LA FARGE — Organic Valley’s rising tide continues to lift all of its producer pools. Coming off of its second billion-dollar year and passing the 2,000-member mark, the La Farge-based co-op is cultivating a venture to put its dairy products on the shelves of as many as 140,000 more stores nationwide.
Organic Valley, which George Siemon and a handful of other farmers founded in 1988 and now is the largest cooperative of organic farmers in the country, also hired 110 new employees last year. That jump increased its payroll to 903 and maintained its status as the largest employer in Vernon County, with a substantial part of its operations based in Cashton in addition to its La Farge headquarters.
A new joint venture, a 50-50 pact with Dallas-based Dean Foods with the internal title of Organic Vally Fresh, will roll out this year under the Organic Valley brand label, with former Dean vice president Greg Schwarz coming aboard as general manager.
“It brings together the power of Organic Valley’s family farms with the distribution of Dean Foods,” Schwarz said in a phone interview.
“It’s pretty exciting, because it is a neat way of bringing Organic Valley into stores,” he said.
Less exciting may be the climate change he and wife Renee are experiencing in moving at this time of year from the Big D to the hills and valleys: He described that adjustment as being “baptism by ice.”
The joint venture, which Schwarz said is in the beginning stages, 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, he said.
Dean Foods, which traces its beginnings to 1925 in northwest Illinois, has about 17,000 employees and is one of the nation’s largest processors and direct-to-store distributors of fluid milk. Its products, originating in about 70 plants nationwide, are marketed under more than 50 local and regional dairy brands and private labels. It also distributes ice cream, cultured products, juices, teas, bottled water and other products, according to its website, www.deanfoods.com.
The venture signifies Organic’s entry into the HTST market. The acronym stands for high temperature/short time, the most common form of pasteurization in the dairy industry and one that Dean specializes in, Schwarz said.
As of last week, Organic Valley’s seven producer pools totaled 2,039 members, after adding more than 300 family farmers last year for an increase of 16 percent. That tally accounts for 12 percent of the organic farmers in the country.
The breakdown of members in Organic Valley’s corporate identity, Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools includes 1,629 dairy producers, 289 in the beef pool, 152 in produce, 120 in the eggs category, 19 in the grower section, 31 in the pork pool and one in the soy pond.
Organic Valley officials confirm that 2016 was its second consecutive billion-dollar year, after breaking through the ceiling with $1.04 billion in gross sales in 2015. They still are crunching numbers to determine the final total, to be revealed at CROPP’s annual meeting in March at the La Crosse Center.
In a recent letter to Organic Valley producers and industry observers announcing the venture with Dean, CEO Siemon said, “This relationship reinforces Organic Valley’s mission to support more organic farmers.
“The only change you’ll notice is Organic Valley products will be easier to find. Expect to enjoy the same quality you’ve come to know and trust: The same farmers will supply the same organic milk, and Dean Foods will help get it into new places like drug, convenience, and dollar stores,” said Siemon, whom employees and farmer members often tag with whimsical title CEIEIO.
One of the challenges Organic Valley weathered last year, in which increasing membership added 40,000 acres nationwide to organic practices, came when the bottom fell out of the traditional milk market and some customers migrated to the bargain-basement traditional milk on shelves.
In a news release chronicling the co-op’s advances last year, though, 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.
“Our cooperative success means we can provide a lifeline to more than 2,000 family farms and meaningful employment to over 900 staff members,” he said. “We are past and present leaders in the organic and cooperative movements and will continue to lead into the future, no matter what short-term challenges we face — because we face them together.”