Jerome McGeorge has been a part of Organic Valley’s journey from the very beginning — he even wrote, by hand, the fledgling cooperative’s very first annual report in 1988. Today Jerome is a cherished friend and keeper of wisdom and wide perspective.
In 1988, after a crisis of conscience had propelled him to leave his corporate job in New York City, Jerome became head of finance at CROPP Cooperative in the middle-of-nowhere southwest Wisconsin. Fast-forward to today and the co-op, now better known for its Organic Valley brand, has more than 2,000 farmer-owners and is a $1.2 billion business.
“Every new farm was a victory—was an accomplishment. And it is a rich memory to think back on those days, when the essence of cooperation was going to grow into something we had no dream would be the eventual Organic Valley reality,” says Jerome of the cooperative’s earliest days.
Of course, these victories felt especially glorious because, at the outset, many of them were hard-won. Jerome explains, “There was great skepticism that we would ever create a meaningful designation—a food category—out of organic.”
So what magic formula led to the success of CROPP Cooperative and Organic Valley? A group of people with strong conviction and great determination. “We were mission-driven, we did have great purpose, and we were convinced that we needed to depart from agricultural norms,” says Jerome.
A visionary advocate for sustainability, cooperation and ecological stewardship of the land, Jerome has spent a lot of time thinking about how agriculture and its related social systems can and must depart from current norms. “A great realization that needs emphasis and further development is, more of the world’s food producers are women than men.” This is significant not only at the agricultural level regarding the people who—very literally—feed the world, but also at the social level because many women around the globe are disempowered, and this affects many systems, including agriculture.
“The empowerment of women and the reduction of population are the most significant factors in not only humans feeding themselves, but bettering themselves,” concludes Jerome.
A refreshing sentiment to hear expressed, especially in the current climate around gender in our country and around the world.
To hear from Organic Valley’s first CFO on the intersection of agriculture, world population, women’s empowerment, bioregionalism and more, listen at the link above, on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts.
Transcript: Rootstock Radio Interview with Jerome McGeorge
Air Date: January 8, 2018
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, listeners, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. Today it is such an honor and delight to be in the studio with a very, very good friend of mine. He actually goes by just one or two names but also is known by other names. One of my very, very favorite names was given to him by an actual Seneca elder: Ho-sha’ah, “he who recalls.” Jerome McGeorge. In 1988 Jerome found himself as the head of the finances of CROPP Co-op, Organic Valley, which today has 2,200 farmers and is a $1.2 billion business. Jerome, welcome to the studio today. It’s an honor to be talking with you.
JEROME MCGEORGE: And you humble me with your introduction. Glad to be here.
TM: So fun. It is the end of the year, and I just couldn’t think of anyone badder that I wanted to interview than you [[anyone I wanted more badly to interview than you]], because, you know, as we think about the year and try to feel gratefulness, it’s so important to be thinking bigger. And you are such a big thinker, and I kind of wanted to have a conversation with you about the rest of the world. You know, how can we feed the world? Is that possible? And what’s happening right now, and why aren’t we feeding the world now?
JM: The world has never fed itself, and famine and starvation, underclass, malnutrition, have been with us over the centuries. And that we have now proliferated human population to over seven billion, that feeding the world starts with equations of how much good land is there, land that grows food. And not only is that a finite amount, but with desertification and other despoliation, including toxic soils, the capacity of the world, the population of the world, to feed itself diminishes. And that just one obvious perspective on that is that 200 years ago there were just over a billion souls on earth, that it was two billion after World War I, and now we’re at seven billion.
One way that calculates is that we are at less than a half-acre of arable land per capita, shrinking towards one-quarter acre. I know people can, in a very commonsensical way, understand how that acts against our ability to feed ourselves. And the current situation that you reference, or we begin to question from—can we feed the world’s population—we also have a situation where there is a diminishment of food coming from the oceans; there has been diminishment of other factors in food production, and that we are approaching a place where, once again, starvation numbers are rising.
And it is possible, and where I really want to go in answer to your question, is to [unclear—marry?] thoughts of producing enough food that we might share in the world’s population in a better and more nutritious way. But in terms of carbon sequestration and land use planning, there is no doubt that projections, calculations that seem meritorious, we can begin to pull carbon out of the atmosphere into a more productive soil, and that with plans to sequester carbon through better land use planning—that is, the horticultural and forest reality of the planet—that literally we can create better soils, more food, and pull carbon, threatening climate change and other impacts, in one plant. However, of course, it implies a level of cooperation worldwide that a land-use plan, an ocean-use plan, both great necessities, seem very remote no matter how necessary.
TM: Yeah, and so even right now, even though we don’t have a lot of arable land per person and the oceans are dying, they say that we have 40 to 45 percent waste. So do you think that we actually do right now have the ability to feed the world if we really wanted to?
JM: If we were more efficient at distribution. Of course, that would also imply more energy in storage, transportation. That you’re so right, Theresa. The enormous level of waste implies that a lot more people could be fed better by reducing that waste. And it is an enormous problem in most of the developing world. Once again, it implies a level of international cooperation that we’ve never seen before. And that really is the heart of the matter: We either learn to cooperate better or we will [be] extinct as a species sooner.
