Around 10 years ago, then an electrical and general contractor, Tibor Fischl designed a retractable greenhouse and agricultural growing system. Figuring he had to put something into it to show how it would work, he looked for nutritious plants and came upon the goji berry.
Originally brought to the United States in the 19th century by immigrants from China, both the leaves and berry of the Lycium Barbarum, known as goji or wolfberry, are powerful antioxidants, full of vitamins A and C, and an enzyme called Quinone (PQQ) that helps heal and protect blood cells. Fischl bought all the plants he could find and immersed himself in learning how to propagate them successfully.
Goji Farm USA, which Fischl runs with two partners, is today the largest goji producer in North America, with a farm in central Washington state and headquarters in Sonoma County, California, about 50 miles north of San Francisco.
After harvest, Goji Farm’s berries are either fresh-frozen or freeze-dried, and they provide the leaf to customers as well. “The leaf is bitter but cleansing,” Fischl says. Clients use the leaves in beverages or add the free-dried berries to products like trail mix. “The value of freeze-drying,” he explains, “is that the berries retain their nutritional value, minus the water. They’re indefinitely preserved when vacuum-packed.”
The importance of kosher certification
Kosher certification was very important to Goji Farm USA, “a vision for a long time,” says Fischl. “We are concerned about our customers’ well-being and part of that is to take steps to have a third party verify that we are clean. We care about where our product comes from and want to convey that to our customers.”
For this company, kosher certification helps because many of their wholesale clients are also kosher. Being able to mix their berries with other kosher products was a motivation for Goji Farm to obtain OU Kosher certification. “I believe that the distributors and retailers we sell to value that we’re OU Kosher-certified. I think it’s created impetus for the ones who aren’t already kosher-certified to seek OU Kosher certification. And they’ll be able to announce that their product is supplied by us and that it’s OU Kosher.”
Getting kosher certification
They received their OU Kosher certification in February, after starting the process in the fall of 2021. “It was a very pleasant process,” Fischl says. “It took a while because it’s thorough, and they physically examined the product in their labs, but it was never stressful. I enjoyed Rabbi Twersky, my main contact.” For now, Fischl is managing the OU Kosher program on his own, and plans to continue that unless it gets to be too demanding.
Fischl offers the benefit of his experience to others who are seeking OU Kosher certification. What made the process so smooth, he says, is that “we had good documentation for what was requested, good photos and data, everything from A to Z. As long as you have good data to represent what you’re doing, that’s all that’s needed. That’s what needed for your own good farming too. Farmers who don’t document are not really credible.”
Goji Farm USA plans to eventually freeze-dry a wide variety of fruits and vegetables under their label — such as berries, apples, pears — and they’ll all be kosher. Right now it’s only goji but these others are expected to appear starting in Spring 2023.
A father’s inspiration
Fischl’s father, Peter Fischl, looms large in his son’s life. Peter Fischl, who died in 2018, survived the Holocaust as a boy in Hungary, and Tibor is named after Peter’s father who was murdered by the Nazis. Later in life Peter Fischl worked tirelessly for peace and tolerance, speaking constantly to students and other groups about his experiences. Whenever things have gotten tough on Tibor Fischl’s 10-year journey to bring goji berries to consumers, “I think of my father, promoting peace” — and he goes on.