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Heal the People, the Land Will Follow

an Interview with Organic Valley
CEO George Siemon

 

by Rosy Ward of Bioneers

In the summer of 2002, Bioneers conducted a series of interviews with 25 leaders in the sustainable food and farming movement. The aim was to gather their collective wisdom about how to create a truly ecological and socially just agriculture. As part of this series, Rosy Ward of Bioneers interviewed George Siemon, Organic Valley Founding Farmer and CEO, on August 8, 2002.

Rosy Ward: What is your vision for a 21st-century agriculture?

George Siemon: I'd like to see the United States begin to treasure the great resource we have—our soil—and to treasure our rural agriculture. The best way to do that is to support organic farming.

What are the obstacles you see right now to achieving that vision?

An archaic farm system where politics prevails instead of sustainable thinking. In our government planning process, the concept of sustainability simply doesn't exist. We need to break out of the reactive "support with dollars" type thinking and move to investing in preventive measures. Right now we subsidize farmers to grow corn that we sell for 1950s prices while running our soil down the river, instead of subsidizing green manure or soil up-keep managements. It's the same amount of money; it's just, where is it going?

So we have an entrenched system where university research is controlled by the chemical companies. Our governmental philosophy doesn't support cultural thinking—what's best for the nation, what's best for people.

While we have a policy that's destroying the rural environment, there's another branch that's funding millions of dollars back into the rural environment to try to bring it back up to speed. So you've got two opposing forces here.

How about the opportunities that exist right now?

Well, it's extremely tough going out in the countryside. Conventional milk is less now than it was in 1980. "So we have a hopeless, unreal situation. Farms are getting bigger and bigger, often with subsidized, cheap corn and subsidized water. I'm reminded of what energy conservation advocates say—that it's a lot cheaper to build a building to use half the energy than to build power plants. Well, we could use some of that kind of thinking to support organic agriculture so that we can avoid these ongoing subsidies.

I would say the government is the biggest thing in the way. All the surveys show that people are willing to spend more money to buy organic food but they are concerned about its cost. But if you removed the subsidies involved in conventional agriculture and added in the environmental damage, we might not be as far off as we think we are in terms of the true cost of food. At the Extension services, all the research is being controlled by big money—chemical research. So farmers are eager for something more sensible and a little more respectful than subsidized farming. But we have a cheap food policy in this country that's almost 50 years old, so it makes the environmental or cultural effects of the food seem less important.

How about some of the solutions and strategies that your organization and company has used?

We've combined all the different solutions together into one very successful model. That's not to say it's that duplicable all the time. In our case organic has reduced our input costs, and we've seen a lot of benefits on the farm level. We have a market premium that the consumer is very excited about and willing to support. Then we have a cooperative structure. That means we try to stay loyal to the mission and faithful to our purpose instead of to some hungry stockholders far away who don't care how much the farmers are paid.

We also do supply management, which is really crucial in organics. We try not to produce any more than we can sell, because we're trying to pay farmers a sustainable price. Now, finally, our farmers can afford to build buildings that both take better care of the animals and make their lives easier.

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