TM: As you talk, we know that we hear all the time about how the only way we’re going to feed the world is with biotech because of some of the issues you just raised: the oceans are dying, we only have a quarter-acre… How do you answer that?
JM: That we are still in a stage of biotech representing propaganda, and certainly [unclear—“an impressive” or “unimpressive”] technological spread throughout the world, and that perhaps, as many of us wonder, unforeseen consequences from biotechnology. But it also must be recognized that there’s a huge failure to yield. That is, a disparity between the promises of biotech supporters and the reality of biotech yields and the benefits to world food supplies.
Another way to approach thinking about biotechnology is that it is, as so much of modern technology, wickedly complex, so that one can look at biotechnology in a large picture. And the biotechnology of the pharmaceutical industry represents dozens of multibillion-dollar blockbuster drugs. And biotechnology from a pharmaceutical standpoint is a home-run winner, and there’s no doubt the world will not reverse pharmaceutical biotechnology.
Agriculture is a totally different picture, and there is, in terms of an economic analysis of biotechnology, the initial investments in biotechnology have not been covered by the profits of technology. And there’s only one other industry that is as developed as biotechnology where there is a deficit that the profits have never yielded payback on the investment. The other industry is the airline industry.
TM: Obviously we are not feeding the world now, but those who are getting fed, who is feeding them? It’s not really biotech.
JM: Well, only in a limited fashion, Theresa. And something that you and I collaborating in trying to conceptualize a world food plan that was in the pursuit of “Everybody eats, and everybody eats with good nutrition.” And that in pursuit of a better agriculture, a great realization that needs emphasis and further development is more of the world’s food producers are women than men. And the further financial and educational empowerment of women in the developing world who are so predominant agricultural producers would be a great benefit to both overpopulation problem and better nutrition throughout the world of human affairs.
TM: Jerome, you know, I love this theme of women feeding the world. But you just mentioned this population, and some call it a population bomb. And then you’ve also talked a little bit about cooperation. And I have a quote that you gave me, I’ve heard you say over and over again, the Marcus Aurelius quote: “We are born to cooperate.” Well, look, we have people who are hungry, we have food that’s being wasted. What is it with man that we can’t seem to cooperate, if that’s what it’s going to take?
JM: I would start that the background to transformation of agriculture, recognition, empowerment, and education of women, especially, recognizing women are more than half the food producers in the world, would start with in the world of human affairs, in my lifetime—now 76 years—the education and empowerment of women, the movement of women into leadership, the challenge to former patriarchal norms, strictures, teachings, has been the most significant change of my lifetime. That in the sphere of food, that the population problem interacts with the question, how do we feed ourselves? And once again, the only predictor of population trends is the education of women. And that means the greater percentage of women in a population who are educated, the fewer children that will be born.
And the proof of it in my lifetime, once again, is the Zero Population [Growth] movement, and that among the educated women of the world, the population decreases. The shrinking of populations is everywhere apparent—in Europe, United States and Canada; in East Asia, most notably China, Korea, Japan, Formosa. That where women are being educated they are having smaller families, which is the most critical single factor in ending human starvation, food insecurity—that is, less population. We have too many people. And many ecologists note the overpopulation phenomenon, so that the empowerment of women and the reduction of human population are the most significant factors in not only humans feeding themselves but bettering themselves.
TM: Well, you know, Jerome, you started your career working in the food industry by helping to build a co-op. So I know that you’re very rooted in cooperation. When you first started thinking about this idea of food and cooperation, it also seemed part of a whole “bioregional” effort. And I just wondered, bioregionalism—can it have a role in feeding the world?
JM: I think it is a framework for feeding the world, and there are so many characteristics of bioregional thinking. And let’s just start: bioregional thinking implies a more cooperative world. That the networks of bioregional future are much deeper in terms of our human connection. That bioregionalism is also organic. Bioregionalism is populations suited in their inhabitation, in their numbers, to the land and the, indeed, the bioregion that they inhabit. And that bioregionalism does emphasize both organic and cooperative living as well as how do we better inhabit a world that we are ecologically diminishing, toxifying? And what is a framework that would emphasize healing energies, purifying?
TM: So if we were to take our next steps in bioregionalism towards food security, what kinds of things do you think we could do?
JM: The beginnings of the answer, I think, are in what we have seeded, where we have begun, whether it’s organic cooperative, it’s more CSAs, it’s richer networks represented by our food co-op or our local radio station. And indeed, all the critical factors in a word that must be more emphasized, and that word is community.
TM: I can’t help but thinking about the early days of CROPP Co-op, which you were so deeply involved in, and [unclear—“feeling of”?] bioregional then that seems way stronger then than it is now. And I’m just wondering, how can we revive this bioregionalism? Is it important? Do you think it’s really related to community and food security?
