Rootstock Radio is starting off 2018 with a very special guest: George Siemon, Organic Valley’s CEO. George, who was born into a family of businessmen and swore he’d never be one, has been playfully dubbed “The Reluctant CEO,” but his passion for agriculture and cooperation serves CROPP Cooperative (maker of the Organic Valley brand) just as well as a background in business could. From the first, George and the cooperative’s other founding farmers believed that a couple people with radical ideas about respecting land and livestock could change the food system. 30 years later, Organic Valley is a leader in the organic agriculture movement. And George himself was deeply involved in the creation of USDA’s organic livestock standards.
Of course, in typical humble fashion, George says the whole business of writing organic standards really “wasn’t that hard.” “When we started there were a few standards around the world and we just got everyone together and one night we wrote the organic dairy standards,” he explains. Of the organic community, he jokes, “I’m sure we’re the only people to go to DC regularly and ask for stricter standards.”
For George, it’s more about the farming than the paperwork though. “The organic food movement was exciting, and it wasn’t just exciting as a food movement, but as a farming movement. You know, it was just a way of working with nature and rediscovering how important soil is.” The word organic has many depths of meaning, ranging from practical to philosophical. This is why George finds it difficult to do “organic” justice in a succinct sound byte, but when pressed he tries. “Organic is a seal that really takes care of all the concerns you have around food. It simply covers all of the concerns you have about soils being cared for, whether there’s harmful chemicals, whether the food is what it said it is. It’s a very unique comprehensive seal.”
Want more? Don’t miss this excellent conversation with Jerome McGeorge, Organic Valley’s first CFO turned wise counsel, about the beginnings of the organic movement and what he sees for its future.
Transcript: Rootstock Radio Interview with George Siemon, Organic Valley CEO
Air Date: January 1, 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 we are going to have a conversation with George Siemon, who is the CEO, for at least 30 years now, of CROPP Co-op, whose brand is Organic Valley. It’s just really a pleasure to be interviewing George, because he is such a pioneer in organic. And it’s really interesting that he has a degree in animal science that he got in 1970 from Colorado State. And so he’s going to have a lot to share with us about animal science, organic, and Vernon County. Welcome, George.
GEORGE SIEMON: Okay, thank you.
TM: So, George, really, you’ve devoted the last 30 years of your life [to] building CROPP and Organic Valley and all-around livestock and livestock standards. In fact, you are credited for being one of the writers of the livestock standards. But could you tell us, how did you get interested in this?
GS: Well, I was always a nature boy when I was a kid. I was a Boy Scout and a birdwatcher and all that, and so it was natural for me to get involved with the back-to-the-land movement in the early 1970s. And I was in Colorado and I was trying to look for a degree. I studied forestry a little while and I got involved with cowboys and farmers and got interested in animals. So I got an animal science degree and went back to the land, became an organic farmer and milked cows. I moved here in ’77, milked cows… But once again, the organic food business, the livestock’s where we happened to hit our stride, and so naturally I got involved in writing the standards.
TM: Well, you are a bona fide back-to-the-lander.
GS: I definitely am. Even more, back to nature.
TM: Back to nature. But yet here you are surrounded by—this is dairy country—and so you became friends, didn’t you, with a lot of just conventional farmers around here.
GS: Yeah, my family was really lucky. We had a great neighborhood, we grew tobacco, we harvested it with the neighbors, we all milked cows. So I got to really experience the old dairy culture of Vernon County. So that was a blessing, and I’ve certainly seen a lot of change since the ’70s to where we are today.
TM: Well, you know, when you started, certainly an awful lot of people said, “Ah, nah, they’ll never get anywhere.” And yet you kept going and you didn’t even listen to the naysayers. What gave you this kind of confidence that, “Yeah, we can do this”?
GS: Well, the organic food movement was exciting. And it wasn’t just exciting as a food movement, but as a farming movement it was just a way of working with nature and rediscovering how important soil is. So organics just had a tremendous passion in back-to-the-land, growing your own food. It was just the sweeping times that were there, and it was a wonderful time.
TM: Did you ever have those doubts?
GS: Well, we were young and foolish, so it didn’t matter.
TM: And did you ever think that this would be the kind of industry it is today?
GS: Oh, organic foods? No, we had no imagination when we started the co-op Organic Valley that we would succeed or the marketplace would become what it’s become.
TM: So, you know, George, in the beginning days of CROPP, and you were talking about how you were a back-to-the-lander and you were working with a lot of conventional farmers, and weren’t the early farmers of CROPP just a whole mixture of back-to-the-landers plus regular dairy producers? Why did they go organic?
