When Organic Valley farmer-member, Terry heard about the fire at our headquarters last week, he wrote to me and said, “Fire is an overwhelming yet cleansing element.” Since I’m not particularly religious, I didn’t recognize the biblical reference, but I instantly got what he meant. I imagined controlled fires which are often used to clear ground brush in a forest—burning it clean and promoting rejuvenation. It made sense to me as I reflected on our current situation.

As my feelings of grief and loss are fading, I’m left with the sense that the fire has given us an unintended gift. Organic Valley employees refer to ourselves as “CROPPies,” and on the whole, we are the proudest group of employees I’ve ever worked with. The CROPP mission – family farmers and organic food – is deeply felt, and at the core of Organic Valley’s success is the cooperative spirit. It’s ingrained in us, part of our DNA, but that’s not to say we’re all perfectly cooperative. Let’s just say we work at it.

Like any organization that has had the kind of growth Organic Valley has in the last 10+ years, we’ve experienced growing pains. It’s challenging to promote our culture of “scrappy cooperative” when new employees join every week. Our mission and foundation principles guide us and our culture of “just jump in and get the work done” paints a clear picture of CROPP’s values to new employees. After all, we’re a farmer-owned cooperative and many of our employees are, or were, farmers. No one works harder than a farmer and that work ethic extends to us CROPPies.

But let’s face it, as we’ve grown to an $856 million business with more than 700 employees, the “scrappy cooperative” has needed to become a little more organized and institutional. This has not come easily, but we’ve approached it head on and in the last couple of years, we’ve developed processes, procedures and bureaucracy. And like any other organization experiencing change, in some ways, we’ve swung the pendulum from one extreme to the other: “Organized Chaos” to “Prolific Process”. And during this era, many CROPPies have shared ideas for how we might be able to find a happy medium and inject more of our scrappy nature back into our day-to-day but the train keeps going. But then there was the fire. A blessing in disguise? Lemonade from lemons? More than one CROPPie I’ve spoken with agrees. Of course, no one wishes for a fire, but the truth is that being faced with adversity has forced us all to work a little more like we used to—roll up our sleeves, get the job done now and cooperate at the highest level. We’ve had to relocate to office spaces where we can find them and that means that we get to spend more time with employees we may not have seen much before. We’ve had to be creative in how we accomplish our work and the ways in which we interact and work together. And the outcome? We haven’t missed a beat; every load of milk has been picked up, every customer order has been filled and every farmer has been paid.

Colorado-Aspen-TreesMost importantly, our bond as CROPPies has been strengthened. It’s kind of like a fire in an Aspen grove—we’ve been cleansed, we’re rejuvenated in our work together, and we feel, at our roots, that we’re all connected.

Cooperation. Collaboration. Unity.