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Heal the People, the Land Will Follow

an Interview with Organic Valley
CEO George Siemon

by Rosy Ward of Bioneers

What are some ways that we can revitalize rural farm economies?

People can support their organic farmers. Certainly a co-op like ours is great to go to. The CSAs and farmers' markets are great avenues. People could get a lot more involved in food, like buying bulk or doing some canning. Go out to the farm, buy a couple cases of food, spend some time, go camping, and then go home and can. To me, it's about a relationship with things that matter.

What are some ways that we can make organic foods available to low-income and poor people?

That's a tough one, but the first rather obvious way is to teach them how to purchase food. You can buy 50 pounds of organic potatoes out in the country here in Wisconsin for next to nothing. You can buy McDonald's French fries for four times as much money. The more ready your food is to eat, the more expensive it is.

If people could develop buying clubs and learn how to cook, I think organic foods could become a lot more acceptable to poor people. We have the same issue with so many things we're doing, whether it's hybrid cars or environmentally sound homes: How are we going to get this to the poor people? It's unfair to belittle organics when in truth the whole environmental movement has that same issue. How do we make this spread?

We could help develop buying clubs in the urban environment. People who get a welfare check once a month could easily buy a 25-pound bag of rice, which goes a long way toward eating healthy. That would be a huge cultural shift. But you won't do it with those ready-to-eat organic "pockets"—they're not cheap food.

How about making organic foods available to schools, hospitals and public institutions?

I think there's some hope around hospitals. At least the private ones are starting to see that health is partly related to people's diets. And a lot of doctors are recommending people buy organic food. There was an ad in the New York Times the other day run by a hospital. It was about children and pesticides and how important it is for parents to buy organic foods. I was shocked.

Schools are historically such a low-bid thing that it will probably just take subsidies. But I am encouraged about universities. We're seeing environmental clubs on campuses saying, We want our food service to buy local foods or organic foods. So it's inch by inch. I'm an optimist.

What are your goals for the next 10 and 25 years?

My goal and the goal of the co-op is to build more and more meaning into organic foods. But it's not only in the farming methods—we're looking at how we can treat our land and our woods. We've got farmers who are putting in wetland projects. It's not just about the food. Really, it's about the whole relationship of the farmer with the land and all the plants, animals, birds and insects.

How can we work together more effectively as a network?

We have to put organic agriculture into every agenda. We have to support each other and start acting as a whole, instead of this isolation that we've suffered through. That's really hurt us in the last 20 years. We're all little threads. We need to now weave a fabric of holistic living.

Has your company done outreach to conventional farmers?

We do it all the time. There's no extension service they can call, so since we're a business model, something farmers can plug into with economic incentive, we talk to farmers every day of the week. And we tell people about organics, send them literature and give them references. Number one, we try not to disparage or slander conventional farmers, but try to bring them on board. There's an opening now because the small, medium farms of America are realizing they're destined to fail. And a lot of them that swore they'd never do it are now going organic and are glad they did. Maybe even wondering why they were so resistant.

I love to see your products in the supermarket. It's reassuring that it's a model that's working.

We're getting to be the only independent party left. I'm still glad to see organic foods in Albertson's. It's not exactly my dream, but it's good to impact the awareness of this whole new group of consumers who simply aren't willing to go to natural foods stores.

What inspired you to become a farmer?

My grandparents were farmers and I always loved spending summers on the farm. I studied forestry in the early '70s and got involved in the ecology movement. I quickly converted to farming as part of the Back to the Land Movement. So I farmed for many years, and still have a farm.

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