Grand opening this week for Organic Valley's new Cashton office building

The Organic Valley office building in Cashton is equipped with solar panels that contribute to the buildings exclusively green power supply.

Organic Valley, coming off its second record-setting year with sales topping $1.1 billion, celebrated that milestone — as well as its 15 percent growth in membership and 5.8 percent growth in sales last year — during its annual meeting in La Crosse this week.

The Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools, as the La Farge-based co-op’s parent company is known, realized a profit of $6.3 million on the $1.1 billion in sales, according to its annual report.

Like the conventional dairy producers, the company is weathering a spell of low milk prices, CEO George Siemon said at a press conference Friday before the official closed annual meeting of more than 450 farmer-owners from across the country at the La Crosse Center.

“Two years ago, we were short on milk, and today, we’re long on milk — and eggs, too,” Siemon said. “You’d think we’d be good at it by now, after so many years,” but variables also buffet the market.

“But the organic market is strong,” permitting the co-op to continue its pattern of investments, including buying a powder/butter facility in McMinnville, Ore., and breaking ground on a new cheese-cutting and labeling and ghee production facility in Cashton June 1.

“Now more than ever, it’s time to cooperate,” Siemon said. “Our strength has always been in our unity and belief in the collective good. In a world of divisiveness, cooperation continues to be the key to success.”

Next year will be the 30th anniversary of the co-op that Siemon and a handful of other farmers founded in 1988 and now is the largest cooperative of organic farmers in the country.

CROPP’s addition of more than 250 family farms lifted its membership to 2,013 in 36 states, making it the largest organic cooperative in the United States and accounting for 15.6 percent of all certified organic farmers in the country.

One issue on the agenda at cooperative headquarters is the matter of succession, as Siemon plans to retire in five years. Leadership in the cooperative is strong, he said, adding that he is working on a five-year plan to continue its success into the future.

A boon to that growth will be its new 50-50 partnership with Dallas-based Dean Foods. The venture, announced in December, is expected to take advantage of Dean’s massive milk distribution network to add Organic Valley products to refrigerated cases and shelves in more than 140,000 stores nationwide.

The venture is projected to vault Organic Valley products beyond their substantial niche in grocery stores nationwide and place them in drugstores, convenience stores, mom-and-pop markets and discount outlets such as Dollar Stores, company officials have said.

For more on this story, see Saturday's La Crosse Tribune.

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Mike Tighe is the Tribune newsroom's senior citizen. That said, he don't get no respect from the cub reporters as he goes about his duly-appointed rounds on the health, religion and whatever-else-lands-in-his-inbox beats. Call him at 608-791-8446.

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