GS: Well, first off, CROPP is the business name for Organic Valley, a cooperative out of Wisconsin, and we were born in the farm crisis of the 1980s. And a group of people really felt, that were farm activists, that we needed to find a way to provide new markets to farmers because the government wasn’t going to care for them. And so they chose value-added co-ops, and organics was a likely idea. So there was a group that had the idea, but there was such frustration in the countryside that there was just a diverse group of people in this area that thought that was a good idea and started getting together. And it was a diverse group. And of course, I always think of the Margaret Mead quote about a diverse group of people dedicated to a common mission can do wonders. And that would define Organic Valley in a nutshell.
But really it was because of the deep frustration with the conventional system and the bankruptcies and the farm crisis. It was such a…people were just desperate to try something. Even if it failed, at least they knew they’d tried to find a new way. And that’s what we did. And being willing to fail is important. You’re much more sure of where you’re going as you’re… That’s the important thing, is how you’re going, not the known result.
TM: I know that the first five years were probably really a struggle. What do you think happened that helped this organic dairy take off?
GS: Well, first off, with all markets, availability is a big deal—you can’t buy it if it’s not there. So you’ve got to get that going, and that’s what we did. But then you have happenings, in our case, rBGH came out and that really pushed our sales and made organic dairy real. And at first it was just cheese, and then butter, and then you finally got to fluid milk. And so the whole thing built on itself, availability again, but rBGH was a big push that helped us. And dairy is very popular with children and families, and the mothers of the United States really said, “Yeah, I’m going to buy organic dairy.” And we went for quite a ride. We still are.
TM: Well, I know that when you started out you didn’t really want to go past Wisconsin. What pushed you out?
GS: Well, what pushed us out was our desire to serve farmers. That’s who we are, that’s what we are. And we first moved to Minnesota from Wisconsin, and then Iowa, and then to Washington State. We made the big leap, and that was all because farmers there asked us would we come and try to figure it out for them, since we had obviously figured something out. So, we never thought to be a national co-op when we started and certainly never expected to be as big a national co-op as we are today.
TM: Well, you know, you keep saying about being a co-op, and also you talk about the co-op grew out of the farm crisis in the ’80s. And that crisis included co-ops—there were co-ops there. So why did you think that you should do a co-op?
GS: Well, we were very common-good-minded, and a co-op was the way to go. And, yeah, there were disappointments with the co-op, but you know, there’s disappointments in corporations and everything like that. So a co-op, again, it was part of the activist reaction to the 1985 Farm Bill failure, was to say this is what we need to do, is co-ops. And of course western Wisconsin is co-op country so it wasn’t very hard for us to become a co-op.
TM: A lot of people don’t really talk about the fact that because co-ops are not publicly traded there’s a much more rooted membership. So would you say that a co-op represents less of a divide between the highest paid and the lowest paid?
GS: Well, a co-op is just a business structure in general. They’re more idealistic and more thoughtful and more valuing of that so, I think in general that’s very true. But that’s not a requirement of a co-op. It’s just the nature of…the kind of people who want to be part of a co-op also have those values as well.
TM: And you know, I’m real interested though, the other thing that puzzles me is that you decided that you were going to do organic dairy. Well, there weren’t even any standards for organic dairy. So how did you go about trying to figure that out?
GS: Well, the dairying, the farming part was one part and that was a natural revolution, just listening to nature to see what [unclear—worked?], being doubtful about what the chemical people were selling, and just thinking for yourself. It was a whole other thing to figure out how to produce an organic dairy market and write standards and all that, that those things that came together. But still, when we started, there were a few standards around the world and we just gathered them up together and one night we wrote the organic dairy standards. And then of course they’ve evolved since then, but it wasn’t that hard.
TM: It wasn’t that hard, but come on, it took a long time didn’t it?
GS: Well, we’re still working on it now, 30 years later. So organic dairy is in a “continue improvement” state.
TM: Well, what were some of the tough parts of the standard that took a long time and a lot of debates?
GS: Well, antibiotics was the biggest thing in the beginning. We actually allowed antibiotics for a small period of time before we realized, number one, we didn’t need them, but number two, it hurt the market potential. So you certainly didn’t have the support that we have today. Now there’s tremendous support, veterinarians, mail order services, all kinds of knowledge how to deal with these things. But at that time there was no knowledge, and so we’re really lucky here. We still are.
