Posted tagged ‘Organic Valley’

Down On The Farm

June 10, 2020

I’ve always admired the farm journalist Pete Hardin. (See my profile here.) He’s sort of the I.F. Stone of the barnyard. A detailed-oriented reporter with a controlled sense of outrage.

I felt honored when he asked me to write a couple of short news pieces for the May issue of The Milkweed, his iconoclastic monthly dairy report. One was an update of  my Wisconsin Examiner story on the travails and recent success of the Organic Valley farmers’ co-operative. The other was an “inside baseball” piece on how the co-op did business with the faultering Dean Foods’ milk operation.

Pete isn’t big on posting ungated Milkweed stories online. So, if you’re interested, check out the PDF.

Organic Valley Surges After More Red Ink

April 28, 2020

I continue to follow the ups and downs in the organic food movement for the Wisconsin Examiner. This update on the Organic Valley farmers co-op came after the coronavirus pandemic prompted the dairy farmers to schedule an unusual “virtual” annual meeting.

Here’s how the story starts:

 Here’s more evidence of the hard times — but also of new hope — in farm country.

Organic Valley, the nationally known organic farmers co-op headquartered in LaFarge, lost money for the third straight year in 2019, but observers say its economic performance has improved and more importantly organic milk sales are unexpectedly zooming in 2020.

“Organic milk is just flying off the grocery shelves,”  says Joel McNair, who publishes a Wisconsin-based farm magazine called GrazeHe says the co-op is “experiencing if not record sales, near-record sales” based on the comments he hears from Organic Valley farmers.

An unexpected rise in sales in January 2020 turned into a flood in February and March when the coronavirus swept across the country, according to observers. As Americans retreated to the safety of their homes, they began stocking their refrigerators with organic milk.

“People are eating more at home, and that is driving more in-store retail organic dairy purchases,” confirms Elizabeth McMullen, Organic Valley’s public relations coordinator, in a written statement.

She describes the growth in retail sales as “unprecedented”.

Note the 2019 financial results were not yet audited.

To read more, please go here.

How Best To Protect Organic Integrity?

March 10, 2020

Big question. No clear answer.

And that’s a huge problem with the ongoing crisis in organic farming.

How best to protect organic integrity — fight to enforce the original (and now degraded) federal  standards or push for new voluntary standards as a supplementary label?

Opinions are divided.

This is part II of my Wisconsin Examiner series.

Mark Kastel, a passionate organic farming watchdog, lays out the crisis that is chipping away at the moral high ground occupied by organic food.

Consumers pay a premium price for federally certified organic farm goods, he says, not just for the selfish reason of protecting their own health from chemical additives, but also because “they believe they’re doing something good for society.”

Mark A. Kastel OrganicEye (via Kastel)
Mark A. Kastel
OrganicEye (via Kastel)

“They believe they’re supporting a more environmentally responsible way of farming. A more humane animal husbandry,” he says. “And they believe economic justice for the farmers and for the farm workers is built right into that higher price.”

All that is jeopardized, Kastel warns, when consumers learn things, like, a single milk-processing plant in Colorado, supplied by 5,000- to 15,000- cow factory farms, is shipping certified organic milk all across the country. That milk is faux organiche argues, and “undercuts real organic farms” in Wisconsin by cheating on the federal organic rules.

“When consumers find out that these cows have short, stressful lives just like cows in factory farms — that doesn’t sound like they’re paying for more humane animal husbandry,” he says. “And when they find out the people milking these cows are mostly hard-working, exploited immigrants living in trailers, they don’t feel good about that either.”

The crux of the problem as Kastel and other critics see it: “The factory-farm milk from the 15,000 cow dairy shares the same green and white organic label as milk coming from a 50-cow family farm in Wisconsin.”

To read more, please go here.

Organic Farming Beset With Problems

February 25, 2020

I spent considerable time in 2019 looking into the crisis in organic farming. What I found was disturbing: A profitable niche agricultural industry producing high-quality dairy products had seen its standards undermined, its output cheapened and commodified, and many of its farmers squeezed to the point of ruin.

The Wisconsin Examiner ran the two stories.

I wrote in part 1:

The crisis in organic dairy comes at a moment of paradox. The federally governed organic program and its “USDA ORGANIC” label have flat-out triumphed in the marketplace. (USDA is the U.S. Department of Agriculture.)

You find the green-and-white organic label on milk cartons, vegetables, fruit and packaged products. You find it in big box stores like Woodman’s, Kroger, and Wal-Mart, membership warehouses like Costco, and, of course, righteous grocery co-ops like Willy Street in Madison and Middleton, Outpost in the Milwaukee area, and all the grocery co-operatives brightening Viroqua, Ashland and other smaller Wisconsin towns.

