains and animal feed), so there’s a lot of demand. We’ll see steady double-digit growth for a really long time.”
Part of that demand comes from a paradigm shift in consumer tastes, Cantisano explained. Interest in organic gardening and farming started small, spurred by health food stores in the 1970s; now, “healthy eating” is a mainstream maxim.
“Today, organic food is almost institutionalized,” he said. “People are more interested in their health and environmental concerns. The whole farm-to-fork (movement) is definitely part of it, too.”
Because of the breadth of its offerings, Peaceful Valley’s 2,500-square-foot Grass Valley store has become a draw for Northern California gardeners including such well-known experts as author Rosalind Creasy and Renee Shepherd of Shepherd’s Seeds.
Peaceful Valley offers a mix of gardening products like no other nursery outlet, Germane said.
“I mail-order to PV for garlic ‘Mosquito Barrier,’ hemp twine, ‘Chicken Forage Blend’ seed mix for my chicken-keeping friends, frost blankets, along with PV-brand fertilizers like ‘Liquid Fish’ and ‘Liquid Kelp.’ ”
“The staff reminds me of devoted monks in a monastery, because they’re so devoted to the cause,” said Grass Valley’s Dick Tracy, a former Sacramento Bee garden writer. “The Boudiers, too, are unswerving in getting the best products and best staff. … Word of mouth spread far enough that (the company) was able to survive from the time it had a small garden shed for an office and an outhouse.”
How Peaceful Valley started
That’s part of the Peaceful Valley myth, Cantisano said.
“I’ve heard that (outhouse) story repeated many times. It was actually in the back of a barn and not an outhouse, but a chemical toilet. That part of the farm didn’t have a water system. I didn’t plan to have a big old retail store; just enough to satisfy the needs of my neighbors. Eventually, we moved to town and went upscale – with flush toilets.”
Cantisano, who also helped start California Certified Organic Farmers, saw a shortage of supplies for organic farmers in 1976. That led him to launch the business at his Nevada City farm on tiny Peaceful Valley Road.
“My farm needed rock phosphate (an organic fertilizer) and so did my neighbors,” he said. “Most of the farm and garden stores at that time didn’t carry that sort of thing. There was one small organic store in the Bay Area, but it didn’t serve farmers’ needs. (Peaceful Valley) came out of necessity.”
Cantisano started stocking other items for organic farmers.
“I put out a price list – two photocopied pages; that was the first ‘catalog,’ ” he said. “It covered everything: pest control, fertilizer, amendments, compost, seed. Peaceful Valley is now a lot bigger company, but it hasn’t changed all that much. It’s always tried to cover all the bases.”
Cantisano eventually sold Peaceful Valley to Mark and Kathleen Fenton to pursue other projects. Via Peaceful Valley’s popular catalog, the Fentons expanded its customer base nationwide. When they retired in 1995, the Fentons sold the company to the Boudiers.
“The owners and staff have always been dedicated organic farmers and gardeners, and they know what’s important on a season-by-season basis,” Germane said. “Whether it’s cover crop choices or home canning information, the company has been reliable and straightforward. It’s a company with a mission, through all the generations of the owners and staff.”
Peaceful Valley did turn out to be their perfect business in a perfect place, Eric Boudier said. “No question, I’d do it again in an instant.
“Destiny brought us to Peaceful Valley,” he said. “It’s been a wild ride ever since.”
Peaceful Valley’s 40th birthday party
Where: Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply, 125 Clydesdale Court, Grass Valley
When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday
Also: With a ’70s theme, the event includes music, food, a costume contest and a raffle.