Marta Engel was a local vet that featured natural things, and so we did a lot of pioneering on the antibiotics. And so that was one of the biggest challenges. But of course, infrastructure-wise, getting access to buying feed was a big limitation. Certainly people grew most of their feed but they still needed to buy some. So we had to go through all that networking to build.
TM: Well, you know, as you start talking about antibiotics and met and talked with other conventional farmers who use antibiotics, they feel that it’s just impossible. How can you do this without antibiotics? I wonder if you could give us some hints on how that happens.
GS: Well, enough just to say that today, 30 years later, it’s incredible how well farmers do without antibiotics. You have healthy animals, healthy soil, and antibiotics aren’t needed. And it sounds really hocus pocus but Organic Valley has got 1,600 farmers that are proving it every day, that healthy animals makes it work.
TM: I just read an article about how, for the first time in decades, that we’re using less antibiotics for animals.
GS: Well, two things. Number one, the market is speaking clearly, anti-antibiotics. There’s health issues related, we’ve abused it. And so you’re seeing people just quit using some of the sub-therapeutic antibiotics, some of the automatic use. And again, remember, they’re salespeople—they’re trying to sell antibiotics to farmers, and farmers were buying them, and now they’re finding that they were overusing them and the consumer doesn’t want them.
TM: You know, when you talked about they’re salesmen and they’re trying to sell, that kind of gave me a little bit of a shiver because it seems like that also is something like pesticides, isn’t it? Are we going to be exposed to pesticides because salesmen want to sell pesticides?
GS: Well, you know, the organic fertilizer salespeople in the early ‘70s were lead horses in promoting organics because in order to farm organically you needed to find these pieces. At the same time you had that whole infrastructure being developed, you had atrazine salespeople around here putting atrazine in their coffee at sales meetings to prove how safe it was. So you’re really talking about two far ends of the spectrum where it was. And so much change in agriculture has been driven by people making money off of selling inputs.
TM: Rather than for the benefit or the health of the people and of the land.
GS: Yeah, no relationship to those things.
TM: And those two kinds of dynamic tensions between organic and conventional ag still exist, and yet they’re still, our farmers are converting to organic. How do you think that the organic community’s been able to make inroads in helping people convert?
GS: Well, the big thing is providing an organic marketplace. Organic, no doubt, organic has given a lifeline to family farms to survive. And everybody, even if they don’t like the word organics, recognizes that the marketplace is helping family farms survive in this region. So it became respected through the marketplace. And then you have a whole lot of respect of organic farmers who, neighbors know, you can’t put them down, they’re good people. They’re my neighbor, yet they’ve gone organic and it seems to be working. So you had this seeing good people working and getting excited about it—that’s a big change agent too. The co-op’s got 2,200 farmers, 1,740 dairy farmers in 31 states, all the membership. And Vernon County is supposed to be the most populated organic farming area—I don’t know.
TM: So, for our listeners, Vernon County is in Wisconsin and pretty darn close to the Mississippi River.
So, George, tell us more about organic. What is it that you feel devoted the most about organic?
GS: Oh, organic is just an incredibly deep word and has as many depths of meaning as you want. I always like to tell people organics was a school of philosophers in the Greek times, and so it’s a deep word, organize. In the food system it’s about listening to nature, it’s about the integrated parts making whole. So organics is an exciting word for me.
TM: And they say, though, that organic is really about soil, right? They say that here in the Midwest, in Iowa and Wisconsin, that you can plant a pot and it will grow. So what’s the issue around soil and organic?
GS: From the beginning, when organics was coming of age in the twentieth century, it was about “Healthy soil makes healthy plants makes healthy animals and healthy humans.” And it’s just really that simple. The soil is a great mystery: How many microbes are in a square foot, and the interaction of all the different living creatures in there, that it just all starts with healthy soil. And it’s an incredible solution to a lot of our problems, whether it be climate change or any number of things. The healthier the soil, the healthier the people—everything. It’s the foundation to a society, and it’s the real sin of our times that we’re in now that we’re actually watching the deterioration of soil worldwide.
TM: We had an interesting guest here, Margaret Krome from the Michael Fields Institute, and she talked about how some fishermen came up who were fishing in the dead zone and talked to farmers here and suggested—in fact, they know that it’s true—that some of this pesticide nitrogen loading, and soil erosion is what has created the dead zone. Are you strongly in belief that the way we farm organically can be a solution for that kind of pollution in the Gulf?
GS: Oh, for sure. It’s going to be much better than chemical. But there’s nothing better than covering the ground with grass and pasture, which leads us back to animals. And so as long as you’re opening the land up, you’re taking some chance of erosion and that kind of thing, But our chemical industry is losing one or two bushels of soil for every bushel of corn they grow. And that’s just incredible to think about our future generations and that we would do that.
