While people on both sides of the debate are passionate, George Siemon, CEO of Organic Valley, wants to leave aside the arguments for now to focus on what seems like it would be an obvious compromise in a democracy: label GMO foods.
“Most people don’t even know there’s an issue to discuss, so we have to go back to building the awareness that genetically modified or engineered foods are now part of our diet,” Siemon said. “It’s one thing to be aware of it; another is choice. Labeling is not an issue of right or wrong. It’s just about having a choice.”
My name is Ceara Westaby and I’m a fifth generation farmer. I grew up on my family’s 150 year-old dairy farm with my sister and two brothers in Northwest Illinois in a town called Stockton. Today, we have 81 milking cows and we farm 645 certified organic acres of land. But back in the 1990s, my family’s farm almost didn’t survive selling milk in the conventional market. We decided to transition to organic—no pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or synthetic hormones—and in 2002 our farm was certified organic. We were able not only to preserve our five-generation, 150-year farm but also to raise a healthier herd, contribute to a safer environment, and ultimately, produce better milk.
Two years after the recession cut demand for higher-cost food products, organic farming is on the rebound, with prices at record highs.
But the industry is still not as strong as it was just a few years ago, and no one knows if organic sales will return to the double-digit growth of the pre-recession years.
A bio-fueled, muti-colored school bus rolled onto the campus of the University of Portland earlier this month, carrying a troupe of young organic farmers touting their trade.
The visit was part of Organic Valley’s Generation Organic 2011 “Who’s Your Farmer?” tour. Gathering at the dining hall, the farmers met students and encouraged them to consider their personal food choices. They also offered samples of organic produce.
Laura Boere, part of Organic Valley since 1998, said there are multiple benefits to the program, including a steady paycheck.
"Bankers love it," Boere said, "because you have a long-term plan. Dairymen love it because we can farm and make plans (for) the long run."
"These early 20-somethings — in many cases fifth-generation farmers — are bringing a new energy and new vision to agriculture," said Leslie Kruempel, social media specialist for Organic Valley.
Arriving in their colorful, bio-fueled bus, Generation Organic's farmers spoke about labeling of genetically modified foods. Polls show more than 90 percent of Americans favor food labeling.
His title is CEO, but George Siemon likes C-E-I-E-I-O better.
It's fitting for the man at the helm of Organic Valley Family of Farms-CROPP Cooperative.
Today the business is the nation's largest co-op of organic farmers and produces more organic milk than any other company. Not bad for a business only 23 years old based in small-town La Farge.
"This is a very dynamic business that represents a lot about social change," Siemon said.
Carrie Welch, a spokeswoman for Organic Valley, explained the tour hopes to show young people that it can be easy to learn about local foods by building relationships with nearby farmers.
“We’re basically showing people that it’s not like your grandfather’s farmer anymore,” Welch said.
The organic-food business is booming. A 2011 survey by the Organic Trade Association concluded that sales of organic products grew from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010, and organic fruits and vegetables saw an 11.8 percent increase in sales from 2009 to 2010 alone.
Organic Valley's "Generation Organic Tour" made a stop at UP on Tuesday to promote family farms and regional eating. Pulling up in their multicolored mural painted school bus, the team of age 20 something farmers gave away free samples of organic milk and string cheese to students to show off the taste of regional dairy products.
Senior Frances Dyer worked with a PR firm that promoted local and sustainable restaurants over the summer and worked with Generation O as a part of her job.
"The tour is about keeping up organic farming through the generations," Dyer said. "The sustainability factor they present is so important for your personal health and the environment."
So how are we going to begin rebuilding the broken economy and creating jobs? Where is the investment going to come from?
One answer is taking shape in dozens of towns and neighborhoods across the country, as citizens from Brooklyn, NY to Port Townsend, WA are figuring out ways to invest in the local businesses that create jobs and help build strong local economies. Just as locavores eat a diet sourced close to home, these locavestors are investing that way.
The concerns of milk and cheese lovers worried that their dairy products are ethically curdled would likely be alleviated by a visit to Jon Bansen’s family dairy farm, Double J Jerseys, south of Monmouth. Bansen learned dairy farming from his father in a small non-organic operation, but he turned more and more to organic practices in the ‘90s before joining the Organic Valley cooperative in 2000. Bansen has been turning the cows out to pasture more and more over the years, perfecting methods that resulted in his herd of about 180 Jersey cows spending about 20 hours a day outside in a system called “intensive rotational grazing.”