By Kristin Howard
For over twenty years, Organic Valley has been a leader in promoting organic agriculture and building the market for organic dairy products. Formed in Wisconsin in 1988 with the mission of saving family farms through sustainable farming, the organization is America’s largest co-operative of organic farmers and includes over 1,800 farmer-members across the country.
While its roots are in the Midwest, Organic Valley has a strong network of member farmers in New England, with some right here in our neighborhood. (The Organic Valley website includes a “Who’s Your Farmer” tool that shows member farms near your zip code.). The co-op is organized into regional “pools” and the pool that supplies milk to food co-ops in our region includes more than 285 member farms in New England and New York. Organic Valley’s strong national brand helps provide stability to farmers in a notoriously difficult dairy market, as well as a price premium for members in our region.
Self help is a basic co-operative principle, and farmers must adhere to organic standards and purchase an equity share in order to become members of the co-op. Regina and Brent Beidler joined Organic Valley in March of 2000 as one of the first member farms in Vermont. “We had a meeting in St. Albans with George Siemon (C-E-I-E-I-O of Organic Valley and one of its founding farmer members),” remembers Regina. “There were six of us who said ‘yes, we’d love to be part of the co-op’”.
According to Regina, Organic Valley has always had a strong culture of valuing family farming, and membership in the co-operative provides benefits that extend beyond improved price and ownership. “For us personally, we’ve been able to participate in the governance of the co-op but we’ve also had opportunities that have expanded our own horizons, like meeting other farmers and participating in public forums,” she says. “These sorts of opportunities for farmers are rare and we greatly appreciate them.”
Organic Valley’s co-operative model has also been a good business strategy, strengthening the success of member farmers and enabling them to compete in the marketplace. The co-op is noted for its support services, particularly for the next generation of dairy farmers. In 2011, the co-op grew over 14% in sales and welcomed another 200 farmer-members. Reflecting on this growth, Regina notes, “The original intention was for farmers to have some control and say. That this idea resonates so much is pretty astounding.”
Organic Valley and the Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA), a network of over 30 food co-ops and start-ups in New England, share a common vision of co-operative enterprise as key to building thriving local food systems and strong regional economies. Co-ops root infrastructure in our communities, enabling consumers to access healthy, affordable food while helping farmers and other producers receive fair prices for their products. Together, the NFCA and Organic Valley have been working together to build a closer relationship between food co-ops and farmer co-ops, and to spread the word about the benefits of co-operative business at events such as Northeast Organic Farming Association conferences and the Slow Living Summit. As we continue to celebrate the United Nations' declaration of 2012 as the International Year of Co-operatives, we are sharing the message that Co-ops Build a Better World!
Kristin Howard works in a variety of capacities with Franklin Community Co-op, which operates Green Fields Co-op Market in Greenfield and McCusker’s Co-op Market in Shelburne Falls, MA. For more information on the NFCA, please visit www.nfca.coop.
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