Noel shares his story about his path to the founding of Ceres Organics.
I was 21 when I read a book that awoke something in me which at the time I could not name or even really describe. Through school and university, everything was separate facts, the path our science takes us down, but this book was about connection and especially connection in the living world. It’s as if I had a different light on everything though at that time hazy and unfocused. I was an active protester through high school and university especially with environmental concerns and this began to transform in my mid 20’s to become the question of ‘what could I do to bring change’? I became interested in the ideas of Rudolf Steiner and found people of like mind and together we formed a small group in the late 1970’s to study his ideas on social and economic questions and to educate ourselves on real world problems.
One day, a member of this group, Juliet Lamont, said ‘I am going to start a co-op as I want to feed my two boys Thomas and Simon organic and biodynamic food’. Juliet organised a stall at the annual fair for Michael Park School in Ellerslie, a Rudolf Steiner inspired school, to see if others were interested. Many of us joined Juliet’s weekly organic co-op that operated out of her garage in Mt Wellington which was also NZ’s first organic co-op in 1982. It was a real step from studying and thinking about social and economic issues to doing something, moving from the head to the will. We realised this is the practical path we could take that could bring change to the world by reconnecting with the natural world through organics and biodynamics and working in harmony with nature in agriculture while finding answers to social questions through a cooperative enterprise, still of course mainly many questions and some half-formed answers.
The co-op outgrew Juliet’s garage and a group of us financed Juliet into a store in Ellerslie that became the first store in New Zealand to be founded with organic food as its focus. Juliet’s garage overflowed on the weekly coop day but in comparison the store looked bare, with the sale of produce now across a week. Ceres, the Roman goddess of the harvest was chosen as the store name and we later registered this as a company, Ceres Enterprises Limited. We didn’t have the internet in those days where we would have found what we thought was a brilliantly inspired name for a food company, was actually a name many food companies across the world were using. We had a logo we affectionately called the cabbage which represented the social interaction in the economic world.
Above left: The first Ceres logo - affectionally known as "the cabbage". Right: One of our logo evolutions.
Organics in New Zealand was until then in the realm of hobbyists and enthusiasts and Ceres along with others made it stand up in the commercial world. More people joined Juliet and Ceres started wholesaling organic produce but with differing ideas entering of how an economic enterprise should work which led to a division. Juliet stood firm with the ideas we had developed in the study group that any economic undertaking is essentially first a social undertaking if it is not to bring problems to the world by becoming solely consumed in commercial thinking. Juliet stayed with the retail store while others took the wholesale. A short time later Ceres started wholesaling again, this time on a different basis. Juliet's vision for the store was simple yet powerful;
"I want to have a shop, a social centre, a place where people could meet and have a chat, I wanted Ceres to be a sustainable entereprise, a haven from hard sell fast food".
To help fill up the store, Juliet asked Rodnie Whitlock who owned a small business, Steiner-books, to merge with Ceres in 1986. A year later Juliet asked me to join Ceres when my family company sold, and I worked building the wholesale trade in food and non-food working closely with another likeminded but small company, Weleda. Ceres acted as Weleda’s sales arm while also beginning Dr Hauschka cosmetics in New Zealand.
Above: Photos of New Zealand's first dedicated organic store in Ellerslie, Auckland.
Juliet, whose profession was as a teacher left Ceres in the early 1990’s to return to teaching, this time in a Waldorf or Rudolf Steiner school. A year later she tragically died from cancer. Rodnie and I continued working together for over 30 years growing Ceres Organics into the company it is today.
The social impulse laid in Ceres Organics early on is what gave us the strength to build from and the experience further formed through our working with social and economic ideas encapsulated in our purpose ‘ to bring healing to the earth and humankind’ enlivened the company. Addressing the economic, social and environmental problems we could see in the world gave us purpose beyond ourselves.
Most of the original members of the early study group who are still living, continue as part of the company with three of us forming part of the body of directors of Ceres.
Back then and still today our purpose "to bring healing to the earth and humankind" is as at the core of all our thinking and being.