Case Studies, Systems Thinking

Organic Valley: Building a future that puts family farms first

Farming is central to the American Midwest. It’s an economic driver, a source of food, a multi-generational business, and a sense of identity. During the 1980s farm income crisis, that way of life for many family farmers was jeopardized by the pressures of industrial, chemical farms.

Wheat prices and demand, which had soared in the 1970s, were plunging. Farmers in the Midwest who had purchased more land to take advantage of the wheat boom were left without a market. Thousands faced bankruptcy. It was the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

“We were told to ‘get big, or get out!’ Industrial, chemical farming was the only existing option for survival. Never mind its effects on our health, our animals, and our environment,” reads the Organic Valley website.

Instead, family farmers decided to fight back. Banding together, in 1988 a group of seven farmer founders created Organic Valley, an independent, farmer-owned cooperative. Headquartered in La Farge, Wisconsin, Organic Valley has expanded in the last 30 years to work with 2,000 farmer-owners across the US, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom to support mid-sized agriculture through a cooperative structure.

There’s a reason why Organic Valley supports and is made up of mid-sized farms. This size of farm is proven to be more sustainable than large monoculture farms, and yet they also have a greater possibility of competing with big agriculture companies.

From a productivity standpoint (one of the metrics used to measure one aspect of food system performance), small and mid-sized farms produce more total output per unit of land than large monocultures, while also keeping profits in the pockets of rural families and communities as opposed to multinational corporations.

With a vision to “keep farmers on the land,” Organic Valley believes agroecology and organic agriculture are the only way farming can be sustainable in the 21st century and that education is key to this transformation.

They are not alone in this claim: research supports that when compared to conventional agriculture, organic agriculture performs better in terms of productivity, environmental impact, economic viability, and social well-being.

The connections between people, animals, and the land

Until her retirement in 2018, Theresa Marquez was one of Organic Valley’s long-time leaders.

She served as the cooperative’s Mission Executive in the last six years of her career, a unique position dedicated to ensuring Organic Valley stayed true to its goals. According to a press release, that meant “encouraging a farmer future emphasizing ecological and economic sustainability, producing the best tasting, most nutritious, and wholesome food possible, and respecting the diversity, dignity, and interdependence of human, animal, plant, soil, and global life.”

According to Marquez, Organic Valley’s agroecology approaches are a way to recognize and respect these complex interdependencies. These practices can be based on the latest agricultural science, but are also led by farmers who understand what’s best for their land after farming it for generations.

By using regenerative techniques such as intercropping (planting two or more crops in proximity) and crop rotation (sequentially planting different crops on the same plot of land), farmers improve and maintain soil health. Using pesticide-free farming methods brings further benefits for the soil, reduces chemical run-off into nearby water bodies, and protects human health.

Despite these interconnected benefits, Marquez says further education is needed to draw these connections. Unfortunately, that can be easier said than done. “Big biotech and agtech companies have the largest monetary resources and therefore influence,” she explains. “They can suppress studies and evidence on negative health consequences and influence [agricultural] policies to their benefit.”

Marquez cites research findings from the US corn belt suggesting that women in the region avoid pregnancy during the spring months due to the high risk of birth abnormalities caused by exposure to pesticides. That research was led by Dr. Paul Winchester, a Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at Riley Children’s Hospital in Indiana, and explored in greater detail in a podcast episode Marquez hosted in 2018—part of Organic Valley’s ongoing mission of public education.

Competing with big business

Organic Valley does more than sell in local grocers and at farmer’s markets. Today, the co-op markets its dairy, egg, meats, and produce across the US and exports to 25 countries. Their scale is impressive: they earn $1.1 billion in annual sales, manage 500,000 acres of organic farmland, and represent 15% of all organic farmers in America.

Trust-building has been an important part of the cooperative’s development. That means gaining trust among its farmer-owners and also forming alliances with European dairy farmers to avoid direct competition and offer other forms of support. It is this trust that has enabled Organic Valley to expand while staying away from “the greed factor” that can plague industrial-scale operations.

Fairness and stability are two other core values. Organic Valley has adopted stable price pay for its producers. By guaranteeing farmers a certain price for their products, family farmers are buffered from fluctuating market prices and are able to better forecast their projected revenues for the year.

For Marquez, Organic Valley’s family farmers present one way forward in our ever-changing, rapidly-growing world: “There are solutions to our existing food problems, but to get there, cooperation and implementation of these solutions is needed.”