In the late ‘80s, farming in America was experiencing a serious decline. Large corporations were dominating over small, family-owned farms and even agricultural epicenters like rural Wisconsin were feeling the hit.
Out of desperation to ensure economic stability for the future of farming, a handful of Wisconsin farmers pooled their resources to create a cooperative, one with a focus on the group's shared belief that farming should be sustainable and done organically.
In 1988 the Coulee Region Organic Produce Pool (CROPP) was born in LaFarge, Wis. to offer organic produce and dairy, including the country's first organic cheese. Two years later it adopted the name Organic Valley and released the nation's first certified organic butter.
Twenty years later it is the largest farmers' cooperative in North America.
This year the Wisconsin-born Organic Valley celebrates its 20th anniversary and its "family of farms" is 1,239 strong, with members across the country and in Canada and products available at food cooperatives, natural foods stores and supermarkets nation wide.
"The success of Organic Valley proves that organic agriculture can be a lifeline for America's struggling family farms," says George Siemon, a founding farmer of Organic Valley who serves as the cooperative's CEO.
The cooperative has significantly expanded in its two decades in the industry, and now specializes in Organic Prairie meat, juice, gluten-free products, healthy snacks, and soy-based dairy substitutes in addition to its traditional dairy and produce offerings.
"We remained confident because we had partners along the way who shared our vision and helped assume our risk: regional distribution coordinators, natural food co-op grocers, supermarket managers, our dedicated staff, citizen partners who chose and still choose organic foods, and-today now more than ever-a new generation of organic farmers seeking to carry this tradition onward," Siemon says.
In 2004 the coop opened a $5.9 million "green" construction headquarters in LaFarge that incorporated energy efficient practices such as cool day lighting, which maximizes natural light while minimizing heat, and solar powered lighting. Much of it building material was recycled or locally sourced and from rapidly renewable resources. The company even enacted its own alternative transportation system, the "Green Bike Program," that supplies used bikes -- painted green for identification -- for getting to, from and around the farm.
Organic Valley remains an environmental leader is celebrating, in part, this summer with the 5th annual Kickapoo Country Fair, Saturday and Sunday, July 26-27. Located on the grounds of Organic Valley's headquarters in the Kickapoo River Valley, the fest features organic farm tours, farmers and farm animals, sustainability workshops, hiking, Butter Churn Bike Tour, food and artisan vendors, not-for-profit exhibitors, family "farm-friendly" activities, all-day music and entertainment, and dancing.
OnMilwaukee.com staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.
As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When OnMilwaukee.com offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”