Nationwide, organic food sales hit a record $47.9 billion in 2018, up almost 6% from the year before, according to the Organic Trade Association. In Wisconsin, the powerhouse Organic Valley farmers’ co-op, headquartered in little LaFarge (pop. 763), saw its national sales top $1 billion for the third straight year in 2018.

But dig deeper and you find turmoil far and wide.

It’s not just the imbalance between the supply and demand for organic milk or an apparent double standard on enforcing organic rules either.

Everything from shifting consumer preferences to plant-based substitutes for dairy and beef, to the rise of soil-less hydroponic farming competing with organic dirt farmers, to the importation of fraudulent organic grain driving down the prices paid legit organic growers for their corn and soybeans have all soured organic’s financial sweet spot.

“(Up until) five or six years ago, it really looked like organic was going to be the salvation of farming,” says Dave Chapman, a Vermont farmer who runs the Real Organic Project advocacy group.

“Great! We had a label that recognizes that,” says Chapman. “The tragedy is that industrial food producers took over the label. They had the influence to twist the rules to their advantage.”

 

To read more, please go here.

A Better Wisconsin Growth Strategy

October 25, 2017

I wound up writing two Isthmus cover stories on the Wisconsin economy. In the first piece I detailed how our recovery was starkly incomplete. Sure, the overall economy led by Dane County had bounced back from the Great Recession. But too many of us were ignoring a less pleasant reality: There is is a broad swath of  economic “left-behinds” in rural Wisconsin and inner-city Milwaukee.

My second story outlines an economic strategy that could turn things around.

The problem is that the state’s commitment to manufacturing, even with its smart nod to high-skilled manufacturing, is one-sided and overwhelming. Part and parcel of the yesteryear economics that holds up the chimera of mining as the savior of northern Wisconsin.

And consider that the Foxconn package is the costliest manufacturing subsidy project in Wisconsin history by a factor at least 10. And that payback in new taxes generated by Foxconn, assuming the campus develops as proposed, won’t come until many of us are dead and buried. No less than in 2043, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau….

Here’s the point: Government does best when it sticks to the basics. Infrastructure! Education. Transportation. Safety. Health. Parks. And if it does incentivize certain economic behaviors government should do so carefully and in a way that provides public good and not private payoff.

And there has to be a vision. Or as hockey legend Wayne Gretzky famously put it, you need to skate “to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” That isn’t happening. Wisconsin tenaciously holds on to the economics of nostalgia.

You can find the details here:

Organic Valley At The Crossroads

July 28, 2015

The Organic Valley farmers coop has been a huge success. With national sales hitting almost $1 billion, this upstart challenger of conventional agriculture has helped create a massive consumer market for chemical-free farming. Small family farmers in Wisconsin and across the nation have gone organic because of the premium prices their milk, eggs and meat attracts in the organic marketplace. But in researching this story for The Progressive magazine I found the coop in a surprisingly precarious position. I write:

Surging consumer demand for organics has created supply shortages for dairy products, and immense opportunities for profit. That has attracted some of the nation’s largest American food corporations to step up an already sizable investment in organics. These aren’t people motivated by protecting the environment, says David Kaseno of the National Farmers Organization. They are “people who think: ‘Hey we can make a lot of money in organic milk.’”

The $46 billion merger of Kraft Foods Group and the H.J. Heinz Co. in March will prompt its rivals to bulk up by buying fast-growing organic food labels, both The New York Times and Bloomberg News predicted. The food giants already produce a stunning 70 percent of the items stocked in a typical co-op grocery, says Philip Howard,a Michigan State University professor who tracks corporate consolidation in the organic world.

For organic industry observers, this poses stark questions for Organic Valley: Is it smart enough and big enough to compete with the corporate giants? Will it yield to the temptation to compromise organic standards to maintain market share? More to the point, will it hold on to its all-important dairy members, who have been abandoning the co-op for the significantly better pay offered by some Organic Valley competitors?

This is the paradox of Organic Valley: At a moment of great success, it faces something of an existential threat.

To read more, please go here.

I interviewed a ton of people for the story, including Organic Valley CEO George Siemon. Some of this views can be found in the story. I wrote an online sidebar that touches on other matters. I suspect that some people will be surprised at his positive impressions of Walmart. You can read about it here.

I also wrote about the Organic Valley coop for Isthmus. You can find those earlier stories from 2007 and 2008 here and here and here.

At the Organic Farming Conference

March 8, 2010

This was my third year of covering the annual gathering of organic-farming advocates in La Crosse.  It’s always an interesting experience because of the unusual mixture of commerce and ideology.

As I said in the advance story  for WisBusiness.com: “The gathering is a combination pep rally, reunion, trade show, Chautauqua, political rally and big-time party for farmers who share a common mission of fighting industrialized agriculture and its dependence on chemical additives.” Read more here.

In a post-conference story, I detailed how the Wisconsin organic community is split by the new, tougher  pasture rules being enforced for dairies. Read about it here.


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