Organic Valley’s parent cooperative continues to edge toward $1 billion in annual sales, logging an 8.5 percent increase in 2013.

The Coulee Region Organic Produce Pool’s 2013 sales were $929.5 million, compared with $856.9 million the previous year, according to the financial report released Thursday during the co-op’s annual meeting at the La Crosse Center.

The increase came in spite of supply-and-demand miscues and a fire in May that leveled much of the co-op’s headquarters in La Farge, said CEO George Siemon.

“It was a hard year for us — a good, old-fashioned humbling,” Siemon said in the annual report.

More than 500 of Organic Valley’s 1,844 farmer members attended the three-day meeting, hearing optimistic reports about its products, such as a 30 percent rise in butter and cheese sales and the brand’s becoming the top-selling organic milk in China.

“Organic dairy has been the growth engine, and milk has been the lead horse,” said sales vice president Eric Newman.

“But butter is back, domestically and internationally,” he said, partly because of the acknowledgment that high-quality fats enhance health.

The largest organic farmer co-op in the world, 26-year-old Organic Valley represents about 50 percent of the organic milk sales in the United States, Newman said.

Sales of conventional fluid milk have been declining, partly because of the popularity of plant-based fluids such as almond milk, he said.

“That is disappointing, because we want people to drink milk — and we hope they drink organic,” Newman said.

Although overall milk sales are dropping, organic is gaining ground, accounting for 7.5 percent of total sales, according to industry statistics.

Produce also is becoming more fertile ground, Newman said.

“Even though produce is a small part of our business, it grew 30 percent last year,” he said.

The company built a refrigerated warehouse near Hillsboro that has attracted 150 producers, notably Amish in Vernon County, Newman said.

The co-op also seeks more exports to Asia, the Mideast and Europe, Siemon said.

“The world is changing rapidly,” he said, noting that organic foods once were sold only in co-op stores but now are common in major grocery chains.

“Grass-fed beef is becoming a big, big deal now,” Siemon said, adding that the co-op is increasing efforts to market beef.

Helping that endeavor is one of Organic Valley’s new member groups, Australia-based OBE Organic, Siemon said.

OBE general manager Dalene Wray said her co-op supplies 500,000 pounds of trimmings to Organic Valley. That can include every meat part of the animal except steaks, she said.

The United States is the only country in the world where the trimmings can be processed into products such as organic hamburger and meatballs, said Wray, who led an OBE delegation from Down Under to attend the meeting.

“Our supply complements what their farmers are doing,” Wray said. “Our supply supports a product they don’t have a supply of.”

Organic efforts are becoming mainstream, said noted poet, author and activist Wendell Berry, who delivered the keynote address Thursday.

“I’m encouraged — we’ve gone a long way to make local economies grow,” said the 79-year-old Berry, whose causes have included peace campaigns dating to the Vietnam War, as well as environmental advocacy and cultural criticism.

Organic practices must try to balance two potential opposites — providing a living for farmers as well as affordable food for consumers, said Berry, who also has farmed since buying land in Kentucky in the 1960s.

“Livable — that goes against cheap food,” he said during an interview. “On the other hand, a significant amount of the population needs cheap food.

“There’s nothing wrong with getting a premium for organic produce, but it isn’t fair to talk about an organic premium without acknowledging that a lot of people can’t afford the premium,” he said.

On the home front, energy efficiency has been one of the cornerstones of rebuilding the La Farge headquarters, said Jonathan Reinbold, sustainability research and grants manager.

The new building will be 40 percent more efficient with the use of heat exchangers, LEED lights and solar energy, he said.

The May 14 blaze destroyed one section of the building and heavily damaged another. The damaged section recently reopened and the demolished section is expected to open in June, Reinbold said.

Between 300 and 350 employees work in the building, with another 100 working in a Westby bank building the co-op bought after the fire to keep operations going, he said.

One of the goals CEO Siemon listed for the next year is completing a new office building in Cashton that was delayed in part because of the fire.

There’s nothing wrong with getting a premium for organic produce, but it isn’t fair to talk about an organic premium without acknowledging that a lot of people can’t afford the premium.” Wendell Berry, author and activist who delivered the keynote address

(14) comments

jeff

I think it is great that they are an agricultural company is bringing in almost 1 billion into a poor agricultural county. This isn't a football game and it doesn't matter if it is a hippy company and not a right wing republican industrial farm. The fact is we are all Americans and if we don't start to stand together we are just all puppets in the game to which all empires fall.

lutefisk

Nothing worse than capitalist hippies

CuriousG
CuriousG

Right! They're so much worse than corporate polluters! LOL!

