George Siemon is best known for his leadership in organizing farmers and building market support for organic agriculture. 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, the cooperative focuses on regional production and distribution, and contracting with local production plants. Organic Valley producers promote sustainability by farming without antibiotics, synthetic hormones, or pesticides.
Education, awareness and transparency are the first steps to making informed choices about the milk you buy. Farmers are beginning to successfully incorporate pasture management strategies, while consumers are now making conscious decisions to purchase dairy from grass-fed livestock raised without growth hormones like rBST and rGBH. George Simeon, CEO of Organic Valley, speaks about the continued evolution he sees both in his organic dairy cooperative and in the marketplace.
Douglas Gayeton: Industries that consolidate rarely deconsolidate. When you look at the dairy industry, is there a way to make a vibrant local food system in which local dairies can play a part?
George Siemon: Consolidation is a natural outgrowth in agriculture. At this stage it’s on a train running at full speed, and it doesn’t necessarily solve any of the problems we need to face when you look at food as the basis for a healthy society. A lot of exciting things are happening in the local food movement. At farmers’ markets we see lots of alternatives developing, but in the dairy world, only 1% of the dairy farmers produce 30% of the milk and 30% of the dairy farmers produce 1% of the milk, which shows where things are going.
Douglas Gayeton: Do you see people’s renewed interest in creating a more equitable, value-based, local food system as a fad or do you see it as a shift in consciousness?
George Siemon: That’s a complex question. I think food, cooking, and gardening consciousness are awakening. As far as farming, it’s a very hard reality because of the cost, the work involved and the competitiveness from the big players. About a third of the farmers in our dairy program are Amish and Mennonite, a group dedicated to a lifestyle that is still thriving in modern times. It’s not that small farming can’t work; it’s just that most people don’t have their mind around that lifestyle and the knowledge base to get there, not to mention the financial capacity it takes.
Douglas Gayeton: I’ve noticed that you now sell 100% grass fed milk. What was the evolution of that product and what gave you confidence to actually put it in the marketplace?
George Siemon: It might be a small group, but in our cooperative there are pioneers breaking out of the way farming is “supposed to be”. They are really doing their own thinking and learning, and have moved away from feeding grain and have done it with success. We have now come out with a grass milk product that has both a very unique taste and also represents a shift away from the corn and soy bean trap. It’s been well received both at the farm level and by consumers.
We’ve learned that we can move away from high dependency on grain and corn silage and high production-oriented tools and instead focus on pasture management and quality of forages. If you’re a good farmer that does mineralization, grass-fed milk is possible. It’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with feeding some grain, but there’s definitely something wrong with feeding too much grain for the health of the animal and of the earth.
Douglas Gayeton: Were you surprised that consumers chose not to buy milk produced using growth hormones when they were first made aware of those practices?
George Siemon: I am constantly surprised by the lack of education in consumers and equally pleased when I see their faces and they say, “Wow, I didn’t know that. Why would they do that and why wouldn’t they let me know?” The FDA and the USDA have built a wall preventing consumers from believing they should dive deeper. Most consumers assume if something’s approved by those two groups they shouldn’t need to ask more questions. The Internet is tearing down that wall and consumers are finding out more information. It’s important that we educate consumers and let them make their own choice, and it’s important that we have labeling to allow that choice.