George Siemon, C-E-I-E-I-O and a founding farmer of Organic Valley, will be the featured keynote speaker at the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association's 34th annual conference, Growing Opportunities, Cultivating Change, on Saturday, Feb. 16 in Granville (Licking County).
"As one of the nation's foremost organic agriculture advocates for nearly two decades, Siemon and Organic Valley have developed a successful business model that rewards organic farmers, keeps families farming the land, protects the environment, invests in the future and meets the growing consumer demand for safe, transparently-produced food," said Renee Hunt, OEFFA's program director and the event's lead organizer.
Siemon will speak as part of the state's largest sustainable food and farm conference, an event which draws more than 1,100 attendees from across Ohio and the Midwest, and has sold out in advance the past three years. In addition to Siemon, this year's conference will feature keynote speaker Nicolette Hahn Niman on Sunday, Feb. 17; more than 90 educational workshops; two featured pre-conference events on Friday, Feb. 15; a trade show; a fun and educational kids' conference and child care area; locally-sourced and organic homemade meals, and Saturday evening entertainment.
In 1988, Siemon joined a group of family farmers in Wisconsin to found the Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools (CROPP). Long before there were national organic standards, these visionary founding farmers pledged to farm without antibiotics, synthetic hormones, pesticides, or genetically engineered inputs; to pasture animals; and to steward the environment.
More commonly known by its brands Organic Valley and Organic Prairie, CROPP has grown to become the largest organic farming cooperative in North America with more than 1,800 organic farmer-owners in 35 states and three Canadian provinces, and 650 employees. Focused on its founding mission of saving family farms through organic farming, the cooperative sells milk, dairy products, meats and produce at supermarkets, natural food stores and food cooperatives nationwide.
From the outset, Siemon was determined to prove that a successful business need not sacrifice people or the environment for profits. Maintaining this commitment, Organic Valley's farmer-owners pay themselves a stable, sustainable price, which is set by a farmer board of directors elected by the membership. The organic milk is produced, bottled and distributed in the region where it is farmed, to ensure fewer miles from farm to table and to support local economies. And, the company also works to expand organic production by helping farmers transition to organic and provides leadership training and mentorship to new farmers to help create the next generation of coop owner-farmers. Following this model, sales have grown and Organic Valley now provides about a third of the nation's organic milk supply.
Siemon, who often describes Organic Valley as "a social experiment disguised as a business," described the company's mission this way in the Huffington Post in May: "Organic Valley represents a pioneering effort of farmers and employees to bring organic foods and farming to a level of maturity that can compete, at all levels, with chemical-based agriculture."
Organic Valley currently has 171 farmer-owners in Ohio and has had a presence in the Buckeye state since 2002.
Two of those farmers are Jim and Janice Gasser. They have more than 80 cows in milk production outside of Wooster in Wayne County. When they started out, they were the only organic farmers in their area. Today, according to Jim, "Our road is like a row of organic. It doesn't seem like much in the big scheme of things, but when you drive down our road, there's continuous organic farming for over two miles."
Scott and Charlene Stoller are also Organic Valley farmer-owners and OEFFA members in Wayne County. Before transitioning to organic, Scott says he would argue that "you cannot feed the world farming organically." He doesn't feel that way anymore. "The system has proven itself. It works." And, the success that organic farming has brought has paved the way for his children to continue in agriculture. "There's no question that farming organically gives my kids a better chance at farming in the future," Scott says.
Siemon was instrumental in developing the national standards for organic certification; initiated Farmers Advocating for Organics, the only organic-focused granting fund in the U.S., which is funded entirely by Organic Valley farmer-owners, and currently serves on the boards of directors for The Organic Center and Global Animal Partnership. Most recently, Siemon was recognized by the National Resources Defense Council with the 2012 Growing Green Award in the Business Leader category and was inducted into the Social Venture Network Hall of Fame in the Environmental Evangelist category.
His keynote address is titled, "Organic: Changing a Broken Food System" and will take place Saturday, Feb. 16 at 4 p.m. Siemon will share CROPP's story and his vision for the future of organic agriculture, and discuss issues currently affecting agriculture such as genetic engineering.
He will also be presenting a Saturday morning workshop, "The Cooperative Model," where he will examine how a cooperative model works and the opportunities they offer for farmers.