KJ

Organic is nothing but a marketing scheme. It adds no increased nutritional values, or food safety over other forms of farming. It is taking old fashioned ways and marketing it on an emotional level to those who want to feel good about their choices. Many of the benefits they claim cannot be verified. The farmers do get paid more for their product, and they should as their production is less due to the practices they follow. It would take many more acres to feed people if we all went back o organic practices. It is not as sustainable or as environmentally friendly as they claim.

CuriousG
CuriousG

Sorry, @KJ, more an more studies are showing that some Organic foods are more nutritious. The USDA Organic Seal requires certain farming methods be followed and documented. These include the use of artificial pesticides and herbicides, antibiotics, and artificial growth hormones. Additionally, Organic farms produce no chemical runoff to pollute our waterways or our bodies.

As for production, organic farming yields are approximately 20% in general, In many areas of the country, and depending on the particular methods used, they are equivalent to conventional practices. Organic production also tends to produce heartier plants less susceptible to drought primarily because the soil is healthier.

In dairy production, the average productive life of a cow is more than double that of a conventional dairy cow.

Organic food production is imminently more sustainable than conventional production.

Not sure where you're getting your 'facts' but they don't seem to be totally accurate.

CuriousG
CuriousG

Here is one of the most recent studies showing Organic milk has a better ratio of Omega 6/3 fatty acids. http://goo.gl/vyIdV8

KJ

That has more to do with the die than the fact it was produced organcally. Higher ratios of forages to grains has effects on teh comosition of the milk. It is not an organic thing.

CuriousG
CuriousG

You're right that the Omega ratios have to do with the diet. However, Organic regulations require higher grazing than conventional. So, the fact remains that Organic milk is healthier than conventional. That doesn't mean that conventional couldn't be better, but it's currently not because of the limited access to grass in conventional dairies. In fact, the study I cited confirms your statement. It is in the diet, a diet required by Organic standards.

KJ

Yes, to be labelled organic, a strick protocal must be follwed. That does ot mean there was no pesticides or fertilizers were used. There are a whole host of products that are allowed, and in some cases not even regulated. As far as your claim to no chemical runoff to pollute our waters ways is just plain false. Organic arms use much more mnure per unit of production than the non organic farms, which is a huge pollutant. Most organic fams do daily spread of manure which means the possiblities of that polluting manure reaches our surface waters at a greater incidence. Also, our orgainci farmers do more intensive tillage which does result in more erosion which carries pollutants into the suface waters at a higher incidence than those fers who practice no till and use comercial fertilizizers which can be precision applied to reduce pollution of our surface waters. Sustainability...organic scores lower as well

CuriousG
CuriousG

And, that manure is Organic, big difference from conventional. You can't honestly believe the natural methods used by Organic farmers is as harmful to the environment as the chemicals used by conventional farmers. As for your tillage concerns, many organic farmers are starting to use no-till methods to reduce the loss of topsoil. Do you believe conventional farming practices cause less loss? Seriously? All my data shows that organic farms are far better at carbon sequestration than conventional. Where's your data showing organic methods are worse for the environment?

CuriousG
CuriousG

You must be a conventional farmer.

Mack

You benefit from organic farming whether you eat the organic food or not. With organic farming there is less chance the water you drink will be fouled by farm chemicals. There is also less erosion and topsoil and chemical runoff into our rivers and streams and the associated DNA damage to just about everything. Thinking about chemicals kind of makes you want to stay off the golf course too.

KJ

With orgainic farming you get greater erosion resulting in more sediment and nutrients running into your surface waters. This is due to the intensive tillage needed to control weeds. This also opens the door to more pathogens found in the grains produced as e result of greater plant stresses opening them up to insect pressures and diseases. Not sure where you are going with the whole DNA thingy. Remember that organic farming does also allow pesticides, which they call natural. Even natural pesticides can be highly hazardous when used incorrectly. Just because itis natural does not make it safer. Caffiene is a natural pesticide as is nicotene.

Mack

You benefit from organic farming whether you eat the organic food or not. With organic farming there is less chance the water you drink will be fouled by farm chemicals. There is also less erosion and topsoil and chemical runoff into our rivers and streams runoff and the associated DNA damage to just about everything. Thinking about chemicals kind of makes you want to stay off the golf course too.

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