Sustainability at Organic Valley

Last week we dropped by a talk by Jennifer Harrison, Sustainability Program Manager of Organic Valley. The event was part of the Applied Science Speaker Series here at UW-Stout.

Based in La Farge, Wisconsin, Organic Valley is the nation's largest and oldest organic farm cooperative. It prides itself on its brand, its image, and the fact that their average size of an Organic Valley farm is just 77 cows. The cooperative boasts over 1600 farms across the United States and distributes products ranging from cheese to butter to milk to orange juice to eggs. Prior to the downturn in the economy Organic Valley saw yearly growth rates of 20% with revenues of $527 million in 2008. Their current revenues remain near constant despite the recession.

Jennifer's presentation focused on the basics of the farmer owned cooperative and what they are doing as a cooperative to promote sustainability within their business without reducing the amount of money they are able to pay their farmers, producers, and growers for their products.

There are many benefits for individual owner operators under the cooperative system - one of the main ones being the ability to avoid downsizing or the expiration/dumping of product that many conventional farmers experience when supply is high and demand is low. The beauty of the cooperative was relayed in a story by Jennifer of a recent meeting in which the owners had to decide whether to shed farmers or reduce production across the board. Instead of putting one of their fellow farmers out on the street they agreed to each reduce production across the board until demand once again increased.

Another idea that the cooperative is exploring is the renewable energy idea. Jennifer stressed that the company strives to be sustainable in three ways: economically, ecologically, and socially sustainable. They recently installed solar panels at their headquarters in La Farge. Despite the effort and positive publicity the project is producing about 1% of the electricity for the coop's headquarters which was built to Silver LEED Design Standards. But she stated that it is a start and they are looking into other possibilities such as wind and anaerobic digesters to increase the amount of power they are getting from renewable sources.

The cooperative also operates a separate endeavor for its owners, 3PL shipping, which ensures that produce from each region stays in the region and travels the least distance possible to market.

One thing that didn't get brought up was the cooperative's eggs & poultry production and policies. The majority of the talk focused on their cows and beef which are held above most organic and pasturing standards. The cooperative takes pride in these standards which are thousands of times better than the CAFOs and farms across the country with thousands of milking cows and beef in concentrated areas. But how are their chickens treated?

All in all it was a good presentation and the presence of a local co-owner helped to put a face to the organization. Am I willing to pay $3 or more for a half gallon of Organic Valley milk? Although I really don't consume that much milk, for the little I do I may be able to sleep better at night knowing that they make sure their farmers get good wages, no fellow farmer is hung out to dry, and that through their profit sharing system 45% goes to the farmers, 45% to employees, and 10% to the communities.