Cooperating with the Future

Winter 2013-2014
George Siemon, CEIEIO of Organic Valley Cooperative, told Fairgoers that a cooperative serves a community of owners, not a rising stock price, allowing the cooperative to focus on service. Photo courtesy of Russell French.

By George Siemon

One of the nation’s foremost organic agriculture advocates for nearly two decades, George Siemon is best known for his leadership in organizing farmers and building market support for organic agriculture. His work champions an agriculture that supports family farms with a fair and stable pay price, humane treatment of farm animals, healthy soil and environment and quality organic food.

In 1988, Siemon joined a group of family farmers in Wisconsin to found the Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools (CROPP). More commonly known by its brands Organic Valley and Organic Prairie, CROPP has grown to become the largest organic farming cooperative in North America while remaining true to its local roots.

In 2013, Siemon was inducted into the Hall of Legends by New Hope Natural Media, organizers of the Natural Product Expos. In 2012, he was awarded the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Growing Green Award in the “Business Leader” category and the Social Venture Network’s Hall of Fame Impact Award in the “Environmental Evangelist” category.

Siemon was a keynote speaker at MOFGA’s 2013 Common Ground Country Fair. Here is his speech.

Thank you so much for this privilege to speak at this awesome fair. I always enjoy speaking because it makes me think about things I want to talk about for months before. Speaking to you is especially meaningful for me as I have long been an admirer of this country fair.

This fair was one of many that started in the early ‘70s. I come here from the Wisconsin Driftless Bioregion of the Upper Mississippi River Watershed. This is the unique part of the Midwest that was not glaciated and is a beautiful fertile hill country. I was part of the generation of “back to the landers” or “homesteaders.” In the early ‘70s we, too, had a Country Barter Fair in Wisconsin called the Ocooch Mountain Barter Fair for several years. I know there were many others at that time, but to my knowledge, MOFGA and the Oregon Country Fair are the surviving fairs from that era.

Organic Valley, which I am here representing, started a Kickapoo Country Fair several years ago that is held at our headquarters. While it is a great community event, it is nothing like the success of this fair. It is so important in these times to celebrate the values and joys of country living.

Farming Roots

I was raised a city kid but was lucky enough to spend some summers on farms and fell in love with the ways of a rural culture. I, like many of my generation, was eager to connect with the earth and to rediscover “common sense.” I remember well my first garden, holding fresh dug red potatoes in my hands and feeling reborn as a human.

I became a hired man on farms and learned a lot about farming, both good and bad. I studied the foundation books of organic farming and learned all I could about this exciting remembering of “how to farm.” I was especially impressed by Wendell Berry’s Unsettling of America and the whole message that culture and agriculture is critical to our communities.

In the mid-‘70s, I bought a farm in the hill country of Wisconsin and made a study of the old timers, who were thrilled by the odd young person like me who showed them the respect they deserved. I farmed full-time milking 20 cows and did much of my farming with horses and was lucky enough to raise three beautiful kids as farm kids.

Organic farming and growing your own food was a natural fit for me. I was always a naturalist, an outdoor lover and a student of the “laws of nature.” I was, however, raised in a business family, and as I found out later, I had learned more about business around the dinner table than I knew.

Dozens of Organic Valley farmers attended the Common Ground Country Fair, the first stop on a tour of Northeastern farms. Photo courtesy of Russell French.

Moving into Business

My destiny was not to be a naturalist farmer. In 1987, a small effort was started in my hometown to develop a farmers’ marketing cooperative that featured organic foods. It started out as an organic produce cooperative and quickly evolved into organic dairy and more. I slowly was pulled from the farming life and eventually became the CEO of CROPP Cooperative, which you may know as Organic Valley.

That dream to start an organic cooperative has today become an international cooperative that has farmers in 34 states, Canada and Australia. We serve more than 1,800 organic farmers who represent over 10 percent of the certified organic farms in the United States. Dairy is the biggest component of our business, but we have other member pools including eggs, feed, produce, beef, hogs, broiler chickens, turkeys and soy. In Maine, 29 organic dairy farmers are part of our cooperative; this represents 48 percent of the organic dairy farmers in Maine and 9.5 percent of all Maine dairy farmers. We are local here too.

Mission-Based Philosophy Benefits Maine

Today we have sales just under a $1 billion and have more than 700 employees. Our success has allowed us to be a mission-based business. Our members are farmers who are dedicated to family farms, and their intent is that our cooperative stays true to our vision. What a gift that is for me as a CEO to have permission to be mission-based and to further the support family farms need.

