While I have purchased Organic Valley milk and butter in the past, I hadn’t paid much attention to them as a company. I looked at them like any other company. Lol, they definitely aren’t! Organic Valley (OV) recently hit my radar when I read how they became a 100% renewably energy powered company. Not only that, they are the largest food company in the world to do it! When I learned this, I really got interested. I’m always curious how some companies do things that stand apart from the norm, particularly in mindful, thoughtful ways.
Organic Valley was started in 1988 in LaFarge, Wisconsin. If you’re like me and wondering where exactly that is, here you go. In the 80s, America’s ultra capitalism culture crept into farming, creating the big agriculture movement and a serious drop in food prices. This drop in food prices made it hard for small farmers to survive. This lead to many foreclosures and suicides to family farmers in the late 80s. So a group of farmers who believed in creating a sustainable business, focused on something beyond corporate profits, decided to start a farmer-owned Co-op. The Co-op would be grounded on certain principles. These principles translate into creating quality organic products while also making sure to protect the environment and fairly compensate farmers. As their website states, “In a way that protects the land, animals, economy and people’s health. And that’s how our farmer-owned cooperative was born.”
Why I Love Organic Valley
There are many things to love about Organic Valley, especially in an environment where it feels like every company is simply trying to sell us more stuff that they constantly work to make cheaper. What I love most about Organic Valley I have distilled down to three main things.
Farmer-owned: One of the first things that caught my attention was that OV is a farmer-owned cooperative (Co-op). A Co-op is another type of business structure, owned by all current members of the cooperative. In this case, any farmer who joins Organic Valley becomes a part-owner of the cooperative. But if a farmer decides to leave the Co-op their share of the business doesn’t go with them like a typical company. And the business doesn’t grow simply because their profits increased; they grow as they add more farmers. This means that farmers share the costs of getting their products to market, and they share the profits when the company does well — not a bunch uninvolved shareholders.
“Regardless of a cooperative’s service, they all hold seven principles in common, developed to show that co-ops are businesses with strong values. (Image credit: Willy Street Co-op, Madison, Wisconsin)”
Co-ops are mission-driven organizations that place a strong value on working with their local community (10% of OV’s profits goes to support their local communities). OV’s mission is to provide a stable pay price to its family farmers through organic agriculture. This allows them to create nutritious food while caring for the land and the farmers who do the work. While this might seem logical, this is in contrast to large corporate farmers driven purely by revenue and profit growth. When corporate farmers need to hit certain profit numbers next year or even next quarter, the guys in ties in offices, often squeeze the farmers to make food cheaper, usually at the expense of the environment and the food we end up eating. But as a Co-op, owned by over 2000 family farmers, the farmers determine how they want to operate and sell their products. Plus, this type of “cooperative” business structure has allowed OV to strongly compete with the larger corporate farms, especially when they first started.
Small Impact on Earth. As I mentioned, Organic Valley is 100% renewable energy powered. Plus, their support of solar and wind power also makes this energy available to other people in neighboring cities, multiplying their impact.
This combined with their smaller farms and organic food practices make their imprint on Earth much lighter. Organic growing and production mean fewer chemicals that with rain don’t flow into our water supply. And small, open farms also prevent water pollution caused by large amounts of animal waste. This is in stark contrast to large traditional farms. Imagine a large commercial farm with over 1000 cows (average herd size of an OV farm -75) and how they properly handle all that cow waste to avoid it contaminating the local water supply. Not easy if even possible.
100% Organic and Pushing for Higher Standards. Before there was a USDA organic seal on products, Organic Valley was making organic goods. As pioneers in the industry, they helped craft organic certification for the United States Department of Agriculture. Thirty plus years after they began, OV is still pushing for higher standards. Working with one of their leading competitors, Maple Hill, they are pushing for a Grass-Fed Organic Standard. “The certification program brings much-needed consistency and transparency to grass-fed organic dairy standards for farmers, processors, manufacturers, certification bodies, retailers and consumers.” For more details on this certification, check out their related press release here.
As a society, if we can’t afford to eat organic foods, our first answer can’t be how to make food cheaper or pay farmers less.
If you think about it, it’s unfortunate we need these standards and seals. I would hope humans would simply try to make the best quality products for each other. Fortunately, OV and others are bucking the traditional capitalistic structures and keeping an eye out for all of us.
But Organic is Too Expensive
For many, I understand organic can feel unnecessary and too expensive. I can totally empathize with that perspective, but the truth is that organic food prices are the true price of the food. What do I mean? Using various chemicals and other non-organic techniques to protect crops and increase yields comes at the cost of our health, quality of the produce, and our environment. As a society, if we can’t afford to eat organic foods, our first answer can’t be how to make food cheaper or pay farmers less. Instead, we need to work on ways to determine how to make organic food more affordable (without cutting corners) and how normal citizens can get paid sufficiently so we can afford organic products. This requires rethinking fundamentals of our current capitalistic system.
Organic Valley has been around for over 30 years at this point. They have not only survived but thrived as an organization. This isn’t some theoretical concept, this is hard evidence that there is an alternative path to creating a great business. In the end, this is what compelled me to share their story. I wanted more people to buy and support their food. Plus, I wanted to inspire future entrepreneurs and leaders to be idealistic and not comprise in their efforts to create great products while also considering their customers, the environment, employees and partners. This isn’t to say, being idealistic will automatically lead to success, but Organic Valley has shown it is possible. It just requires a mix of determination, clever planning, and a quality product, combined with a bit of luck and time.
“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” — Mahatma Gandhi
PS.If you’re not sure how bad traditional, industrial farms are, I’d recommend watching this video and imagine getting milk or meat from this farm.