Several years ago, the Organic Valley farmer Board of Directors decided against purchasing carbon credits to offset the business’s carbon footprint. While this may sound counter-intuitive for a sustainability-driven business such as Organic Valley, they chose this path because paying money for credits is not only an extra expense to the business (and thus, farmer-members who own the business), but purchasing credits does not give a business reason to actually cut energy use. The Board voted instead to invest money in developing projects that would directly lower our energy and fuel footprint, which, in turn, would reduce costs for the co-op and our farmer-members, as well as show that we are taking real-time responsibility for our energy use and actively managing our impact on the environment. In this third and final part in our Sustainability at Organic Valley series, we’ll examine this work toward responsible and renewable energy development.
We are currently working on both the business level and the farm level to produce our own fuel and electricity. We have also worked to identify local supplies of waste vegetable oil and biodiesel to power our fleet. Our vision is to eventually influence all of our contract haulers that move our products across the country to fuel responsibly. For now, though, we are focusing on the haulers that service the Organic Valley Distribution Center in Cashton, Wis., as well as our cooperative-owned fleet of diesel egg and milk transport trucks. Additionally we have been working with farms throughout the co-op to grow oilseed crops, which are then pressed using our mobile biodiesel press machine to produce their own fuel, and then the leftover dry matter also makes excellent livestock feed. This year we discovered a source of GMO-free winter canola and have made it available to any farmers who wish to work it into their rotation. Canola, as well as sunflowers, camelina, soy and flax, is a proven oilseed crop that can yield up to 100 gallons of fuel and 1,200 pounds of feedmeal to the acre.
With the installation of an engine conversion kit, such as an Elsbett system, diesel vehicles can run on the straight oil without needing to further process into biodiesel. We have negotiated a 20% discount on the Elsbett systems for any farmer-member or employee of the coop. This summer, kits were installed on three of our farmer-members’ tractors and three co-op owned fleet vehicles (egg and shuttle trucks and the marketing bus, which was recently used for our Generation Organic Tour of the Northeast). We have been running on GMO-free waste sunflower oil for nearly three months without any major issues associated this renewable fuel.
We are also committed to powering our farms and operations with clean renewable energy. Last summer, we installed a small solar electric system at the headquarters in La Farge, Wis. This summer, we decided to explore solar hot water and have been able to negotiate a discount on solar hot water systems with a local Wisconsin business, Bubbling Springs Solar, for all co-op farmer-members and employees. Through our cooperative efforts with Bubbling Springs Solar, we installed a system at CROPP Main, our first Organic Valley building before the current Headquarters was built, and which now houses our retail store, cheese cut-and-wrap facility, and offices for part of the marketing department. The system is designed to primarily meet the needs of the cheese cut-and-wrap facility.
The On-Farm Sustainability Program, lead by Jake Wedeberg, has worked with our farmer-members to complete energy efficiency audits, renewable energy assessments, grant applications, federal tax credit forms and state/local rebates for project installation. The program works with farmers on a wide variety of topics, all with the goal of lowering environmental impacts while increasing farm profitability. We are currently evaluating the on-farm application of solar hot water, which would help lower water heating costs for farmer-members. In addition to solar hot water, several farms this year have or will install solar electric systems and small scale wind turbines. We are happy to report that five of our farmer-members have received grant funds and rebates which are helping to significantly lower their return on investment. All of the projects are scheduled to be operational by the end of this year.
The final demonstration (though, there is more to come, to be sure!) of our commitment to community and responsible energy is the Cashton Greens Wind project. This project proposes the installation of two 1.8 mega-watt turbines and is a partnership between Gunderson Lutheran (a local health care network) and Western Technical College. Once installed, the turbines are expected to produce over 14 million kilowatts of power each year, and Organic Valley’s portion of the project will provide enough electricity to meet the needs of the Cashton Distribution Center, as well as all of our La Farge operations. The energy that cannot be used will be sold back to the grid to provide clean, renewable energy for our local communities. The Cashton Greens Wind project is a clear example of sustainability at work: The turbines provide clean renewable energy that eliminates the production of GHGs from dirty energy sources such as coal; invests in the local community to provide local jobs and resources for students; and helps control our business’s electricity costs into the future.
Planet, People and Profits—we are continually working to show rather than tell what sustainability and energy responsibility truly means, and to be a real-life demonstration of the triple bottom line in action.
For more information about Organic Valley’s sustainability efforts, visit www.organicvalley.coop/about-us/sustainability.
Jennifer Harrison is Sustainability Program Manager for Organic Valley. She joined OrganicValley in 2008 and manages sustainability initiatives both business-wide and on our member-farms, working toward the cooperative’s mission of social, environmental and economic sustainability—People, Planet and Profits. She has settled in Viroqua, Wisconsin, from California and is adapting to Midwest winters.