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Doing Well by Doing Good

By Bryan Welch

Reprinted with permission from Mother Earth News, Feb-March 2006

This thriving farmer-owned brand is revolutionizing the food business.

mother earth newsOrganic Valley is North America's second-largest producer of organic dairy products. The sales of this $259-million cooperative jumped 25 percent last year, surpassing the growth rate of both the conventional and organic food industries. The cooperative's milk, butter, cottage cheese and soy milk are on the shelves of more than 10,000 stores from coast to coast. But its chief executive officer, George Siemon, doesn't talk like a corporate chieftain: "We wouldn't mind if the growth slowed down," he says. "The most important thing to us is to keep our mission. Organic Valley's not looking to conquer the world. We do things our own way, because we care about things other than business success."

Despite this unorthodox approach, Organic Valley has helped revolutionize the food business over the past 18 years, and has changed the way Americans eat—for the better. Organic Valley is owned by a cooperative of 723 family farmers from 22 states.

Today, the cooperative's size and reach have expanded far beyond its Midwest origins, but its roots are sunk deep in the soil of the Kickapoo Valley in southwest Wisconsin, and the tiny town of LaFarge (population 775). Organic Valley opened a new $6-million headquarters there in July 2004. Even the office buildings reflect Organic Valley's mission—they all employ state-of-the-art renewable and energy-efficient technologies, and the building materials were either recycled or sourced from local businesses. The grounds surrounding the headquarters include nature trails for visitors and employees.

A Reluctant Executive

George SiemonSiemon has been involved with Organic Valley from the beginning. He came to the cooperative as a farmer, and—with his farming partner, Kevin "Sparrowhawk" Lamb—he still raises chickens, cattle, grain and vegetables on 90 acres. But as time passed, he found his innate talent for business became increasingly valuable to the cooperative. So he, somewhat reluctantly, became a full-time executive.

"For the first five years, I was always on the verge of backing out. There was a time when I was very unhappy here," Siemon says, looking out the big windows of his corner office in the cooperative's new hilltop command center. "I wanted to be outside on the land. It was a hard adjustment, being a boss. But you have to wrestle with fate and destiny. The good news about business is that it's much more intuitive than people realize. I love that relationships are so critical to this business. We're a partnership-based business, and that agrees with me."

Siemon says that at Organic Valley, "There's quite a bit of doing what you think is right. Farmers apply common sense and fairness to business—no side deals; what's fair is fair."

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