Lots of Ohio milk in Organic Valley brand, says CEO George Siemon

By Debbi Snook
The Cleveland Plain Dealer
February 6, 2013
Organic Valley chief

OEFFA Conference 2013

  • What: Ohio’s largest organic food conference for home and commercial growers. Workshops on raising organic food, exhibition hall, talks by Organic Valley leader George Siemon and rancher Nicolette Hahn Niman.
  • When: Saturday, Feb. 16, and Sunday, Feb. 17, with pre-conference work shops Friday, Feb. 15, on food safety and animal grazing.
  • Where: Granville Middle School and Granville High School, Granville.
  • Cost: $205 for nonmembers; member, student and volunteer discounts avail able.
  • Contact: oeffa.org, 614-421-2022.

Milking cows at night, shoveling you-know-what during the day — who wants to be a dairy farmer these days?

Not many, if you look at the plummeting numbers nationwide.

It’s been a long time since George Siemon did it. But the head of Organic Valley‘s dairy farmer cooperative hasn’t forgotten how it works. His 1,814 member farmers from 35 states, including 174 farmers in Ohio, supply a third of the organic milk in the country.

He’ll give the keynote speech Saturday, Feb. 16, at the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association‘s annual conference in Granville. We talked to him by phone from his office in Wisconsin, where he says he still sees things looking up for farmers, consumers and cows.

Did you grow up on a farm?

I did not. I was one of the odd ones who just became interested in organic farming. I have some beef cattle now, but not cows. I milked for 20 years and enjoyed it. I raised my kids on a farm, which is an awesome thing. It’s a lot of work, and I became dissatisfied with the conventional milk market, which is why I helped start the co-op.

Why did you decide to farm organically?

That’s easy. I was always a bird watcher and nature lover. As I got into farming, organics fit in better with the belief structure I had. Certainly the use of chemicals is hard on wildlife and bird life.

We’ve lost more than half of our American dairy farms since 1992.

The numbers are going down, down, down. Conventional milk has not been profitable. It might be a little better now than it has been. But farms are facing the challenge of going big or going organic, which has more profit than conventional. We’ve been a lifeline for some farms. In Maine and Vermont, 10 percent of the dairy farms are organic.

Is it hard for the co-op to find farmers?

We have an active staff searching for them. Most are existing farms or farms taken over by the next generation. Only about 1 percent are new farmers, because of the start-up costs. Also, someone has to be really passionate about it to go down that road. It’s a lifestyle of hard work for sure. In Ohio, one-third of our farmers are Amish or Mennonites, mostly in the Holmes County area.

Are we in an era of food enlightenment?

We’re definitely in a place where food is important to people. I see a lot more younger people cooking, and people looking for the healthy effects of quality food. Consumers are making their own decisions about food, based on what they read on the Internet, and not on information they’ve been spoon-fed. You always see real changes in food trends made by young females and mothers. When you have only one or two children, you want to make decisions that don’t endanger them. It really is an exciting time.

Will organic prices ever equal conventional?

It’s probably never going to happen. To start, the organic animal feed is more expensive. But social justice is a big part of what we believe in. We believe in food that should be good for the land, good for the people who eat it and also good for the farmers. The price paid for conventional milk is close to a bankruptcy price. We try to make it sustainable for our farm families.

You served on the National Organic Standards Board for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. What’s your view of it now?

I served five years. We faced very difficult, complex scientific issues. It’s a unique committee that actually has legislative authority. I didn’t agree with all the decisions, but it was pretty small stuff. It’s more disappointing that we don’t always have all the science to make decisions. We need to study things like methionine, an amino-acid nutrient in chicken feed. It’s used in very minute amounts, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be looking at it. I just wish the USDA would fund more scientific studies to help us make those decisions.

How do you feel about the recent controversial aggregating study that claims organic food is no more nutritious than conventional?

The study was a well-funded public relations effort by the opposition. You can find plenty of individual studies showing a nutritional difference. Our milk, for example, has twice the omega-3 fatty acids that conventional milk has. When you start out with an organically based, nutrient- and mineral-rich soil, how could food not be better?

Has the consumer’s interest in local food eclipsed organic food, as some surveys suggest?

The field is often portrayed as organic versus local, which is absurd. It’s a natural marriage. People are most concerned about organic food in their own backyard. It’s why we make a big effort to supply local milk to the region that produces it. We try hard to have Ohio milk sold to Ohio customers. We bottle at Smith [Dairy] in Orrville and process when we can at Miceli’s. Ohio is one of our hub sites for distribution.

The title of your conference talk is “How to Fix the Broken Food System.” Can you give us a preview?

I don’t know if I like that title. I’m a pretty positive person. I’m hoping to talk about the alternatives to the conventional food system. It can be tiresome to hear about the negatives, but we do have a crisis in this country. The food system is not a fair system when it’s dominated by interests. What’s the purpose of the food industry? To bring profits to the chemical industry or to take care of the environment? Those of us in organics just don’t think the system reflects a fair, holistic view of food.