CARE2 EDITOR’S NOTE: We are so grateful to be able to share this piece with you all. It’s an excerpt from The Responsibility Revolution, the new book from Jeffrey Hollender, Co-Founder and Executive Chair of Seventh Generation, and Bill Breen, who served as Editorial Director. The interview below is with Organic Valley’s CEO–and organic farmer extraordinaire–George Siemon. And thanks to Jeffrey, Bill and the great folks over at Seventh Generation, we’re giving away two copies of the book to lucky Care2 members. Just comment below, telling us some key values you most look for in a business. Winners will be chosen at random. Contest ends at midnight PST on Sunday, April 18. Best of luck!
Guest Post from Jeffrey Hollender & Bill Breen
Organic Valley’s resiliency is largely due to the fact that it’s a different kind of company, one that’s pioneered an authentic roadmap for its business. Its mission (save family farms) frames everything it does, from strategy to investment decisions. It delivers business value—a nearly continuous arc of accelerating year-over-year sales—by defying Big Agriculture’s conventions. Organic Valley isn’t even a company, but a cooperative of nearly 1200 farmers who are animated by a lofty sense of mission—to grow family farms.
It wasn’t much of a leap for us to conclude that we had to showcase Organic Valley’s strategic innovations in The Responsibility Revolution. No doubt, there aren’t many outfits like Organic Valley. And that’s the point. You can’t build a break-the-mold business by following the status quo. So here, in an excerpt from Bill’s interview with Siemon, Organic Valley’s founding farmer plants a few additional seeds for growing a mission- first business.
Values are valueless if they don’t stand for something that matters.
Organic Valley grew out of an effort to build an alternative business model to conventional farming. There was only one future with the conventional system, and that was to get big or get out. We thought organic farming would give us a vehicle to reinvent the marketing system for farmers. And that system depended on a co-operative of farmers who would bargain together for a better price.
In the beginning, we had seven farmers. I don’t recall what the pricing was like back then, but let’s say conventional milk was getting around $12.00. We decided that for a farmer to produce organic milk at an economically sustainable price, we needed $17.50. Nobody in agriculture had been able to produce stabilized prices that reflected the real cost of their goods. But we toughed it out to establish that $17.50 as a reality.
The stable pricing that we delivered was incredibly valuable. For a farmer, there’s nothing worse than to get paid a lot less this month than last month, when you did the exact same thing.
To build a different kind of business, start from a different place.
Instead of going to the marketplace and seeing what they’d pay, we started with what we thought was a fair price and built on it. It’s a dramatically different way of looking at things. We worked from the bottom up, not the top down.
Scale the effort by collaborating with established players.
Our primary influence was the National Farmers Organization, a collective bargaining group that started in the late 1950s. They believed that if family farms didn’t get together and bargain, they’d become obsolete, which of course is what almost happened.
In the beginning, we asked the NFO to sponsor our dairy program. Not only did they give us financing, they gave us credibility. So when we knocked on the doors of cheese processors, they opened up for us, because we were affiliated with the NFO. We didn’t try to do our own thing. We partnered.
Concentrate on your core skill sets—and let your partners take care of the rest.
Early on, we stuck with what we knew; we focused only on organic. And that meant organic farming and marketing organic dairy products. Since then, our core competency has expanded to include supply management, which you live and die by when you’re dealing with perishable foods. But everything else—milk quality, cheese making and the rest—we rely on partners to do. We’ve taken a virtual approach to our business. We work with 85 processing plants in this country, and we own just one.
The mission is the motivator.
Part of our success lies in the diversity of our people. Farmers own the cooperative, but it’s not just about farmers. It’s about alternative community people and traditional farmers joining together to build a business whose mission fits with their values. Some of the work staff here includes people who are into organic; some are people who were raised in rural America, where their parents or grandparents farmed. All are very pro family farms. So there’s a real alignment around the business’s purpose.
Early on, we could see that employees and farmers have an inter-dependent relationship that makes this all work. Farmers are nothing without employees and employees aren’t anything without mission-driven farmers who want to grow a sustainable business.
Organic Valley is America’s pioneering cooperative of organic farmers and is one of the nation’s leading organic brands. Organized in 1988, it represents 1,652 farmers in 33 states and four Canadian provinces, and achieved $520 million in 2009 sales. Focused on its founding mission of saving family farms through organic farming, Organic Valley produces a variety of organic foods, including organic milk, soy, cheese, butter, spreads, creams, eggs, produce and juice, which are sold in supermarkets, natural foods stores and food cooperatives nationwide. The same farmers who produce for Organic Valley also produce a full range of delicious, healthful, and humanely raised organic meat under the Organic Prairie label.
Jeffrey Hollender and Bill Breen are co-authors of the recently published book, The Responsibility Revolution. Bill Breen is the Editorial Director, and Jeffrey Hollender is the Co-Founder and Executive Chair of Seventh Generation. Jeffrey is also the author of The Inspired Protagonist, a leading blog on corporate responsibility.
Don’t forget to comment below for your chance to win one of two FREE COPIES of Jeffrey Hollender and Bill Breen’s The Responsibility Revolution.
photo credit: Copyright 2010 by Carrie Branovan for Organic Valley
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may
not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.