Organic Valley, America’s largest co-operative of organic farmers, started the new year by growing its membership to 2,000 farmer owners.
The co-op, one of the US’s leading organic brands, said it would reach the milestone in the first week of January, and now represents 12% of the country’s organic farmers.
Last year, Organic Valley welcomed more than 300 family farms to the co-operative – a growth of 16% – and added more than 40,000 acres of organic agricultural land.
It has members in 36 states, with farming styles range from cutting-edge dairies with solar panels and biodiesel implements to farms using the horse-drawn-plough. 85% of its dairy farms have fewer than 100 cows, with an average herd size of 72.
Products include organic milk, cheese, butter, spreads, creams, eggs, soy and produce, which are sold in supermarkets, natural foods stores and food co-operatives across the country.
“Now, more than ever, it’s time to come together and co-operate,” said George Siemon, a founding farmer and CEO of Organic Valley.
“Our strength has always been in our unity and belief in the collective good. In a world of divisiveness, co-operation continues to be the key to success.”
Founded in 1988 by seven struggling farm families in south-west Wisconsin, Organic Valley says its mission is to save family farming through an organic, co-operative business model that ensures a fair price for farmers. Its work comes as conventional American farmers face some of their toughest conditions since the 1980s.
Its democratic business model gives each farmer-member a say in pay price, growth, profit sharing, best practices, and other co-operative fundamentals.
It says freedom from shareholders and outside investors means it can prioritise a stable price for farmers each month and provide valuable shared services such as world-class veterinary care and soil improvement programs.
“Our co-operative success means we can provide a lifeline to more than 2,000 family farms and meaningful employment to over 900 staff members,” added Mr Siemon.
“We are past and present leaders in the organic and co-operative movements and will continue to lead into the future, no matter what short-term challenges we face – because we face them together.”
The co-op, whose headquarters is in La Farge, Wisconsin, hired 110 new employees last year, bringing its staff total to 903 and keeping its place as the largest employer in Vernon County.
It also bought the former Farmers Cooperative Creamery in McMinnville, Oregon, and this year the new plant will process milk from 27 Organic Valley farm families in the Pacific Northwest.
The co-op puts special emphasis on farmers under the age of 35 – calling them “Generation Organic”. The USDA Agricultural Census found the average age of farmers in the US is 58.
And last year, Organic Valley was named one of Outside magazine’s “100 Best Places to Work in the USA”.
Organic Valley members
One of the co-op’s members is Amy Raboine of Reedsburg, Wisconsin, who took over her family’s dairy after the death of her father. Today, Amy raises her family and her herd inspired by nature and her dad’s legacy.
Chandler and Aziza Benson of Lansing, New York, took a different route to membership. When they decided to start a family, Chandler left his high-powered financial services job in Chicago and Aziza left the National Guard for a slower-paced quality of life.
The couple took over the organic dairy owned by Chandler’s parents, which was too big for the older Bensons but just right for the next generation and their three sets of twins.