It’s time to let the public in on Organic Valley’s best kept secret.
The first CROPP (Cooperative Region of Organic Producer Pools) pool consisted of veggie growers. That’s right. The cooperative that predominates in the organic dairy world—because let’s face it, it is easier to get your kids (or your grownups, for that matter) to drink chocolate milk than it is to get them to eat broccoli—actually started out with one grower pool: veggies.
But that is just the first part of the secret. The second part is that Organic Valley’s veggie pool—we call it the “produce pool”—is very much a part of CROPP and growing strong, as they say. Some of the produce farmers who attended the original meeting out of which our organic cooperative sprang are still in our veggie pool today.
That happy-making carnival winter squash you see in your store with the Organic Valley sticker on it was grown on small family farms by some pretty special people (more on these folks shortly). In fact, 98% of Organic Valley produce is grown here in the Driftless region of southwest Wisconsin, which is where we got started back in 1988 as a—yes, we’ll say it again—cooperative of veggie farmers.
The fact that the lion’s share of Organic Valley produce is grown in the Driftless has what some folks might consider drawbacks, like weather. Unlike California, our growing season is May to October. To us, however, it is a point of honor because it means that all of our produce comes to you fresh and in season.
Here is another fact we honor that some folks might consider a drawback, because the majority of our produce is grown here in the upper Midwest, the food miles our veggies travel to their Midwestern markets are minimal. That cabbage you grated up for slaw last night for dinner just got a lot greener. Not only that, but the money we don’t spend on shipping means more money for the farmers who work so hard to grow the cabbage for your slaw, and the cukes you like to pickle, and the winter squash you bake and slather with butter and a whisper of cinnamon in the Fall. But let’s talk about those hardworking folks. As we pointed out, the majority of our farmers live and farm here in the Driftless. Eighty percent of the members of the produce pool happen to be members of another special community. Amish farmers are the backbone of our produce pool for a number of reasons, which can probably best be explained by talking about values and goals.
Our Amish neighbors have been growing their community here in the Driftless since the late 1970s. They moved here from all over the country for the land, and for the fact that the community forming here was in line with their overall values and goals, the most important of which was to be able to stay on their land, work their land with their families, and make a living that way. Some of these farmers were at the very first CROPP meeting in 1987, gathered in a community hall by our CEO, George Siemon, who was a produce farmer way back then.
While all the Amish farms are diversified—meaning they raise chickens, goats, hogs, and other crops—selling their vegetable crop to Organic Valley for a fair pay price has been a great source of stability for our neighboring Amish community. Providing healthy, delicious food to folks close to home is equally important.
Amish farms are small, devoting anywhere from two to four acres to veggies. The day’s work is divvied up over the family breakfast. No matter the season, daily chores always include animal care and feeding, milking cows, and collecting eggs. There is always water to be drawn, fires to be tended, and other general chores to see to, along with whatever seasonal work awaits.
Heavier chores are turfed to the toffee-colored, Belgian draft horses that plough and harvest crops and haul wood, produce, hay and lumber. Off-farm travel, which often includes meetings at nearby Organic Valley headquarters—is accomplished via buggies pulled by horses whose long legs and distinctive gait are compliments of their Standardbred roots. The Standardbreds are often crossed with Morgans for strength, durability and temperament.
Growing produce for Organic Valley is a great way for young farmers to get started, too, like produce pool member Justin Trussoni . As a farmer-owner of the cooperative, Justin doesn’t have to invest in the infrastructure it takes to market and deliver his crop.
Being members of a marketing cooperative is also ideal for the vast majority of farmers who are really good at what they do—farming—yet don’t have the desire or time to self-market, like long-time produce pool member, Mark Shepard. It is also ideal for farmers whose culture and values do not encourage self-promotion, like our Amish producers.
Together, Organic Valley farmers want to make local, seasonal food a reality for as many people in this region as possible. They are disappointed to see that most of the produce in our grocery stores comes from California. Why is that so? Because the huge producers there can ship in the volume that big, grocery stores need. Those stores are not able to buy from individual, small, family farms.
When Organic Valley farmers “pool” their crops, they achieve the volume those stores require. As a cooperative, they have the strength to get their produce to markets they would not have access to otherwise. As members of the produce pool, these small farms also benefit from services they would never have access to on their own. From monthly whole-pool meetings (in which farmers solve problems, determine policy, and collectively set their pay price), to educational workshops and “farm field days” with plant pathologists and entomologists from universities across the Midwest, the farmers get plenty of hands-on support. Our farmers help each other too; our farmer-mentor program helps new growers in the pool learn the ropes of wholesale vegetable production. As a cooperative community, over 130 small, family farms in the Driftless region grow seasonal, local goodness for all the folks out there who depend on the farmers of Organic Valley to deliver their best to the Midwest.