TM: So organic, though, does use corn too, right? But are you hopeful that it’s a lot less corn?
GS: Yeah. Well, and organics naturally, by the system that it represents, limits you, because you need to do a little of everything. So corn can only become a third or a fourth or 15 percent of your crops, and you have to grow hay and small grains and pastures. And so the rotation requires that the fertility [unclear—need is required?]. It’s one of the reasons why the materials used in organics are purposely limited, to make sure you follow the basic premises of rotation, that kind of thing. So it’s much, much different. And again, they have living soil, soft soil, soil that absorbs water. That’s a whole other matter than what you see in the no-till farming, where the ground is concrete and the water just runs off in sheets.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you are listening to Rootstock Radio, and I’m talking to George Siemon, who is the CEO of Organic Valley. You know, farmers got together and they put together, you were talking about the standards—there’s a lot of them. What are some of changes that you think are happening right now in those standards?
GS: Well, what’s unique about organics is the organic community went to Washington, D.C., and asked them to give us a federally defined rule so we can have a trade. And so I’m sure we’re the only people that go to D.C. regularly and ask for stricter standards! And that’s what we do, and we have a very unique vehicle through the USDA Seal where we have a community advisory board that actually sorts through all the recommendations and decisions and sends them to the USDA, and it’s really quite a unique people’s process. Not that there’s not frustration with what the USDA does, but it’s a unique things where organics is always striving.
And whether it be…recently they had a debate over hydroponics. Should hydroponic-grown plants be organic? A real good philosophical discussion with lots of passion. And then you get into using the little ingredients that you use, down to the gums and whether they should be allowed or not allowed. But it’s all hotly debated, it’s all very lively. And whether you agree with it or not all the time, what happens, it’s a people’s process. So organics is very unique.
TM: So there’s a board, though, that debates this, isn’t there?
TM: Can you tell us a little bit about that?
GS: Well, it’s a 15-member board. They were appointed by the USDA but I was on the board for five years, and they’re just people that are mostly really seasoned people in the organic that sit on a board and listen to standard and material considerations, and it’s quite a process.
TM: You know, it sounds, I’m sure, to many of our listeners, pretty complicated. There’s a board, it’s all these people appointed, it’s all these standards that are constantly changing. What’s your elevator speech for what is organic?
GS: I always have a hard time with that because I’m more philosophically driven than some sound bite about food. But organics is a seal that really takes care of all the concerns you have around food. It just simply covers all the concerns you have: whether it’s the soil is being cared for, whether there’s harmful chemicals, whether it’s the valid, the food is what it said it is. It’s a very unique, comprehensive seal that really covers—it’s all you need to know, is organics.
Now after that, you still have to add more values because organics is one thing. But you can have large-scale organics, and Organic Valley wants to say, “Buy organic and buy organic from family farms.” There’s still questions to add to it, but at least organics is a great foundation.
TM: We also often are hearing, “Oh, these big corporations are coming into organic.” What do you have to say for that?”
GS: Well, it just shows you the power of the marketplace, number one. Number two, you can’t complain about more organic acres very well. And number three, I say that’s good news, but then I’ll turn right around and say, “But you should be supporting co-ops, you should be supporting organic family farms, not bigger farms. You should be asking for higher standards, you should be paying attention.” So, as a base, that’s great, it’s better than chemical agriculture. It’s good to see the marketplace being driven by the consumer. But there are more values, and again, we believe the family farm is an important value.
TM: Well, I think one of those other values has to do with, of course, animal welfare. Talk to us about that some. I know that you’re very, very big in the animal welfare side of this.
GS: Yeah, I’ve been very active in the animal welfare. I much prefer the word stewardship or animal care or even humane. It’s really, how do we treat animals? What are their basic needs and how do we let them have those needs and let them live the life they want to live? Animals want to graze, they really do—so that’s not that hard. So it’s a big development. It’s not a requirement for organic farmers, they’ve always been there, but now we have to bring that into our standards. And that’s part of the whole evolution that we constantly see.
TM: And isn’t there a movement now to try and create better standards for care in the poultry world?
GS: Well, right now we’re going through a controversy where the USDA, the Organic Seal, has not required access to outdoors to chickens. And we’ve long lobbied for that and we’re really disappointed about that. And of course Organic Valley has always had that requirement, but now we’re getting into a wrestling match with the USDA over that. And it’s just part of the politics of these times is that the powers that be… So again, the USDA Seal is an important foundation, but there’s things to watch out for, and that’s why we started our co-op.
