Organic Valley CEO George Siemon is the long-standing leader of America’s largest organic farmer-owned cooperative. He’s quick with a joke and a sparkle in his eye, but one topic always brings out his serious side. Quality is never a joking matter with Siemon. From the early days of CROPP Cooperative – the enterprise he founded with a handful of Wisconsin family farmers in 1988, which distributes under the Organic Valley brand – he knew their idea to produce and market organic foods would face more than its fair share of scrutiny.
So Siemon made sure everything the co-op produced was top quality, following the strictest organic standards anywhere and undergoing a long set of safety and quality checks from farm to table (57, at present count). Siemon and Organic Valley helped create and demand enforcement of many of the USDA Organic standards in place today.
In 2015, Organic Valley and Siemon continue to uphold those standards (and quality) on the 1,800+ family farms that comprise this grassroots producer cooperative. These farmer-owners are located in 34 states, two Canadian provinces, and Australia, and the cooperative’s sales are expected to rise above the $1 billion mark this year, with no slowdown in sight.
Read on for Siemon’s thoughts on quality, growth, cooperation, and success:
Organic Valley has built its reputation for quality and safety over a quarter-century of rapid organic industry growth. There must have been times along the way when customer demands for delivery tempted your insistence on quality.
We love our customers – they believed in us and have stuck with us from the beginning, and we have never delivered anything to anyone that we wouldn’t be proud to serve to our own. Over the years, the only thing that has really wavered is our ability to match demand with production – that’s always a challenge in the organic industry overall – but we see quality and safety as elements outside that loop. They are ALWAYS the priority, no matter what.
The past few years have been the most challenging years we’ve had yet. Circumstances within the industry (high land prices, high conventional farmer pay, the long time it takes to convert a farm to organic) created a decrease in the number of organic farmers just as America’s consumers were attracted to the benefits of organic foods in numbers we’d never seen before. It’s been a struggle to make everyone happy. Shortages put a lot of pressure on our retail and distributor relationships, but we keep going with what we can produce and continue to bring excellent organic farmers into our cooperative. The quality of the food from our farms is what differentiates us from others. It’s got to be the very best, the very safest, the most delicious, or else what’s the point of our mission?
What is your mission?
I like to say Organic Valley is a social experiment disguised as a business. I’m only half kidding. We started in the late eighties during a time of tremendous financial hardship for farmers across America – it was as bad as it had ever been since the Great Depression. Farmers simply couldn’t make it. They were going bankrupt by the thousands. But we believed this was because of a bad system, not bad farmers. All these family farms were failing largely because America’s farming institutions believed that the only good farm was a big farm and were pressuring all these small farmers to “get big or get out.” The idea of a bunch of poor farmers beating the odds by producing on a small scale was seen as hopeless. There was an aggressive, systemic bias against smaller-scale family farms – in pricing, logistics, land-grant universities. There still is today, really, but heads are turning.
What that bias didn’t figure in was the growing alienation of America’s families toward our food system. Many were losing faith in the industrialization of America’s farmland. We believed this alienation had much to do with a lost connection to quality food, and to the farmers, like many of their grandparents, whom they had seen put special care into their work.
That became our mission: Save our family farms by making great, organic food on family farms, and reconnect consumers with the goodness that comes from healthy, organic soil. We had to carve out a niche, which included taking control of our own farmer pay price. Pay had to be fair for our hard work – small-scale farming is not easy, economically-speaking – so that’s the experiment part. Would Americans pay more for better food? We thought they would, but the food had to live up to their wildest imaginations. We knew we could make organic food that would do it.
So all this success flows out of healthy soil?
Soil is where we all begin. It is where the daily microscopic miracles coax life up toward us all. The minerals, organic matter, and microorganisms in soil must be tended to maintain its – and our – health. The closer a farmer is to soil, the more focused the farmer’s care can be for the most elemental part of providing food for others. Organic farmers are translators and conveyors of the same thing that has sustained humanity since day one: healthy soil. Civilizations collapse without it. History books are full of examples.
Yes, absolutely that’s where success begins. It also flows out of caring – being in a position to apply care. It’s about connection, and it’s behind everything we do at Organic Valley.
Isn’t Organic Valley now a big farm, so to speak? Can it maintain its ability to care in the way you mention?
Without doubt. Our business has certainly matured and gotten bigger, but when you break it down, we aren’t one big business in the classic sense. We are one operation made up of a whole bunch of little businesses – 1,800 family farms. It’s like grass. To say grass has become a big plant isn’t really the case, but when you look around, grass is definitely a big thing to the naked eye. Even so, it’s still a carpet of little leaves, each rooted in a tiny spot, interacting with the soil and the sun and the rain. That’s how Organic Valley is: family farms working closely with the soil and the sun and the rain and a whole lot of other things. Add us all together and we make a whole, with unity and an international voice. We rely on our farmers to steward the soil closely in many places before widespread quality and health can flow to everyone.
What are your hopes for Organic Valley in the international marketplace?
As our export business grows, that’s what I would love to carry beyond our shores: for small, family farms to look at Organic Valley as an example of what is possible when working together. The multigenerational, small-scale model is still the foundation of agriculture in much of the world, but those places – those farmers – are more often under similar pressures to “get big or get out.” I hope our cooperative is an example they can look to if local events conspire to threaten their ancient, delicate, and complex connections with the land and the people they feed.