Nature Is Our Teacher: A Social Experiment Disguised as a Business

Receiving the Growing Green Award from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) for my leadership role in Organic Valley is especially rewarding since I have spent my life connecting food with the protection of our natural resources. As a city-raised kid, I was always looking for any reason to get out into nature. Being involved in Audubon as a bird watcher or Boy Scouts or just on my own, I always felt at peace in nature and saw nature as my teacher. I was lucky enough to spend summertime on farms and could easily see the connection to nature that farming offers.

Coming of age in the advent of the 'ecology' movement, I quickly transferred my love for nature to my commitment to protecting nature. At the same time, I joined in the back to the land movement of the early '70s and reunited with the farm community. I was deeply attracted to agriculture as a community and as a wealth of common sense. Once I discovered organic agriculture, I found my life mission to serve family farm agriculture by promoting organic farming.

I have long admired the work of NRDC and so appreciate that they include food as a theme in their role to protect our natural resources. Agriculture affects a major portion of land in the U.S. and World, utilizing an estimated 70 percent of our resources. Food and agriculture must be a large focus of the environmental movement. Indeed, one could say we could eat our way through major threats by eating food that is grown with respect to nature.

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 is not only about not using chemicals, but really about working with nature to prevent problems and maximize synergy between the many elements of a farm with nature. 'Organic' is an old word whose roots are in 'the parts working together' and was a branch of philosophy in Greek times. This philosophy says collective action can change the world, which has been an inspiration to my life.

At Organic Valley, 'organic' is a word that is bigger than the USDA food seal and represents a philosophy that future lifestyles will be based on. We are seeing a sweeping lifestyle change amongst our young people, where values are driving their lives and not the goal of financial success. Recently on a trip to Europe, I read about the 'post-materialism' movement, which excited me to see yet another term for what I see as the growth of the organic lifestyle.

Working as the CEO of CROPP Cooperative, the nation's largest farmer-owned cooperative, has been a mission to connect farmers and consumers through our brands of organic foods: Organic Valley and Organic Prairie. As a mission-based business, we have been stubborn to live by our values, and we have been rewarded for it. As we approach our 25th year, we are a pioneer in the organic field with close to 10 percent of all organic farmers in the U.S. located in more than 35 states. We will be over $850 million in 2012, serving more than 1,700 organic farmers, who produce the best food products possible through organic production, high quality standards and the best taste on the market. Our 650 employees are a huge part of our success and enjoy great satisfaction in the meaningful work that we have together. Our cooperative has a profit sharing program that shares the profits with the farmers and the employees. I have often said that we are a 'social experiment disguised as a business' -- after all, how do you run a business organically?

Since our founding in 1988, Organic Valley has had the real job of aiding farmers in going organic, building an infrastructure to serve those farmers and their production, and managing the products and customer relationships. Today, we continue building the infrastructure to support organic agriculture. We are constantly educating potential new organic farmers, as well as supporting those who have already committed. As the market outstrips the supply, we are focused on transitioning more farmland to organic and keeping the land that is already organic in organic production. Working toward the latter goal, we created the Generation Organic™ (Gen-O™) program to provide leadership training, marketing education and farming mentorship for the next generation of CROPP farmer-owners. These young farmers will eventually take over their parents' farms and become the new leaders of our cooperative business. Supporting the next generation of organic farmers is a vital endeavor within our business and the organic community.

Having reached the success we have today, Organic Valley has the resources to lead and support the organic and related food and environmental movements. We are very active in the struggle against biotechnology in agriculture, forced upon us by large corporations and cooperating government agencies. We are pleased with the "Just label It" movement, which gained one million signatures calling for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods so consumers can make their own choice. Organic Valley has been active from the beginning in the development and implementation the organic standards within the USDA to protect the integrity of the organic label. I am really proud of the leadership from the Organic Valley farmers who started a volunteer fund that grants more than $500,000 each year to organizations who advocate, research and educate about organic foods. Clearly Organic Valley has been able to leverage its business to be a change agent in defense of our natural resources.

My vision is one where food becomes a central part of our lives. As a social force, we all know the value of a family or community meal. Food is a real way to stay connected to the Earth. Having hands in the Earth to grow your own food is the best source of food for your body and spirit. Buying foods at a local farmers market or being part of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a great way to influence your local region while enjoying great food and educating your family. Foraging wild foods or putting away food by canning or freezing is another great focus and hobby that pays dividends in many ways. To grow this connection to food and the Earth, Organic Valley even started a great new tradition to add a dinner to the celebration of Earth Day -- it's called Earth Dinner™ and it's an exciting new statement to recognize the importance of food in respecting the Earth.

We live in a time of change; yet when we look at world affairs, it is confusing to see how we can effect change. This is the beauty of supporting organic farming and family farms: it is a clear personal path that tremendously benefits our social and environmental well-being, with huge implications for personal satisfaction and health. Not to mention the bonus of great food that we get to enjoy and share.