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Organic Trade Association Awards Recognize Inspiring Leaders

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) has been recognizing inspiring and innovative leaders in our industry for over 20 years. In 1997, the first-ever OTA Leadership Award was given to Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) for his groundbreaking work in developing the national organic standards and helping to bring the U.S. Department of Agriculture Organic seal to life. Every year since, OTA has recognized a diverse group of leaders whose peers have put them forward for this prestigious award. For 2021, OTA expanded our award categories in recognition of the outstanding work our members have done to help both their neighbors and the organic industry stay strong throughout the COVID pandemic.

In addition to OTA’s historic Organic Pioneer and Organic Farmer of the Year Awards, OTA is recognizing two new categories of leaders through the Community Service and Climate Action awards. Winners, to be honored as part of OTA’s 2022 Organic Week event, include:

  • Organic Pioneer:

    Mayra Velazquez de Leon,

    Organics Unlimited
  • Organic Farmer of the Year:

    Amy Bruch,

    Cyclone Farms
  • Community Service:

    Cassie Cyphers and

    Scott Erickson,

    Clif Bar & Company
  • Climate Action:

    Britt Lundgren,

  • Posthumous Pioneer:

    Amigo Bob Cantisano

These leaders and their efforts motivate and encourage all of us in the organic industry to continue improving and creating a more equitable and sustainable future. Their dedication motivates us to work harder, be more creative in our problem-solving, and to continue to prioritize people and planet above all else.




Mayra Velazquez de Leon co-founded Organics Unlimited in 2000, but her connection to organic has been with her from the very beginning. Over 50 years ago, Mayra’s father Carlos Cortez became the first commercial organic grower to bring organic bananas to the U.S. Carlos’ bananas were so delicious that customers began asking how on earth he was able to produce such fruits. The secret? Organic production methods, which Carlos had learned from his father, that leveraged local resources and abstained from harmful pesticides or other supplements. That client helped Carlos to expand his organic business, and in 1972, he brought it and his family to the United States.

Led by her love for organic tropical fruit and her pioneering spirit, Mayra worked hard to build on her father’s legacy. With the founding of Organics Unlimited in 2000, Mayra would successfully grow the family business into what is today—the largest family-run organic banana company in the country. Organics Unlimited offers Cavendish bananas, plantains, and coconuts sourced from sustainably operated organic farms across Mexico and Ecuador. In addition to investing in environmental sustainability by growing only organic tropical fruits, Mayra and Organics Unlimited also believe in investing in their workers.

Organics Unlimited launched GROW in 2005 as a social responsibility initiative to help poverty-stricken banana-growing regions in Mexico and Ecuador. Over the past 15 years, GROW has provided nearly $3 million in support for education and health initiatives, micro-businesses and environmental programs, as well as disaster relief efforts. In 2021, Organics Unlimited added a Fair-Trade Certified label to its lineup as an additional way the company could support sustainable prices for farmers and healthy farming communities.

Under Mayra’s direction, Organics Unlimited has grown into a company able to care for its customers and its workers even through the most challenging times.

“These are among the hardest years we’ve encountered due to the international supply chain obstacles and the issue of fair pricing for bananas,” says Mayra. “That being said, the biggest asset that has gotten us through is our community. We are evidence of what is possible when a community comes together and aligns to contribute to a food system that is good for our environment and fair to the people who grow our food.”

OTA is proud to have members like Mayra and Organics Unlimited who see organic not only as a climate-smart agricultural system, but also as a community. A community-centric approach is critical to the growth of not only our association, but of the organic industry at-large.

“We can be crazy enough to change the world,” says Mayra. “Organic is the work of many people leaving their sweat in the ground, investing in natural inputs to protect our environment and our future generations. Being part of OTA is important to the work we do because it gives us a collective voice. We have a community that we can rely on to protect the integrity of the industry and the values of the organic movement.”




The Organic Leadership Award is given to visionaries who have advanced organic by promoting the industry’s climate change mitigation practices, investing in social responsibility initiatives, leading organic transition programs and keeping the organic community safe during COVID-19. Nominated by her peers and unanimously supported by OTA’s Board of Directors, Nebraska’s Amy Bruch of Cyclone Farms is the first female primary-operator to ever receive this honor.

“I am thankful for OTA’s diverse member network, which provides a forum for collaboration and robust conversations on topics that impact the organic sector,” says Amy. “There is strength in numbers, and I am impressed with what has been and will be accomplished.”

Amy has been an organic farmer for nearly a decade now, stepping into a leadership role at Cyclone Farms following the sudden death of her father, Gary. Amy has transformed Cyclone Farms into one of the most cutting-edge organic farms in the nation by leading the transition of nearly 2,500 highly productive acres to organic, and working alongside Neal Kinsey to implement his Kinsey-Albrecht soil health system. Today, Cyclone Farms produces 10 different, high-quality organic crops for human consumption.

Speaking to Nebraska’s York News-Times, Amy says of organic farming, “There isn’t a road map for what we do and there is definitely not an ‘easy’ button… It requires very detailed plans, management, and record keeping, but it has allowed for my husband and I—and our team—to dive deeper into soil balancing, applying new technology, and expanding our team to allow additional opportunities for those interested in agriculture to get involved.”

Amy has not only led Cyclone Farms’ transition to organic, she’s also helping farmers across the country transition through the organic consulting company, Agrisecure. Through Agrisecure, of which Amy is a co-founder, Amy and her team have helped convert over 65,000 acres across 15 states to organic production. Folks report her leadership has set the pace for getting growers through transition and fully certified to organic.