JM: I do, Theresa. And the word community also so implies cooperation, it implies what is sustainable, and it implies, of course, what is ecological, which has all of these qualities intermixing. And as we defined CROPP so well at the beginning, that it is a philosophy and production methodology but emphasizing the interdependency of all life, and that modern community and our urge to create a better future must include biomimicry, and that we honor and elevate the interdependency that is so the natural condition, not only of humans as a species but our play in the web of life.
TM: If you are just joining us, you are listening to Rootstock Radio, and I am having the wonderful pleasure of discussing the world and our issues with Jerome McGeorge. So Jerome, I mentioned that you had so many names, and of course you’ve had a few titles too. Certainly one of them was you were the chief financial officer for CROPP Co-op Organic Valley starting 30 years ago. That must have been quite an experience.
JM: It was totally quite an experience. It was an experience in realization of purpose. When we have living purpose we can be transformative in our lives, especially in cooperative circles, in true interdependent reality. And that the early days of CROPP, for me, were at the most blessed level a transformative experience in sharing trust; that the initial group of farmers and those of us involved in creating the business side is to be emphasized; that in the early days of CROPP there was a wonderful interchangeability, interactive… All of us wanted to be able to do whatever was necessary. And yet, of course, there were specializations—in my particular case the financial aspects, which always are significant. But my memory of the experience of creating CROPP is an incredibly rich experience in creating trust among the inside circle that was an ever-growing circle.
But it’s also to be remembering early CROPP that every new farm was a victory, was an accomplishment. And it is a rich memory to think back on those days when the essence of cooperation was going to grow into something we had no dream, that was going to be the eventual Organic Valley reality.
TM: Well, you know, you were right there in the ’80s during the farming crisis, and I know that that was definitely something that spurred this on, kind of like people were losing hope. What was it like then? Here you were, all of a sudden the financial officer, and wasn’t the first five years just really tough?
JM: A series of financial crises would be one way of describing it! And yet we, in a spirit of ethical networks that we need also to emphasize in our better life, in a better world to come, a better world we know we are possible of creating, that the experience of Organic Valley becoming beyond our dreams at the beginning, so that many aspects of our reality were not in our thinking at the beginning. It has been truly an evolutionary journey.
TM: Well, I loved your description of how the first thing that you were doing is building trust. And I’m sure that many listeners are wondering, well, back-to-the-landers and then conventional dairy people, and blah blah blah… What do you think the secret of building that trust was?
JM: Our shared experience. That the qualities of that early CROPP experience and sharing that experience was an ever-ripening, in food metaphor language, of that very trust that I’m discussing. And part of it was we were mission-driven, we did have great purpose, and that we were convinced that we needed to depart from agricultural norms, from cooperative norms. And the real heart of the crisis was the family farm auctions that were proliferating, and of course even to suicide. The crisis that was American agriculture at the end of the ’80s when we created CROPP was deepening. And yet it is also to be remembered, we’re right back in it, and commodity prices today are tragic.
TM: There’s a rumor that you in fact used to, in the early days, as an astrologer, more or less kind of look at the stars and suggest when it was a good time to go to the bank.
JM: It is a true rumor! In fact, we practiced those astrological indications, but only from time to time. We were not addicted to our astrological indications.
TM: Did some of the farmers there think of you as you were a little bit wacko?
JM: There’s no doubt that some, and I believe that persist to this very day.
TM: Jerome, what would you say in the early days of CROPP, as the person looking over the finances and actually doing a whole profit-and-loss sheet by hand, before we had Excel and spreadsheets, and we didn’t even hardly have any computers, what is your memory or your takeaway? What were some of the challenges you think that were the hardest then?
JM: Oh, it was establishing any credibility at all. That there was great skepticism that we would ever create a meaningful designation, a food category, out of organic here in Wisconsin, and we’ve become a national dairy coop. Another huge accomplishment, to the great skepticism of all our audiences, including even some of our members, we were going to create a stable dairy price. That would never happen—in fact, there will be no stable any prices in American agriculture. And we played it as an advantage that we were different, as opposed to running away from it or trying to pretend that we were establishmentarian. Not who we were!
TM: And so your antiestablishment kind of really fit right into the whole cooperative concept, didn’t it?
JM: Well, Theresa, you’re prompting me to remember Nietzsche’s advice and life itself spoke this truth to me: “Behold,” it said, “we must remake ourselves again and again.” That following Nietzsche’s advice and wanting to be a transformative element was key to our early experience.
TM: And do you see some examples out there as we end this year, we go into a new year? We have some dismal things we’re looking at, for sure, on a national political level. But do you think that’s inspiring people on a more community, local level to think about community, bioregionalism?
JM: Strangely, Theresa, you reminded me right back to reflections of [unclear] the Paris Climate Accord, that the Trump administration withdrawal has caused an onslaught, a wonderful outpouring of state, local, corporate urge to respond to climate change. And if the federal government is going to take these harmful steps, that this response of the more local organizations really heartens me. I think there is a cause for some faith in humanity.
TM: Jerome, thank you so much for being with us today and for your words of wisdom, and also for your words of hope as we look forward to this year, that we can behave better and that there are things that we can do that we can be responsible for.
JM: Amen! Theresa, what a delight, and thank you.
TM: Thank you, Jerome.
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