He credits these efforts with helping to make Stonyfield Farm one of the country's fastest- growing yogurt businesses.
A measure of that growth and success was evident when two industry leaders, Dannon and Columbo, announced test marketing of their own organic yogurts in Stonyfield's core New England market.
Hirshberg's response was to virtually dance around the plant.
``Our employees couldn't understand why I was so gleeful about the competition launching a clone of our product,'' said Hirshberg, his impish grin growing.
``But I never dreamed we'd have this kind of success.''
Promoting organic farming and foods was Stonyfield's mission from day one, along with supporting an organic farming school. About 30 percent of Stonyfield's product is organic.
Though it took almost eight years to show a profit, the Londonderry, N.H., firm kept growing as fast as the active cultures in its yogurt.
``We were ahead of our time,'' says Hirshberg.
Now in year 15 and nearing $50 million in annual sales of all-natural and organic yogurt (also organic frozen yogurt and ice cream), Stonyfield is a profitable business built on what it regards as responsible environmental and social tenets.
Ten percent of its pretax profits go to environmental groups. Seventy percent of plant wastes are recycled. Trees are planted each year to offset carbon emissions. And there is profit-sharing by the more than 150 employees. More moo-nique marketing strategies include the Have-A-Cow program, offering an ``adoption'' certificate and photo to supporters of family farming. (That's where those personal reports from the farm come in.)
Stonyfield started on the farm.
In 1983, Hirshberg, the environmental activist, joined Samuel Kaymen, a biochemist turned farmer and businessman, in milking cows and making yogurt.
``We had seven cows. We were selling to eight little stores. When a supermarket chain with 35 stores called and wanted to know why we weren't selling to them, I had to tell them we just didn't have the product,'' Hirshberg recalled.
Sales increased from $90,000 the first year to $3.5 million in 1990 to $43 million last year. That is a 2.5 percent share of the yogurt market nationwide. The Northeast regional numbers are higher - 8 percent in Philadelphia and 12 percent in New England. Stonyfield's annual growth averages more than 30 percent in an industry with flat sales overall.
Already the favorite in the natural-foods market and a leader in quart-container sales for cooking, Stonyfield is moving into select supermarkets nationwide, thanks to an $11 million plant expansion that tripled production capabilities.
But that's not enough for Hirshberg the educator.
He frets that there are consumers who don't understand that organic foods offer the pesticide-free alternative they say they want. And that many cooks have no idea yogurt can be used as a substitute for sour cream or mayonnaise.
Along the way, Hirshberg stopped milking cows, and stopped raising them. Now Stonyfield pays premium prices for natural and organic milk from small, family-run dairy farms in New England.
More recently the recipe was upgraded to include six live cultures, more than in any other yogurt. Those strains of health-promoting bacteria include Lactobacillus reuteri. Naturally occurring in humans, L. reuteri boosts immune systems and helps ward off gastrointestinal disease by deterring growth of salmonella, E. coli, staphylococcus and other microbes.
Reuteri is added to dairy products, juices and other foods in Switzerland, Sweden, Finland and Japan.
Natural yogurt has live cultures. Other yogurts are pasteurized, killing the cultures. Labels tell which yogurts have live cultures. Organic yogurts have live cultures plus ingredients that are certified organic - free of all man-made additives, preservatives or pesticides.
Celebrating 15 years of growth, Hirshberg reintroduced the firm's original product, an organic whole-milk yogurt (six flavors) so natural and rich that it comes topped with a layer of cream.
``In 1989 we saw the writing on the wall and went over to nonfat,'' said Hirshberg. ``Now we see whole milk making a comeback.''
That hasn't kept Stonyfield from extending its yogurt line to also include four nonfat organic fruit flavors.
Due out in January are six-packs of Planet Protectors yogurt - strawberry and ``banilla,'' a banana-vanilla blend - in child-friendly 4-ounce cups.
The recipes that follow come from the Stonyfield Farm Yogurt Cookbook (Stonyfield Cultured Books, 1991) by Meg Cadoux Hirshberg, the boss' wife and mother of their three little yogurt eaters. Another book of hers, including yogurt recipes from chefs in the Share Our Strength (S.O.S.) hunger-relief program, is to be published next summer.
