LA FARGE — Displaced Organic Valley employees gathered outside a makeshift command post at the La Farge Community Temple on Wednesday afternoon, anxious to learn when — and how — they could get back to work.
A fire raced through the headquarters of the nation’s largest organic food cooperative Tuesday. The blaze has left nearly 400 employees scrambling to continue critical business operations.
“We’re trying to plan how to get up and running,” said Rita Challet, a credit manager at Organic Valley who emerged from the headquarters building Wednesday afternoon clutching the charred and waterlogged Indiana Wesleyan University diploma she had salvaged from her cubicle. “This is a very sad day for all of us.”
Organic Valley employees thought 4:30 p.m. on a Tuesday was an odd time for a fire drill — until they saw the flames.
“We watched it get progressively worse,” said Sarah Jaiteh, a technical project coordinator who was at the headquarters when the fire broke out. “There were lots of emotions once we realized what was happening. There were a lot of tears.”
Officials still aren’t sure how the fire started.
The west side of the building, where the fire is believed to have started, sustained the heaviest damage. Fire crews from 10 surrounding municipalities ripped through the roof to access the fire. The building’s exterior solar panels added to the difficulty.
The main portion of the headquarters, which housed 225 employees including Organic Valley executives and the human resources department, appears to be destroyed.
Still, employees could be back in the building as soon as Monday, said facility manager Mark Pfeiffer, who was working with Organic Valley’s general contractors to assess damages Wednesday afternoon. He estimated that roughly 12,000 square feet of the 83,000 square foot building sustained damage.
“We’re going to stay in business,” Pfeiffer said. “We’re a cooperative — we’re willing to roll up our sleeves and get through this.”
The first priority Wednesday was getting internal communications up and running and putting into action Organic Valley’s “business continuity plan,” said Jamie Lamonde, director of public affairs. Organic Valley’s Cashton facility is fully operational, and the shipping and receiving of orders remained on schedule.
“Right now we’re just working on placement of the headquarter employees and logistics,” Lamonde said. “We’re planning for a building rebuild, but until we can get in and assess the damage, it’s hard to say.”
Information technology staff worked through the night to restore the cooperative’s server, which went down Tuesday night but was undamaged by the fire.
La Farge Public Works Director Wayne Carpenter was on the scene until after midnight. His department was dispatched Tuesday night to shut off power and water to the Organic Valley headquarters and used a trace pump to fill fire department tankers with water from the nearby Kickapoo River.
“We’re a small community, and they’re a major employer,” he said. “No town wants to lose someone like that.”