Several weeks ago I was fortunate enough to attend Organic Valley's annual meeting, at which more than 600 of its farmer-owners converged in LaCrosse, Wisconsin.
For those who are not familiar with it, Organic Valley is part of a farmer-owned cooperative (the CROPP Cooperative) of 1,687 certified-organic farms scattered all over the U.S. and three provinces in Canada. The cooperative was founded in 1988 and is still run by several of its founding farmers, including CEO George Siemon.
As the co-founder and chief executive for Organic Valley, a La Farge, Wisconsin-based cooperative that is the largest provider of organic milk in the United States, Siemon is on the hunt for new offerings for a growing market.
The latest idea - milk from cows that primarily eat grasses, but never corn, soybeans or other supplemental grains commonly fed to dairy and beef cattle - was launched in April and is available in 200 stores in six western U.S. states. The milk has an earthy flavor that is a twist for the milk market.
Though it is too soon to tell how the new milk will be received, Siemon has high hopes. In the United States, most of the corn and soybeans fed to livestock are genetically modified, a fact that doesn't sit well with organic enthusiasts, particularly Siemon.
"Our co-op is very concerned about the development of biotechnology," he said in a recent interview. "We don't agree that is the right path."
A new coalition is trying to throw sand in the gears of industrial agriculture’s chemical treadmill. And this one just may have what it takes to slow it down. I’m referring to the fight over USDA approval for Dow AgroScience’s new genetically modified corn seeds (brand name “Enlist”), which are resistant to the herbicide 2,4-D.
So it’s interesting to see this new coalition’s opposition to 2,4-D getting so much traction so quickly. Perhaps it’s because the group — dubbed Save Our Crops — isn’t made up of environmentalists and sustainable agriculture types, but rather Midwestern and Mid-Atlantic conventional farmers and large food processors (and Organic Valley, the organic co-operative organization which is both a producer and a processor).
Organic Valley, the co-op that brought sustainable farming to the dairy industry, has adopted the latest twist in solar technology: windows with embedded with solar cells that generate electricity and save energy by boosting the benefits of daylighting.
Twenty windows at Organic Valley's headquarters in La Farge, Wisc., feature the unique product Pythagoras Solar of San Mateo, Calif., calls photovoltaic glass units.
George Siemon: Organic Valley
This dairy farmer’s intention in starting a cooperative with a few neighbors in Wisconsin’s Kickapoo Valley was not to generate $700 million revenue (in 2011), but that’s exactly what he did. Still at the helm today—he calls himself the CEIEIO in homage to Old MacDonald—Siemon says one of his favorite axioms is: “None of us is as smart as all of us.”
"It's like a catch 22 thing, you feed less grain, but then when you feed less grain you make less milk, so you make less money," said Brunner.
Brunner's bottom line is about to get a boost.
The company Brunner produces for, Organic Valley, plans to start paying farmers more for their milk beginning in March.
It's been a tough few months for dairy, with Norway's butter shortage and now an ominous cloud looming over 2012 for organic milk drinkers. Consumers across the country can probably expect to see retail prices increase by as much as 10 percent this month.
So what's behind the squeeze on organic milk? ...organic grain and hay for animals — are now dramatically more expensive for farmers, but farmers aren't getting paid more for the milk. As a result, cows are getting less food and producing less milk. (As with lots of other troubles in agriculture these days, corn for biofuel has something to do with it.)
There is a shortage of organic milk across the country, and it has become so bad in areas like the Southeast that Publix stores from Florida to Tennessee have put up signs in dairy cases anticipating the shopper’s frustrated refrain: “Where’s my organic milk?”
In terms of taste, OV’s eggnog is the best on the market. But purchasing OV products also helps local farmers earn a fair wage for their dairy. And now, along with Stonyfield, OV is helping to ensure access to organic food for all through their Celebrate With Organic campaign. You can also enter to win a year’s worth of Organic Valley and Stonyfield products. For every entry, 20 cents will be donated to Wholesome Wave, which improves accessibility of locally grown fruits and veggies. (Around $5 per quart, grocery stores nationwide)
Knowing your farmer is about understanding his or her practices, motivations, challenges and ideas, but it's also about transparency. Transparency in agriculture means better practices, and better practices results in better food. I truly believe that if all Americans were able to meet their farmers, we would have a much healthier population and society.
I am fortunate enough to have met many of the lovely farmers who provide the organic meats, dairy, and produce for my restaurant, GustOrganics. And a few weeks ago, I got an invitation from Organic Valley to meet organic dairy farmers Susan, Aaron, and David Hardy on their farm in Mohawk, NY.
I completely understand that most people don't have the chance to personally meet their farmers and visit their farms; therefore, I decided to ask the Hardy family some questions and share their answers here with you.