Investing and stimulating infrastructure support for organic farmers has been a significant part of our mission. In Maine we identified organic feed as a major issue for organic farmers. We have supported the development of Maine Organic Milling, which is the only organic mill in Maine and is cooperatively owned by Maine farmers. We have provided funding, management support and sourcing in this development. We also saw that Maine organic dairy was over-dependent on feed imported from the Midwest or overseas, so we started a project and are funding a person to develop a feed supply in Aroostook County. We see lots of potential up there, and by stimulating production with supporting contracts, we are going to make it happen.

By the way, I came out last year to tour those two projects as part of our initiative. I was very impressed with the potential in “The County,” as you all call it. Really though, I came out to go canoe camping on the West Branch of the Penobscot River and Lobster Lake. It was a beautiful trip and made me love Maine.

Indeed, I often say our cooperative is a “social experiment disguised as a business.” This year we are celebrating our 25th anniversary, and it is amazing to see what our hard work has produced. Our success is the result of our faith in our mission and, most important, the support of the bigger community, our consumers and our partners. We have a big job to sustain and grow a business that stays true to its mission and that is there to serve future generations of family farms. I want to take a moment to thank you for our success.

Part of that for us as a national cooperative is to understand the differences in the nation that farmers face. One of our experiments is arranging a fall “Regional Understanding Tour” of one of our regions. This tour for both farmers and employees is a great blending of our primary stakeholders and is how we build regional understanding and a cooperative culture. I am very pleased to recognize that the tour this year is starting now in Maine at this fair. They represent farmers from all around the country, and many are in this crowd, so I would ask that those on the tour to raise their hands.

The Uniqueness of Cooperatives

One of my learnings has been how unique a cooperative is, and how important it is to recognize that difference. If we want to consider a future where business is friendly to our society and our earth, then I strongly feel we have to advocate for cooperatives.

Yes, a cooperative is just another form of a corporation, but it has permission to be a different type of business. Permission is a key word, as it still takes the energy and spirit of people wanting to make something to get results. Our cooperative has chosen to have “one member, one vote,” no matter how big the farm is. We have elected to make stable pay price a foundation tenet for our business objective. We continue to look at how to best build a sustainable business.

A big advantage to a cooperative is that its purpose is to serve the community of owners. A cooperative does not serve a rising stock price, but instead, delivers honest service to members, which in our case are our farmers. This is a huge difference, in that Organic Valley does not have to slave for the total value of the business, and we are not for sale! Taking the stock value out of the equation allows a business to focus on service, not maximizing profits or stock value.

To bring home this point, just imagine on your own farms or businesses that you were required to constantly deliver a financial return based on the present value versus the debt you have or the original purchase or your lifestyle wishes. What a tremendous burden that would be. How did the main value of society become stock prices? This is the state of much of our economy today!

But this brings up another issue that farms have to address, and that is the generation transfer of our farms and how to address the super land values today and how our farms can sustain themselves financially.

I could never work for a public stock company whose whole purpose is all about money, where I was bonused on how much I build the value of the business to be sold. A cooperative is unique and really is the main hope I see for our present business structures that seem bent on serving the short term and not our community and the long term, like cooperatives can.

Success Grows from a Unity of Purpose

So I now have a unique perspective from my amazing experience. I’ve been fortunate in my travels to see what organic farming and foods represent throughout the U.S. and world. The organic movement is an awesome example of a grassroots movement that flourished because of the passion that all of us have for it. All of us are stewards of the organic movement. Our shared passion enabled a unity of purpose that has allowed a diverse group to birth the organic food movement.

This is a key issue from my experiences. People can work together. People want to help their community. To feel whole, people need to serve. Differences are minor when you share a passion for the common good. Our cooperative has been involved in many disaster relief efforts by sponsoring kitchens to feed the residents and clean-up crews, notably after Katrina and, recently, Sandy. What I have seen over and over is that when a great diversity of people volunteers to help out, all the differences disappear. It is very rewarding to see how the unity of purpose brings people together. The best of humanity comes out in times of need, but one has to ask, does it really take a disaster to get us to work together?

Organic: More Than Farming

The other truth I have found is that organic is much bigger than just a farming method. Organic farming and philosophy asks how things fit together to make a whole. Organic thinking wants us to consider how to find a balance of production and care. Preventative care is our foundation, and that takes understanding how things all interact. Organic was actually one of the Greek Schools of Thought, which until recently has been forgotten as a philosophy. Unfortunately, we did embrace another one of the Greek Schools of Thought – cynicism!

Our world today has a whole lot of problems that are not being addressed for the benefit of the common good. It really strikes me that we do not have real, honest conversations about the issues we face. Our government has failed in addressing issues today and into our future. Special interests have so altered our political environment that we can clearly observe how they are the ones being served, and the conversations that need to happen are not happening.

