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Doing Well by Doing Good by Bryan Welch

Farmers as Heros

Two complementary trends have supported Organic Valley's growth—consumer demand for healthier, sustainably produced foods and farmers' desire for markets where better products are rewarded with better prices.

Organic Valley products

Those two factors continue to drive Organic Valley's significant growth. As organic dairy products have become more popular over the last few years, the cooperative has added about 25 to 50 new dairy farmers each year. Organic Valley also has expanded to sell eggs, meat, orange juice and soy products. But the more important criterion for growth has been the desire of committed farmers to join forces. "Every expansion we've done has been driven by farmers," Siemon says.

The cooperative proudly showcases the contributions of its member farmers. Organic Valley's advertisements, brochures and Web site (http://www.organicvalley.coop) are galleries of farmer profiles. Examples include Rosalie Williams of Bakersfield, Vt., who revived her family's abandoned dairy farm; Harry Lewis, whose Texas dairy farm was built using money from a federal grant to provide food for American soldiers; and 21-year-old Matt Fendry, who led his parents out of their urban lifestyles and onto a hilly farm in southeastern Minnesota stocked with Jersey milk cows. As Siemon likes to say, "Farmers are our heroes."

Organic Valley's insistence on higher prices for its farmers led to the removal of the cooperative's products from Wal-Mart in 2004. Many praised Organic Valley for taking a stand against the controversial retailer, but Siemon explains it was purely business, and it was not Organic Valley's intent to make a political statement.

"We're a business," he says. "We're not a political organization. We have to do what's best for the business. Is it our mission to tell consumers where to shop? We don't think so. We were in the worst under-supply situation we had seen, so we had plenty of markets and we didn't need to sell at the Wal-Mart price. Somehow, that's made us famous."

Wayne Peters of Chaseburg, Wis., is a founding member-farmer of Organic Valley and, Siemon says, a driving force behind the cooperative's success. When the young executives of the organization were intimidated by the scale of what they were attempting—taking on marketing giants such as Danone and Dean Foods—Peters pressed them forward.

"If you don't ever play out of your league," Peters says, "you don't ever get out of your league." Organic Valley is, without a doubt, playing in the big leagues now.

An Ongoing Apprenticeship

Siemon was not born on the farm. His family ran an office-supply business in Florida. "The conversation around the table was about business," he says. "That probably helps, in some way, with what I do now."

To follow his dream of becoming a forest ranger, Siemon left Florida to study at Colorado State University. But he didn't particularly like what he learned about the job. "I was determined to work outdoors, but I didn't like the idea of counting picnic tables for a living."

Siemon farm

When he and some friends rented a rural house, Siemon started gardening. Then he took a job on a nearby farm. Eventually, he worked at several farms in Colorado and Iowa and "fell in love with farming." After his wife finished her graduate studies in nutrition, they moved to their own farm in western Wisconsin, where they raised three children.

In effect, Siemon says he has served an apprenticeship that continues to the present day. He considers the farmers of the Organic Valley cooperative to be the teachers from whom he learns the art of farming and from whom he receives the instruction he needs to set the direction of Organic Valley.

Siemon criticizes society for leaving farmers out of the process that decides agricultural policy. In his opinion, consulting with farmers will make the organic movement stronger. "Farmers are very smart people," he says. "They just need to be brought into the discussion. They haven't been included often enough."

To learn more about how your farm can join the Organic Valley cooperative, call (888) 809-9297 or visit http://www.farmers.coop. Bryan Welch and his family raise grass-fed cattle, sheep and goats on their small farm near Lawrence, KS. In his spare time, he runs Ogden Publications, which owns Mother Earth News, Natural Home & Garden and several related magazines and businesses.

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