“In farming, there are always variables that we can’t control… and the pandemic has made us even more humble in this regard,” says Amy. “It has pushed us and our farms to be more resourceful and creative. Having the right attitude, maintaining our connections with the organic community despite limited in-person opportunities, and brainstorming plans to succeed together is how we take on the unexpected.”

Thanks to Amy’s leadership, more farmers in Nebraska and across the country have the encouragement and the tools they need to transition their operations to organic and become more resilient through times of crisis.




When it comes to cultivating community, Clif Bar’s Cassie Cyphers (Senior Sustainable Brand Development Manager) and Scott Erickson (Executive Chef of “Kali’s Kitchen”) believe in going above and beyond. Because of their passion and dedication, both Cassie and Scott are the first honorees to receive OTA’s new Community Service Award.

This award was created to recognize individuals and companies who have gone above and beyond standard business practices to become a source of positivity and stability for customers and organic community members during the COVID pandemic. Throughout the pandemic, Clif Bar has demonstrated compassion and creativity. The company has directed vast resources toward pandemic response efforts, found innovative ways to continue serving customers and community members, and shown care and concern for its employees by enhancing benefits and prioritizing health and safety. Within Clif Bar, Cassie and Scott are on the front lines of these inspirational community service efforts.

“At Clif Bar, serving our community is at the core of who we are as a company. The pandemic has created a critical need to sustain people in our community and we are fortunate to have been able to use our resources to help people in need,” says Cassie. “We are inspired to serve our community and knowing we can make a positive impact on people’s lives makes us want to give even more.”

Recently promoted to Senior Sustainable Brand Development Manager from her former role as Senior Manager, Community Philanthropic Partnerships, Cassie has spent the last several years leading Clif Bar’s community service efforts. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Cassie has been on the frontline of Clif’s community COVID response efforts. Under her leadership, Clif has donated 14 million nutritious bars to first responders and food insecure communities (another 14 million were donated over 2021!), and worked with farmworker-focused non-profit organizations to deploy over $300,000 in PPE to farmworkers across California, where Clif Bar is headquartered. Cassie has been a valued member of the Clif team for over 26 years.

Scott is a Bay-area resident and has been with Clif Bar for 11 years. As Executive Chef for Clif Bar’s employee café, it’s Scott’s job to keep staff fed well. When the pandemic struck, Scott made it his mission to not just feed Clif’s employees, but to also care for his fellow community members. Rather than shut down the café during the pandemic, he kept his staff on and pivoted from providing lunch to in-office staff to making meals for at-risk neighbors by launching the Kali’s Community Kitchen Program. To help him maximize his impact, Scott also partnered with Oakland-based community organization Homies for Empowerment and their FREEdom Store as well as Oakland Unified School District.

“With food insecurity increasing dramatically during the pandemic, one of the many projects our Clif culinary team took on was to pack weekly homecooked meals for 400 hundred volunteers for the Oakland Unified School District,” says Scott. “These meals were made at our headquarters in Emeryville, using ingredients grown right in our Clif garden. Volunteers helped us to manage 22 local food distribution sites, ensuring that students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch were still getting those meals while schools were closed.”

Together, Scott and his partners have provided roughly 300,000 meals to date!




Another new honor this year is the Organic Climate Action Award, which recognizes a person or company demonstrating exemplary leadership in advancing organic solutions to mitigate climate change through policy advocacy, farm to business innovation, or engagement. There are few climate advocates more deserving of this award than Britt Lundgren, Director of Organic and Sustainable Agriculture at Stonyfield. Britt leads Stonyfield’s efforts to reduce emissions from agriculture, focusing particularly on improving the sustainability of the dairy sector, and also spearheads the organization’s federal policy advocacy on organic and climate change solutions.

Britt also currently serves as Secretary of the OTA Board, President of the Association’s Dairy Sector Council, co-chair of its Climate Change Task Force, and a member of several other OTA task forces and councils.

“Organic farming systems are leading the way when it comes to developing farming practices that are better for the environment and for fighting climate change,” says Britt. “I’m glad to see conventional agriculture embracing the idea that we need to take action on climate change, but we need to make sure that organic producers—who have been doing the right things all along—are not left behind.”

Over the past five years, a major focus of Britt’s work has been the development, funding, and launch of OpenTEAM—an open-source “smart-farming” platform that hopes to provide farmers and scientists with in-depth knowledge about managing soil health and soil carbon sequestration. OpenTEAM, which stands for Open Technology Ecosystem for Agricultural Management, is a collaborative effort between Stonyfield, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, and Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture & the Environment. These major food, farm, and climate organizations are working together to deliver quantitative feedback on millions of acres of farmland by 2024, which will help farmers to sequester carbon and promote adaptive soil health management.

“I believe the shared sense that we’re working to make the world a healthier place really helps people feel connected to Stonyfield and the work we are doing,” says Britt. “That shared connection makes us a stronger team, even when we’re coping with the many challenges that have emerged during the pandemic.”



Last, but certainly not least, OTA recognizes the late Amigo Bob Cantisano for his decades of service to the organic agriculture movement. Amigo, a ninth-generation Californian, came up with a generation of largely urban youth who moved back to the land in the 1970s and began farming as a way to reform the food industry. He was a staunch defender of the environment, farmworker safety, and healthy food, and battled the pesticides industry his entire life. He is considered by many to be the Godfather of California organic agriculture.

OTA is honored to celebrate each of these leaders of the organic industry and to share their stories with our members and with the wider community. Their leadership, work ethic, and impressive achievements serve as guiding lights as we continue to learn, grow, and build community within and beyond the organic industry.

Reana Kovalcik is the Organic Trade Association’s Director of Public Relations.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2022 Organic Report, you can view the full magazine here.