WisBusiness: Organic farming community thriving in midst of recession

By Marc Eisen

For WisBusiness.com

LA CROSSE — A deep, dark scary recession hasn’t cowed the turnout for the 20th annual Organic Farming Conference held here this weekend. Registrants mostly from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa topped 2,300, up from 1,900 last year. Several hundred walk-ins Friday and Saturday are expected to push the number higher.

The big turnout in the face of hard times shows just how deeply rooted organic farming has become in the upper Midwest. Gloom and doom may hold sway over vast swaths of the American economy today, but in the farm niche where the milk is untouched by synthetic growth hormones, the tomatoes are succulent and the beef cattle are grazed in fields, the mood is surprisingly celebratory.

“It’s all about community,” said longtime conference organizer Faye Jones of the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service in Spring Valley. “We’re building community around the growing and eating of food. I’m just optimistic about what we can achieve.”

Jones and her idealistic cohorts have already achieved a lot. They’ve helped build an industry since 90 of them first gathered here at the Baus Haus meeting hall in 1990 to exchange ideas on how they could farm — and even make a living — without using chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Nationally, organic sales were at $1 billion that year. By 2007, the figure had jumped to $20 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association. Wisconsin family farmers, resisting the seeming inexorable pressure to bulk up and grow corn and soybeans for the world market, have found a safe haven with small-scale but premium-paying organic farming.

With a little more than 1,000 federally certified organic farms, Wisconsin trails only California in total organic acreage and the number of organic farms, according federal figures. Notably, Wisconsin leads the nation in organic dairy production. And therein lies a great, little-appreciated Wisconsin business story—the farmers’ coop that markets nationally under the name of the Organic Valley Family of Farms.

Headquartered in tiny La Farge, in Vernon County, Organic Valley sales will surpass $500 million in 2009. With 1,341 farmer owners in 32 states, the co-op has one of the best known organic brands on supermarket shelves.

But what’s most revealing about Organic Valley — and the yearly organic conference here — is how explicitly organic idealism has been married to the organic industry.

No better example is Organic Valley’s longtime CEO George Siemon, a onetime back-to-the-earth counter-culturalist who has proved a remarkably shrewd if idiosyncratic corporate leader. When we talked Thursday, Siemon made the case that the rise of the green-oriented millennial generation and the deepening recession could have a salutary effect on American life.

“I really believe that we’re seeing a shift in values now,” he said. “We’re moving away from materialism to more sustainable living. When we get through this recession, I think we’re going to see a serious change in lifestyle.”

Not too many corporate execs would dare say something this radical, but Siemon’s unabashed idealism is the standard not the exception among the several thousand celebrants here marking 20 years of organic farming advocacy.

But still, even among the hugs and back-slapping as old friends meet here to celebrate their work, there is underlying worry, especially among organic dairy farmers.

Prices have dropped sharply, and the Organic Valley co-op is struggling with an oversupply of product, Siemon acknowledged. After repeated years of 20 percent annual growth, sales this year will be flat or only increase by a few percent.

“We always expected our business to slow down, but we didn’t expect a screeching halt,” he told me, adding: “Well, maybe that’s not the right word. It’s not like sales have fallen off the map. They just haven’t grown.”

Siemon’s conclusion? “The recession is a real thing.”

A sobering thought from an idealistic businessman like Siemon. I’ll report again from the conference and tell you what I hear.