Patagonia Founder Yvon Chouinard Fights the Food Industry

Mj 618_348_yvon chouinard fights the food industry
Tim Davis

Yvon Chouinard reinvented the ice ax, developed the first wetsuits to include sustainable merino wool, and built the Patagonia clothing company from a few pairs of canvas shorts in 1973 to the $600 million business it is today. Now Chouinard has another ambition: He wants to sell you a piece of fish.

"My work with clothing is finished; I've done all I can," Chouinard says. Still fit and toned at 75, with a workingman's hands and a furrowed brow, Chouinard has moved away from day-to-day management of his company – but he's always looking for another challenge. He spends much of his time surfing near his homes in Ventura, California, and on the exclusive Hollister Ranch near Santa Barbara. His other biggest passion: fishing. Chouinard just published a book called Simple Fly Fishing, about a Japanese technique called tenkara, and he executive-produced and has a cameo in the new documentary DamNation, about the dismantling of two dams on Washington state's Elwha River to restore a wild-salmon run. He has fishing licenses all over the globe – including Idaho, Yellowstone, Quebec, and South America.

"My next trip is to a remote area on the Chile-Argentina border," he says, "where there are rumors of the largest brook trout left in the world, in streams only a handful of people have ever fished."

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With an agenda like that, it's no surprise that Chouinard's new venture, Patagonia Provisions, kicked off last fall with a line of sustainably harvested wild-salmon snacks – six-ounce fillets, individually sealed in foil, with the taste and texture of a restaurant-quality entrée. Fish isn't clothing, of course, and smoked salmon does represent a big leap for a brand more associated with backcountry skiing and climbing. But Chouinard has a remarkable track record for innovating in established industries. He did it with climbing gear in the 1960s, buying an anvil and teaching himself blacksmithing, then building Chouinard Equipment Ltd. into the world's finest manufacturer of mountaineering hardware. (He later sold the company to employees, who renamed it Black Diamond.) And he did it with surfing in the 1990s, developing the first environmentally friendly boards. To Chouinard, food products are the next logical combination of his hobbies and his business savvy.

The idea first occurred to him after a 2006 sustainable-seafood conference, where he spoke about Patagonia's unusual sourcing practices – how the company asks hard questions about every aspect of its supply chains, from irrigation water used in organic cotton farming to the treatment of the geese that provide down feathers. Patagonia has made an art of strengthening the brand through ever-stricter environmental standards, even shaming competitors into following suit.

"The audience at this conference was all fish distributors," Chouinard says, "and I told them, 'You don't even know where your fish comes from!' Take salmon, which I know about because I fish for 'em a lot." Salmon are highly unusual in that they spawn in freshwater, spend their adult lives in the ocean, and then – if they don't get caught first – swim up the same river to spawn. Most salmon fishing happens near the mouths of big river systems, however, keeping the fish from reaching their spawning pools, and potentially destroying whole populations.

"When you catch a sockeye at the mouth of the Columbia," Chouinard says, "you have no idea where that fish was actually going to spawn. What if the ones you take are the only fish that were going to make it back up to lay their eggs in Redfish Lake in Idaho that year?"

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In other words, the only way to guarantee that your wild-salmon dollar is doing what it's supposed to – supporting wild fisheries, not weakening them – lies in sourcing strictly from small upstream fisheries.

Paul Greenberg, author of American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood, shares Chouinard's concerns. "Fish sourcing is really tricky," he says, "and the American public needs to be invested in the rivers that support our wild salmon."

Chouinard left that 2006 conference feeling he'd wasted his time, that the distributors he'd spoken to would never change their ways. "Then I thought, 'Well, shit, why don't I just do it myself?' " he says.

But Patagonia Provisions won't begin and end with fish. Chouinard has a buffalo jerky in the works, produced by novelist and buffalo rancher Dan O'Brien and with an environmental backstory comparable to salmon, all about restoring the native grassland ecosystem to the High Plains of South Dakota. A fruit bar will come later that will include a protein powder made from sustainably farmed African baobab trees. Chouinard is also interested in creating a dried soup modeled after something he saw Tibetans eating 40 years ago during a Himalayan climbing expedition.

"We gave the sherpas all this freeze-dried food, and they just left it at home to eat later," Chouinard says. "They prefer to fuel their climbing on this stuff called tsampa, where they roast barley by putting it in a wok with sand and heating it until the barley pops. Then they sift out the sand – or most of it, anyway."

The sherpas carried this dry-roasted barley into the mountains, rehydrating it with boiling water, spices, and yak butter to make a nourishing soup. Chouinard has since made his own tsampa, combining grains with powdered soup, salmon jerky, parmesan, and olive oil. "I love that stuff so much, I could eat it day after day," he says. A Patagonia Provisions prototype, currently in testing with a company-sponsored Himalayan expedition, uses perennial heirloom grains, far more nutritious than commodity wheat and easier on the land. (Because the crop isn't uprooted and replanted each year, it radically reduces the need for irrigation and fertilizer; these grains also grow ever-deeper roots, fixing carbon in the soil.)

"I'm not out to make a line of backpacking foods," Chouinard says. "I want this stuff in every supermarket eventually. I'm out to change the world of food."

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