TM: And so George, you mentioned that there’s a lot of standards around the soil, and the water, and treating manure, and so on. And you said that there’s always ongoing debates with the National Organic Program. Do you think that the marketplace is ready to see some of the other values such as minimum wage, social justice, fair trade, and so on? Those aren’t really part of the standard. Do you foresee that those might be part of the standards?
GS: Well, those values being added to organics won’t be part of the USDA organic standard because the foundation law was just about how food is produced. And so you’re still going to have to look further, and you can do that simply as a consumer and support the people that have your values. It might take a little work to get there, but that’s at a retail level and brand level. So I’m really excited about the power of the consumer. If we want to change the world, the consumer asking questions can do that. They can get Walmart to change. They can get any number of anybody to change if they ask enough questions. I mean, Walmart today is the number-one seller of most organic commodities. It’s unbelievable.
TM: So what other surprises do you think that you have, 30 years later?
GS: Well, we never saw organics happening like it has, so that’s all just one big surprise. Well, and one big surprise is me being a CEO of a big business! I swore I wouldn’t be a business person—I moved to the country. So that’s a surprise every day. We just passed our budget for 1.2 billion dollars today. It’s just incomprehensible.
TM: And what other kinds of things do you see on the horizon for the organic standards?
GS: We’re pretty far, we’re down to arguing over the last one-tenth of one percent, and we may argue about that forever. So I think more so it’s the businesses like Organic Valley that need to keep developing more and more standards. And you’ve already covered the social justice, animal welfare, climate change; and carbon sequestration is a big one we’re working on. A lot of good there in the organic food—I think that’s going to become a big one. Energy self-sufficiency, you know, all the things that we need to be a more holistic society.
TM: As we talk about organic, there seems to be, this past year, a lot of people attacking organic. How are you answering those people who say organic isn’t really what it’s supposed to be or it’s not going far enough? How are you trying to answer those questions and those doubts?
GS: Well, no matter what, whenever you say you’re better than somebody else there’s going to always be people who want to challenge you or [unclear—fight?]. And so organic farmers have always wrestled with that with their neighbors and that kind of thing. But more disturbing is the organic community being so challenging as they are to each other. It’s great, we love our passion, we’re great, we want to argue about the last tenth of the tenth, but at some point in time we’ve got to make sure we’re looking out for the Monsantos who are really trying to angle about us, cause that’s always out there. And so the organic people need to find the best way they can to still maintain their movement in this and still work together as a movement.
TM: And so, you talked about Monsanto is out there attacking us. What about the non-GMO label? Do you think that’s a threat to organic?
GS: The non-GMO label was part of a surge of anti-GMO energy which we were all thrilled to see. But organics is already non-GMO, and what it’s done to us is add testing to our system just to assure, because it wasn’t necessarily part of the USDA right away, but they’re working on that too. So it’s been a good thing for us.
I get disturbed by the non-GMO label when I hear people say it’s better than organics, when it’s nothing but conventional food that wasn’t raised with that GMO seed. Which is exactly where it was when Organic Valley started—that was the food system we had that we were rebelling against. Now, 30 years later, you’re hearing people say that same food is better than organics just because it’s non-GMO labeled. It’s still chemicals. It has no assurance of sustainability or any conservation efforts—it’s just a seed choice.
TM: Well, George, you know that I’m an anti-pesticide activist. How do you think that organic can get more into the mainstream so that we can actually make some true inroads into creating a situation where we can diminish those poisons in our environment?
GS: Well, I think that’s how it’s going to happen, is, science is coming and will continue to come about the harm of chemicals; and people, health is the number-one issue. And so organics is a super solution to the kind of risk and danger that chemicals represent for human health.
TM: George, will you just speak a little bit about what is the biggest challenge you’re going to have going into 2018?
GS: Right now, the marketplace is always a struggle. It speeds up, it slows down, and that’s just the nature of a developing marketplace. Right now we’re going through a slowdown, and so we’re constantly struggling, having the right amount of supply for the marketplace. And that just is just the nature what you do when you’re representing farmers in a marketplace that is changing. So, kind of business as usual—sometimes we’re winning, sometimes we’re losing. And we want to have the product there for the consumer, and there’s always a background struggle to get that done.
TM: Well, I can see that you’re steady as a rock, and it’s pretty great to have you in our community and also as the CEO for CROPP. So, thank you, George.
GS: Thank you.
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