Organic Valley’s story began in southwestern Wisconsin in the Coulee region, when a group of farmers gathered at a county courthouse to discuss forming a cooperative focused on a more sustainable way to farm.
“Organics fit naturally in the region,” says George Siemon, Organic Valley founder and CEIEIO , a term that reflects both his leadership of the cooperative and his role as a farmer. “The idea came from the farm crisis of the 1980s, when we were looking for a more sustainable living. You couldn’t find a better place than Wisconsin. We had support at the state level and the infrastructure was there. It was the perfect place for the idea to take root.”
And take root it did. Once a pioneer, today, the Organic Valley brand is the No. 1 source of organic milk in the nation.
The more than 1,800 family farms in the cooperative share the same mission: Support rural communities by protecting the health of the family farm – working toward both economic and environmental sustainability.
“Doing things organically is farming for the future instead of an immediate paycheck,” says Lorn Goede, who joined Organic Valley in 2004. Goede and his wife, Theresa, farm with their son, Joel, and his wife, Jenny, at Goede Acres, a farm that celebrated 100 years in 2014.
Like many family farms, Goede Acres is diversified. They raise alfalfa and enough corn to provide three-quarters of the feed they use for their 10,000 chickens and 35 sows in their small farrow-to-finish operation. They also have 43 cows.
As Joel Goede talked about his family’s farm, his grandmother, Marlene Goede, was next to him gathering eggs. Joel and Jenny Goede added additional diversity to the farm with a farm/stay opportunity at a renovated cabin on their land. They offer the cabin to vacationers who want to enjoy the beautiful countryside and learn about agriculture on a working farm. Goede Acres also offers school tours arranged by Organic Valley.
“We get a lot of enjoyment out of teaching people about agriculture, showing them where their food comes from and highlighting examples that differentiate conventional farming from organic,” he says.
Transitioning to organic came natural for the Ihm family in Grant County, since they were never big users of pesticides and herbicides. Raymond and Sheri Ihm founded Ihm Organic View Farms and now farm with their son John and his wife Deb and their family.
The farm became certified organic in 2005. John and his dad handle the 90-cow dairy. The cows rotationally graze roughly 100 acres of pasture throughout the grazing season.
“As much as possible, we minimize the amount of grain we feed in favor of pasture and dried forages,” John says. “Because we manage the pastures better, we see a wider variety of grasses and legumes, and we get a lot more feed off of that acreage.”
In addition to producing high-quality organic milk for Organic Valley, the Ihms along with brother Joe, his wife Kelly and their family, raise 3,500 laying hens that produce Organic Valley eggs.
The Ihms have also applied their conservation commitment to energy use. Working with Organic Valley’s Sustainability Team, alternative energy is now part of the farm operation.
In 2011, the Ihms installed a 21.5 kW solar electric system in the hen paddock. Not only has it produced all the power needed to power the chicken barn, but it produces excess to sell back to the local utility. By the one-year anniversary date of the installation, the Ihms received utility refunds totaling approximately $1,500.
In 2012, the Ihms completed an energy audit on the dairy side of the farm to help identify more energy savings opportunities. In 2013 they built a new parlor that uses geothermal for heating it. Siemon says the future for the Organic Valley brand and for the organics movement is bright.
“Organic started out as a small thing, limited to natural food trade,” he says. “It’s mostly still small farms, but it’s now a very mature system that has expanded into the mass market. There is tremendous support on all levels, and organic is now a real alternative for farmers.”
He adds that people are becoming more educated about issues, too. “The exciting part is that solutions to some of people’s concerns can come from farmers, and now those farmers can be rewarded adequately for their work. Organic farming is a viable form of agriculture.”