The conversations that we hear in this modern world are all controlled messaging sponsored by those who benefit from the angle of their conversation. Our society is not having organic conversations about primary issues. We are not looking at all the parts and building a whole that will last. A great example of that is the Affordable Health Care Act, where the conversation was all about health insurance and none on actual health reform. A real conversation about health would center around prevention, food, lifestyle and a myriad of other prevention-based subjects. This concept of an honest conversation is important. I spend time in Washington, D.C., trying to represent organic foods, and I get to see the absolute control of the conversation by those who financially gain. Farming has the chemical and biotechnology industries dominating or controlling every conversation about farming, so there is no honest conversation. As Michael Pollan says, “We don’t need a Farm Bill; we need a ‘Food Bill,’” or maybe I might say we need a “Care Bill.”

As a people we must take back these conversations and have honest, open dialogue and find solutions that benefit the common good. We have to have faith that people can work together if they focus on serving the community. It is time to rethink our assumptions and especially those planted in us. We need to envision a future where community health and respect for all creation are the goals and focus of our conversations.

We have some real issues to address, but we really don’t have a venue to address them. If we feel trapped by the way it is today, then we will never grow from where we are. One of the stories of our cooperative is how one of our founding farmers was told that our cooperative was playing out of our league, and our farmer shot back that “if we never play out of our league, we can never get out of our league.” We were also told when we started our cooperative that “they won’t let you do that,” and our response was, “Who is ‘they’?” Indeed, today, who is stopping us from solving problems?

The human family has some big work to do, and no one is going to do it besides the people, the grassroots. We have to expand our understanding of how the parts fit together if we are really going to get anywhere. I am talking about big issues like health, food, farming, political adjustments, ethnic differences, social justice, ownership, materialism, relationships, lifestyles, education and so much more.

If we want to envision a healthy human culture and a well-cared-for planet in 2050, then what are the preventative and nurturing moves we need to help make happen today? I think you can see where I am going. It is time for the people to provide leadership because our institutions are not doing the work that needs to be done.

So what do I see that we can do in our own way? Certainly we cannot hope for a sweeping change, nor can we say there is nothing we can do. We have to find something to do because it is our core need to care for the next generation and is the path to a fulfilling life. I think the critical first step is this concept of honest conversation, because it represents a pledge to understand all sides, do good research, watch out for financial gain influence and focus on what benefits the common good. This can be just with yourselves, but I am confident that if we all did this with ourselves, then it would lead to sharing an honest conversation with someone else today and onward.

I believe that change can come from the people, and it starts with our faith and our sense of duty. To change the way it is, you need to develop an alternative and share it. Certainly our organic conversation has been one of doing it our way, not fighting conventional agriculture as much as simply doing things our way. We did not have permission to be different, but we chose to be different, and we have made change. The bringers of change are motivated by doing the right thing even though success is doubtful. The best example we have from our organic experience is our success in the mass market. This marketplace has a growing offering of organic foods, not because they decided it was right thing or because of demonstrations. They have embraced organic because we started a movement that they are following to service. Truly the consumer, through their buying power, will change the world.

We cannot let the sorry state of world affairs rob our own dedication to change, our faith in the ability of humans to work together and our confidence in the organic perspective that we can solve at least our own issues and those around us. We as individuals have the power of choices. Change happens when enough folks and a diversity of folks see the light of a solution and allow it to happen. I did not say “make it happen,” because if a concept is a solution, it should want to happen itself, and what we need to do is identify it and aid in allowing it to happen.

Nature has taught me throughout my life. The lesson I carry is the foundation that what we must seek is a sense of balance and place. We can count on the laws of nature to help us if our goal is to have an honest conversation and serve the common good. It is good to have allies!

So I have seen a lot of change being born in 1952, and I have seen a lot of change in the 25 years of CROPP Cooperative. We always say the only sure thing is that things are changing, and I would add that living to the fullest is about embracing change. None of this means that we want to change what does not need to be changed, but just to be open to having the challenge. Challenging your beliefs makes you stronger in your beliefs once you have the honest conversation.

So our challenge now for each of us: In order to believe in the hope of change into a sustainable world, we have to believe in the power of a vision, believe that each of us can make a difference through our choices, and believe that this is the path to change. We need to cooperate with the future. It is really quite obvious that we have the answers and solutions for most of the significant issues we face. But our society is froze up in our polarization of politics. We have become so busy in our materialism-driven lives that we don’t have time. Really? We need and want to cry out that we can no longer be a victim to the self-serving interest that is dominating our society. It is time for the people to address the issues they share together and to envision a better way.

I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to explore these thoughts and share them with you. I feel very blessed to be here at the Common Ground Fair and recognize the faith that the founders had in what I am experiencing. I know many of you have held that faith, and it gives me strength to recognize the goodness here. It is so critical that we cooperate with the future by believing in the power that we have together when we work together.

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