In 1990 I was 9 years old. Organic Valley/CROPP Cooperative was in its third year, and the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) hosted the first-ever annual Energy Fair. At the time, I don’t think I knew what the word “organic” meant and the only solar panels I’d ever seen were likely in photos of NASA satellites. As I spent that summer catching (and releasing) toads and turtles, I had no way of knowing how much these two emerging Wisconsin-based organizations would impact my life as an adult.

Fast forward 19 years. I finally attended my first Energy Fair in 2009 with my son Elwood (1.5 years old). Being around so many like-minded people and speaking with exhibitors and presenters provided the spark I needed to turn an interest in renewable energy into a personal mission and career. Soon after, I began studying renewables through the MREA and Madison College and began working for a renewable and energy efficiency firm beginning in 2012. Coincidentally, my first responsibilities included helping Organic Valley farms and cooperative-owned business facilities with energy efficiency and renewable projects.

Stanley hiking in the woods still wearing his visitor's pass.

In 2010, I visited the Organic Valley headquarters in La Farge, Wisconsin, and I was so proud of my OV visitor pass that I didn’t want to take it off, even when stopping for a hike on the way home.

Fast forward to 2017: As an MREA board member and an Organic Valley employee, the connections are apparent in my work every day. I’m using skills that I first learned from the MREA to help Organic Valley’s farmer-owners in 36 states address their unique energy needs, save money and protect the land and water for generations to come.

Last year the MREA served more than 27,000 individuals with education and training throughout the Midwest and beyond. This is critical training today as the US Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that “solar panel installer” will be one of the fastest growing Jobs in America! Already, the solar industry alone employs more people in the U.S. than coal and natural gas combined.

Organic Valley and the MREA have common roots that go back decades. From day one, both mission-driven organizations have been committed to pioneering change for good, and for more than a dozen years, Organic Valley has supported the Energy Fair and great work of MREA.

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Reflecting on my path to a career in the energy field, it now seems obvious how many connected threads there are between supporting a fair and stable pay price for organic farmers, preparing individuals for employment in the clean energy industry, and installing clean energy systems directly on farms. We’re all helping ensure our food is produced responsibly by reducing the impact agriculture has on our planet.

Training solar picture.

Installer training at the MREA.

Today over 260,000 people work in the solar industry in the United States. I have to wonder if the attendees of the first energy fair way back in 1990 could have imagined what amazing growth would occur in the following decades. Likewise, I have to wonder if CROPP’s founding farmers had any idea that, 30 years later, their cooperative would help provide financial stability to more than 2,000 family farms and represent 15 percent of organic land in the country.

I thought it would be fun to look back on what our CEO George Siemon referred to as “common roots” in his keynote presentation at the 2014 Energy Fair:

“When this fair was started, the power grid industry thought you all were nuts. When Organic Valley started, I assure you the rest of the world thought we were nuts. And now, it looks like we’re the future, doesn’t it!”

~George Siemon, Organic Valley CEO presenting at the MREA Energy Fair in 2014.

George Siemon at MREA Energy fair 2014

We at Organic Valley are proud of these common roots and the connections we’ve been able to make between clean energy, family farming, a strong economy, and a healthy planet.

About the MREA

The Midwest Renewable Energy Association promotes renewable energy, energy efficiency, and sustainable living through education and demonstration. They offer hands-on and online training to professionals and enthusiasts, and they lead initiatives like the group buy programs that help drive growth in the renewable sector in the Midwest. Each year the MREA holds the longest-running grassroots renewable energy event in the nation, attracting over 13,000 clean energy and sustainable living enthusiasts trade professionals with the fair’s blend of educational workshops, family-friendly activities and industry networking opportunities.

If you’re looking to learn more about renewable energy the MREA offers online and in person courses for people with all levels of skill and interest.