Co-op on a Mission: Growing Wisconsin’s Good Food Movement
By Jessica Luhning | Photos By David Nevala and Mette Nielsen | Illustration By Bambi Edlund 0
Edible Madison is a magazine with a mission. A mission to promote that eating locally is good for our economy, environment and health. As an outreach and education focused publication, Edible Madison passionately works to connect eaters with local, organic food sources throughout southern Wisconsin. The Local Hero Awards are one approach we use to honor the leaders and pioneers of our region’s local food movement. It seems only natural that we partner with CROPP Cooperative/Organic Valley, a Wisconsin organic food pioneer, to promote Wisconsin’s rich culinary heritage by recognizing the next generation of local food heroes.
Deep in the heart of southwest Wisconsin’s Driftless Region, there exists a rural way of life rich in a culture of stewardship, with a catalyzing, progressive energy that seems to ripple out from the landscape’s steep coulees and fertile valley floors. In this place, 25 years ago, a group of farmers and land stewards who were deeply committed to building the resiliency of small family farms, revitalizing rural communities, practicing sustainable forms of agriculture and modeling the ideals of a cooperative business, set out to transform the food and agriculture industry with one simple solution— organic agriculture.
In 1988, this group of impassioned farmers formed CROPP Cooperative (Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools) and became one of the nation’s pioneering leaders in the sustainable food and agriculture movement. Today CROPP remains independent and farmerowned, with more than 1,814 farmer-owners in 35 states and three Canadian provinces, representing approximately 9 percent of the entire nation’s certified organic farming community. Its two brands, Organic Valley (dairy, eggs, produce, soy) and Organic Prairie (meats), are sold nationwide using a regional production model for as many products as possible, which reduces the distance from farm to plate.
As a mission-driven cooperative, CROPP works to “support rural communities by protecting the health of the family farm—working toward both economic and environmental sustainability.” And in keeping with Cooperative Principle #7, “Concern for Community,” CROPP farmer-owners understand the importance of giving back. The cooperative has a long history of supporting mission-aligned organizations, donating more than $2.2 million in 2012 to non-profits dedicated to advancing organic food and farming and building community. In Wisconsin alone, CROPP has donated more than $345,000 and over 100 “silent auction kits” (one year of free Organic Valley products, which organizations can auction or raffle off to raise money) to schools and non-profits.
While CROPP’s influence is national in scale, their roots run deep in southwest Wisconsin communities. The cooperative employs a workforce of more than 700, most of whom are based at their headquarters in La Farge, a distribution center in Cashton and a butter-making facility in the small village of Chaseburg. The impact CROPP has made on the economic revitalization of one of the state’s poorest regions should serve as a model for other struggling rural areas.
Known as the Organic Heartland, southwest Wisconsin is home to more organic farms per capita than anywhere else in the nation, and the numbers—and acres—are growing thanks in part to CROPP. Third- and fourth-generation Wisconsin farmers see a future in organic agriculture and are choosing to stay on the farm, further strengthening Wisconsin’s agricultural heritage. Today, Wisconsin is home to 515 CROPP farmer-owners, 40 of whom joined the cooperative in 2012.
As a pioneer in the Good Food Movement, sponsoring the Local Hero Awards in partnership with Edible Madison is a natural fit for CROPP. Acknowledging the hard work, passion and dedication of Wisconsin’s farmers, food artisans, non-profits and food businesses is key to maintaining the quality and tradition of Wisconsin’s culinary history. CROPP joins Edible Madison in encouraging the infusion of talent and energy into our food industry. We hope that others will be inspired to create, learn and carry Wisconsin forward with a reverence for the food and agriculture traditions of our past and with innovation and stewardship of the earth for an organic future.