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Room for growth

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

From the Year in review: Top 10 business stories of 2016 in the La Crosse area series
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CASHTON — Fast-growing Organic Valley will hold a grand opening from 9 a.m. to noon Thursday for its new Cashton office building, a $24 million project that is large enough to accommodate almost half of the co-op’s 850 employees.

The public is invited to the open-house event, which will feature tours, giveaways, snacks, hot dogs, bratwurst and some speeches.

Organic Valley, based in La Farge, began in 1988 and has become the nation’s largest cooperative of organic farmers with about 1,850 members in 36 states. It had record sales of $1.04 billion in 2015.

Since February, more than 260 Organic Valley employees have moved into the new 105,848-square-foot Cashton office building, which can accommodate up to 400.

“So we definitely have some room there” for future growth, Organic Valley CEO George Siemon said. “In our growth, we’ve always been behind on (space in) office buildings” so the co-op decided to construct a larger building rather than a smaller one.

The employees in the new Cashton building had been in other buildings owned or leased by Organic Valley, including a former bank building in downtown Westby that the co-op owns.

“Our intent is to find a good use for it,” Siemon said of the Westby building, which the co-op bought in 2013 after a fire damaged the co-op’s La Farge headquarters. “We’ve got some ideas but nothing solid yet. It’s a very nice building, and we would like to continue to be part of the Westby community.”

The new Cashton building, which has three floors of office space and a small retail store on the first floor, was constructed south of Organic Valley’s main distribution center — which opened in 2007. About 100 employees work in the distribution center.

Organic Valley has plans for more growth on the 90 acres it owns in the Cashton Greens Business Park, Siemon said. It will break ground in May for a conversion and labeling plant in Cashton that will make ghee and package butter that will continue to be made at Organic Valley’s creamery in Chaseburg.

The new plant is expected to be completed in early 2017 and may have 20 to 30 employees.

Organic Valley has been making ghee in a “side room” at the Chaseburg, but demand for the product has increased sharply, so its production will be moved to the planned Cashton plant, Siemon said. Organic Valley makes ghee from organic butter. The butter is simmered until the water separates from the butterfat; the butterfat then is filtered to remove any remaining solids.

As ghee has no water or milk solids, it’s popular for high-temperature cooking.

Moving butter packaging to Cashton also will allow butter production to increase in Chaseburg.

Organic Valley has room in Cashton for even more growth. A milk processing facility of some kind remains one possibility, but no decisions have been made, Siemon said.

“The (office) building is very impressive,” Siemon said. Wieser Brothers General Contractor of La Crescent, Minn., built it with an energy-efficient design and such features as geothermal cooling and heating, a solar thermal hot water system, LED lighting, a solar photovoltaic system to provide 10 percent of the building’s electricity, and some recycled and reclaimed materials. The co-op is working to get LEED (Leadership In Energy and Environmental Design) certification for the facility.

Other project features include bicycle parking, a garden where employees can raise their own vegetables, a walking trail, reserved parking for fuel efficient vehicles and an electrical vehicle charging station.

“We really believe we’ve got to make more sense and respect our resources more,” Siemon said of the reason for such environmentally friendly features. “Building a building like this has cost savings in the long run for sure. But it’s also just the right thing to do. I think it’s not a luxury. It’s the way you have to build buildings now and into the future.”

The Cashton office building also is a nice place to work in, Siemon said.

“We tried to build a lot of electronic conferencing into it,” he said. “And we’ve got quite a healthy amount of what we call hotel offices (work areas) for people to use when they’re visiting. The electronic age has brought a lot of flexibility to the workplace.”

The new office building has 19 conference rooms, said Mike Schneider, Organic Valley workplace strategy program manager. It also has an employee wellness center and an employee cafeteria.

The building also has a retail store that sells Organic Valley and other organic food products — such as produce and dairy and meat items. The store, which is open to the public, also sells other items such as snacks, sweaters and T-shirts.

“We have a retail store (in La Farge) and we’ve found that a retail store really is a convenience for our employees,” Siemon said of having a store in the new Cashton building. “But it also encourages them to use natural foods. We couldn’t see why we shouldn’t open that to the community as well.” He described it as “a little general store.”

The building has a distinct rural theme, with plenty of farm photos and a steel cow mural inside. Its main stairwell looks like a grain bin from the outside and is decorated inside with the restored parts of a 1949 Co-op brand tractor. The middle of the building’s roof is topped by what looks like an old-fashioned granary.

“Building a building like this has cost savings in the long run for sure. But it’s also just the right thing to do. I think it’s not a luxury. It’s the way you have to build buildings now and into the future.” George Siemon, Organic Valley CEO

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