How George Siemon and Organic Valley are attempting to take organic mainstream while staying true to their family farming roots.
John Grossmann | July/August 2011 issue At about 8:30 on a contemporary clear, crisp morning in La Farge, Wisconsin (pop. 775), several dozen employees left their desks and made their method to a car park to offer a festive sendoff for a repurposed old skool bus. Bearing a single young farmer from Iowa, the brightly painted bus would eventually pick up other farmers between the ages of 18 and 35 en path to Washington, D.C. as a part of a “Who’s Your Farmer?” tour of school campuses within the Midwest and Northeast.
The goals of the street trip: Spotlight a budding crop of young, organic farmers when the common age of the yankee farmer is 57 and build brand awareness for an increasingly important player in American agriculture.
Many of the well-wishers wore “Who’s Your Farmer?” T-shirts; some blew noisemakers. All jumped into the air on command for a gaggle photo snapped in advance of front bumper of the bus was christened with milk. There has been no breaking glass, in fact. The milk was poured along the bumper from a half-gallon carton.
The bus drove off, and everybody headed back to work—at Organic Valley, the nationwide farmers’ cooperative that accounts for roughly a 3rd of America’s organic milk supply.
Organic Valley is a huge business. One of the crucial well known organic brands within the U.S., it has 1,624 members who produce some 1.2 billion pounds of milk annually to the tune of greater than half 1000000000 dollars. But in lots of ways, Organic Valley functions more like an un-corporation. On the co-op’s La Farge headquarters—a barn-like, gambrel-roofed building—yoga, tai chi, cardio-kickboxing, pilates and zumba classes are free within the wellness room. Garden plots await those desperate to grow their very own organic vegetables, and canning and cooking classes help employee gardeners enjoy their bounty. The cafeteria sells chocolate truffles and caramel candies at the honor system; employees simply drop the money for his or her spirit-lifting treats right into a waiting cup.
Organic Valley’s management doesn’t believe in maximizing the co-op’s profits; the goal is two percent, enough to further the organization’s mission to assist preserve and empower the endangered family farm. All of which leads Organic Valley Chief Executive Officer (CEO) George Siemon, prominent a number of the morning’s “Who’s Your Farmer?” revelers, to explain his enterprise as “a social experiment masquerading as a business.”
That experiment may soon catch on. Amid the fallout from the nice Recession and the austerity drive the recession has imposed, entrepreneurs, investors and consumers alike are searhing for new business models that combine sustainability with profitability. Siemon, 57, with dirty blond hair right down to his shoulders, is a number one exponent of the long view.
He wants Organic Valley to supply not just alternative food choices, but an alternate way of doing business. “There is an immense transition happening within the American economy,” notes David Thompson, president of dual Pines Cooperative Foundation, which administers development and education grants to co-ops. “One thing stands proud: Cooperatives are the least likely of companies to close, the least more likely to go overseas, the least prone to cull jobs and essentially the most more likely to keep its business local.”
As a tender man, Siemon seemed bent on running from business—specifically, his family’s office supply business in and around West Palm Beach, Florida—not running one. He much preferred the outside. “I was a nature boy: bird watching, Boy Scouts, least more likely to be a businessman,” he recalls. “I desired to be outdoors, so farming looked good. In 1972, the entire back-to-the-land movement was starting, and that i was swept away with that.”
In 1976, Siemon was driving along with his wife to Minnesota, where they planned to settle, once they were both enthusiastic about the undulating, pastoral great thing about Wisconsin’s Vernon County. They bought 220 acres (90 hectares), 60 (25) of it tillable, within the Bad Axe River Valley. Siemon took the back-to-the-land stuff very seriously—he farmed with horses—and like his hard-working neighbors, struggled to make a go of it. He joined a fledgling organic cooperative that finally became the Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools (CROPP), which briefly order made him CEO.
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