A market is just the beginning

Organic Valley adds 84 farms in 2023

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LA FARGE, Wis. — While consolidation continues to trend in the dairy industry, one dairy cooperative is sticking to the values it started with over three decades ago.

Organic Valley brought 84 farmers to the member-owner cooperative in 2023 and is looking to add more in 2024.

Offering a market for new members is part of a three-legged stool, according to Shawna Nelson, executive vice president of membership for Organic Valley. The ability to offer a market to new farmers is a collaborative effort between the membership, sales and marketing teams, supported by the operations team in the middle, which keeps the gears turning.

“It’s amazing work from one end of our supply chain to the other to be able to have a market for that milk,” Nelson said. “Our commitment and mission for the last 35 years has been around saving small family farms.”

Of the 84 farms that were onboarded with the cooperative in 2023, some were already shipping organic milk and simply switched markets. Others had been in the process of transitioning from conventional to organic dairying and their opportunity to get an organic market aligned with the certification timing.

Over 20 of the farms were not shipping milk at all and were able to either begin a start-up operation or turn the lights back on after pushing the pause button for a while.

Brandon Probst became a member of the cooperative in 2023 after completing a transition from a retiring farmer. Probst and his wife, Philomena, have a 70-cow herd near Rib Lake. Probst took ownership of cattle 12 years ago and operated in partnership until 2023 when he became an official member.

Probst took over the farm after participating in an apprenticeship program with support from Organic Valley as well.

“Not everyone is going to pass their family farm onto a family member,” Probst said. “There’s no other cooperative out there like Organic Valley.”

Though the age and situation of the cooperative’s member-owners varies, the dedication to the small family farm remains consistent among members, Nelson said.

“We maintain an average of 80 cows per farm, so we’re talking about small, organic family farms,” Nelson said. “That’s important to us. When we’re onboarding a new farm, we’re talking about those pieces and making sure the value placed on a family farm happens with our new starts just like it has with our 1,600 farms that are part of our cooperative today.

The addition of producers is part of a trend that has been growing for a long time. 

In 2022, a project in the Northeast, where a number of farms were losing their market, enabled Organic Valley to provide a market to farmers who would have otherwise had to close their doors. Looking ahead, Nelson said they are seeing continued growth opportunities in the organic market. 

The cooperative was structured to provide stability in pay price, supply management and a farmer voice for member-owners.

“Pay price and stability of the pay price was one of the reasons this cooperative was founded,” Nelson said. “Being able to know what you are going to expect throughout the course of the year is a challenge that farmers face and something we have a specific mechanism in place to address.”

Having a reliable pay price has been important to Probst, he said.

“If we kind of know our production, then we can sit down and pretty much determine our milk check for the year,” Probst said. “There are times I don’t even have to open the milk check because I already know what it’s going to say. If you can do the math, then you know what your check is going to be, which is great.”

Supply management programs are also in place to help the cooperative accurately predict supply so it can ensure market demand for products. The other piece of the cooperative structure that Nelson said is important is giving their members a voice. The farmers served on the board of directors and are tackling challenges they face with the committees tasked with those challenges. 

“To me, one way to solve challenges is to have farmers at the table talking about what those challenges are and tackling them together,” Nelson said.

While Probst does not always have time to attend meetings, the value of his options is not lost on him.

“Being a member, you can see the meeting minutes and what they were discussing two months ago,” Probst. “Who else is offering that? Now that we’re full members, I have voting power too.”

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