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In Memoriam—Honoring Will Daniels

The CCOF community is saddened by news of the passing of Will Daniels, a champion of the organic movement whose passion, vision, and leadership inspired many people in the field of organic agriculture. Will served for 13 years on the CCOF Board from 2001–2014, which included the role of board chair.

 

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John Foster, former director of supply chain strategy at Earthbound Farm (a position Will recruited John into), recalls his time working with Will. “Will was one of the key people who navigated the survival and resurgence of Earthbound Farm after the E. coli outbreak in 2006. If it weren’t for that team, Will included, Earthbound Farm wouldn’t have re-emerged. Most companies who have a food safety problem with that kind of national prominence wouldn’t survive it. Will was one of the reasons it did.”

Will was instrumental in the development of the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA), which emerged after the spinach outbreak as the current standard for leafy greens food safety. Will’s involvement in the LGMA took food safety for the fresh cut produce industry to a new level.

“Will took a scientific but humane approach to problems,” John recalls. “He held a steadfast dedication to the use of testing not just to prove safety, but to verify the process. He codified programs that produced data-driven results. He gave a programmatic approach to food safety on leafy greens. Now, nearly 20 years later, it’s just part of the fabric of the industry, and no one can imagine how it didn’t always exist.”

John says, “Will is a wonderful model for me in terms of raw leadership ability. He doesn’t get enough credit for that, I think, since he was so well-regarded in more technical areas. He launched and nurtured the careers of hundreds of people in the organic produce and food safety industries. He judged people fairly and spoke with them respectfully. He embodied the best of leadership qualities of doing right for the right reasons. My time working with him was a gift. He was very humble, which made him all the better of a leader. So many people who worked with Will are just shattered by this loss.”

In one example John recalls, Earthbound Farm conducted a full-scale, minutely detailed exercise to test response systems in the event that a recall were issued and the CEO wasn’t available for guidance. “There were more than a dozen of us in the conference room when the [randomly timed mock emergency] call came in. Will became the leader of that room in an instant, without discussion or contention. He didn’t demand it. Everyone just knew. We went through the following hours and days with everyone playing their parts well, but with Will at the helm. In that moment, I thought, ‘That’s leadership right there.’ Will’s passing is a tremendous loss, but there’s some comfort in knowing he’s left a well-entrenched legacy and a long list of us whom he helped inspire to be agents for positive change in produce, food safety, organics, and beyond.”

 

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Cathy Calfo, former CCOF CEO, recalls her time working with Will. “When I joined CCOF in 2011, Will had served on the board and as chair for more than a decade. He helped navigate us through tedious implementation of the National Organic Program rule. But more importantly, under Will’s leadership, CCOF met the moment by becoming the largest organic certifier in the United States while maintaining its strong connection to its farmer-based membership.”

 

“Will believed, as we all do, that organic is the answer to building a better planet. Sharing his deep understanding of organic processes and injecting patience, kindness, and vision along the way, Will was the leader that CCOF needed at a critical time. We wouldn’t be who we are today without him, and as an organic community, we’re going to miss him.”

 

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John McKeon, director of organic integrity and compliance at Taylor Farms, recalls the first time he met Will, which was during one of John’s first PrimusGFS inspections as an organic inspector. “For me, as an apprentice inspector at that time, it was a big deal seeing one of the big guys in organics—Earthbound Farm was quite an operation even then, around 2001. I didn’t know that seven years later I’d be working for him. I was particularly intrigued because when we were driving around the facility, Will pulled up in his red Subaru with his Grateful Dead sticker on it. I thought, this seems right for an organic inspection.”

“Will just had such a presence. He was very logical and very transparent in all of his activities. When the spinach outbreak happened, Will stepped into the bigger industry as a responsible entity for food safety. I witnessed his pragmatic, scientific approach to problem solving. It was really something to be able to work under Will. That’s where I learned how to balance food safety and organic, regenerative, sustainable practices—working to use our production methods with the planet instead of in dominance over it.”

“Beyond all that, he was a guy you could see in his office, or run into at a restaurant, and sit down and have a conversation with or just goof off. He was human. That was the thing that helped congeal our Earthbound Farm department around him. His mentality of ‘we’re all in it together’ carried a lot of people forward. He was the basis for so many people who are now driving quality, food safety, and organic integrity; he allowed them to come forward.”

“It was a real pleasure to hang out with him. I really miss him.”

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If you would like to show support for Will’s family, please visit their GoFundMe.

 

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