SALMON MUFFINS 1 can (1 pound) salmon, drained
4 carrots, peeled, grated
2 scallions, minced
1 small bell pepper, cored, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 cup plain low-fat yogurt
1 cup seasoned bread crumbs
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 large eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon dried thyme
Dash of pepper
Crushed cornflakes, optional
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease muffin tins. Pick over and flake salmon. In another bowl, mix carrots, scallions, bell pepper and celery. Stir in yogurt, crumbs, mayonnaise, eggs, thyme and pepper. Fold in salmon. Fill muffin cups. Top with cereal if desired. Bake 40 to 50 minutes until browned and a tester comes out clean. Makes 12 muffins.
Note: These freeze well and are good for buffets. Bake in mini-muffin tins to serve as hors d'oeuvres.
Nutritional data per serving: Calories, 192; protein, 11 grams; carbohydrates, 11 grams; fat, 11 grams; cholesterol, 64 milligrams; sodium, 372 milligrams.
YOGURT CHICKEN SATAY 6 boneless chicken breasts
1 cup plain nonfat or low-fat yogurt
2 tablespoons peanut butter
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
2 teaspoons ground coriander
4 shallots, minced
Cut chicken into bite-size pieces. Mix yogurt, peanut butter, lemon juice, ginger, coriander and shallots; pour over chicken. Cover; refrigerate 2 hours or more. Thread chicken onto skewers. Grill gently or bake at 350 degrees until cooked and browned. Serve with rice or pilaf. Makes four to six servings.
Nutritional data per serving: Calories, 443; protein, 62 grams; carbohydrates, 5 grams; fat, 18 grams; cholesterol, 166 milligrams; sodium, 194 milligrams.
YOGURT CREAM TOPPING 1 cup heavy (or whipping) cream
2 cups nonfat or low-fat yogurt, plain or flavored (see note)
2 tablespoons brown sugar
Chopped toasted almonds, optional
Grated coconut, optional
Whip cream to peaks. Mix yogurt and sugar; fold into whipped cream. Use as topping for fruit or desserts. Top with toasted almonds and coconut if desired. Makes three cups.
Note: For basic cream, use 1 cup plain and 1 cup vanilla yogurt.
Nutritional data per 1/4-cup serving: Calories, 98; protein, 3 grams; carbohydrates, 6 grams; fat, 7 grams; cholesterol, 28 milligrams; sodium, 37 milligrams.
YOGURT STREUSEL COFFEE CAKE For the cake:
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, softened
1 cup white sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup vanilla low-fat yogurt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups unbleached flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
For the streusel:
1/2 cup light brown sugar
2 tablespoons unbleached flour
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 cup chopped pecans
Grease and flour a 10-inch Bundt or tube pan. Heat oven to 350 degrees.
For cake batter, cream butter and sugar. Add eggs; mix well. Stir in yogurt and vanilla. Sift together flour, baking powder, soda and salt; beat into creamed mixture.
To prepare streusel, mix brown sugar, flour, cinnamon and butter to damp crumbs. Stir in pecans.
To assemble, put half of cake batter into prepared pan. Spread half of streusel mix over top. Add remaining batter, then remaining streusel. Bake 40 minutes at 350 degrees. Let cool in pan 10 minutes before turning out to cool on rack. Makes 12 servings.
Note: Virtually any yogurt, nut and flavoring combination works well in this cake.
Nutritional data per serving: Calories, 273; protein, 5 grams; carbohydrates, 48 grams; fat, 7 grams; cholesterol, 45 milligrams; sodium, 243 milligrams.
FOR MORE INFORMATION * The Stonyfield Farm Yogurt Cookbook is available by mail order. As a holiday special, Stonyfield is offering the 224-page cookbook with a yogurt cheesemaker (a $21 value) for $8.95 in check or money order sent to Stonyfield Farm Cookbook Offer, 10 Burton Dr., Londonderry, N.H. 03053. For more information on Stonyfield Farm and its products, access www.stonyfield.com