On “Food Talk with Dani Nierenberg,” George Siemon, CEO and Founding Farmer of Organic Valley, talks about leading a mission-driven, organic co-operative for the consumer and the land—and farmers. “Our motivation wasn’t just organic: it was saving family farms. So we just saw organics as the only hope for family farms to survive,” says Siemon. “We want to make sure that we’re organic, taking sustainable care of the land, but also sustainable care of the farmers.”
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Organic Valley, the first organic–only food company to pass US$1 billion in revenue in 2015, started in the midst of struggle. “The 80’s were a very terrible farm crisis: a very high interest rate, very low commodity prices, and a lot of foreclosures, too,” says Siemon. “It was terrible. It was the end of an era: a tremendous amount of farmers were going bankrupt, committing suicide[…] it’s so unfair from the farmer’s perspective.” Currently, more than 2,000 farmers in 35 states run the co-op. “We very strongly believe in family farms,” says Siemon.
Beyond supporting farmers, Siemon builds market support for organic agriculture across the country by working with and educating consumers. “It’s a perfect marriage: consumers have a concern [for a healthy planet], farmers have the same concern, and we’re really working together for this. Therefore, it’s really important to educate consumers,” says Siemon. For Organic Valley, having support means not only public understanding of organic, but also consumer choices to support organic farmers. “We have to realize our daily actions or daily purchases make a real statement.”
Siemon’s visions include Organic Valley’s goals for farming communities, including the Community Solar Partnership to become 100 percent renewably powered in 2019 and help 13 nearby communities switch to solar energy. “Co-ops can have purely an economic function, but they should have an economic and also a social function. This renewable project is a little bit of us working outside of the system and empowering these local towns,” says Siemon.
Photo courtesy of George Siemon.