Organic Valley: A Short History of Better Milk

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Organic Valley: A Short History of Better Milk

By Andy Radtke | Photos By Organic Valley 0

Editor’s Note: The following is a sponsored post about Organic Valley, who generously sponsored Edible Madison’s Dinner Service event on October 19, 2014. We are thrilled to work with them and share more about the unique work they do.


If you’re like most Madisonians, you’ve heard of the organic farmer-owned cooperative Organic Valley. You know it’s one of Wisconsin’s all-star rural success stories, and hopefully you’ve sampled its delicious dairy products—but you probably couldn’t place its headquarters on a map.

No worries. It’s in La Farge, about 90 miles northwest of Madison, but that’s not the most important place anyway.

The thing is, if you really want to see the heart of Organic Valley, simply drive out to your nearest OV family farm pasture dotted with grazing cows. (Find your farmer here.) Now you’re getting closer to the story behind the OV story.

“To go back to why Organic Valley got started,” said Organic Valley Mission Executive Theresa Marquez,  “it was because great farmers were going out of business. The 1980s was the worst decade for farm crisis, especially if you lived here in the Midwest. In fact, we had more farmer suicides in 1988 than any other year.”

But there was more than economics fueling the desperation on Wisconsin’s family farms.

“The early organic farmers were just sick of the poisons,” Marquez said. She told the story of one early Organic Valley farmer who had been a U.S. Army chemical weapons specialist in the Vietnam War. When he returned to farming, he recognized the pesticide compounds as the same chemical compounds he’d handled as weapons. “These were poison-weapons-turned-tools-for-farmers!” said Marquez. Then came a very dark day, when a wind blew a partially empty pesticide bag into his barn. Calves licked the inside of the bag and 25 of them died. Heartbroken, he said, “that’s the last poison that’s ever going to be on my farm.”

Marquez has heard similar stories from farmer after farmer.

“These farmers were running out of options when they said, ‘Wow, let’s try this organic thing.’ There weren’t even organic standards yet.”

And something else was afoot at that time. Restless shoppers in the cities were stirring. After years of disquieting reports of chemical agri-business missionaries promising prosperity from widespread use of toxic pesticides, antibiotics and petro-fertilizers, a new dairy-production-boosting, injectable “tool” called recombinant bovine growth hormone, more commonly known as rBGH, proved more than many consumers could bear. What was going on out there on our farms? Was this milk good for our children? Urban families were ripe for sensible alternatives from their rural neighbors.

The founding farmers of Organic Valley heard these voices as they set to work creating a cooperative business model that put people and the land first. Rejecting the chemical siren song, they focused on healthy soil as the time-tested source of goodness in food. The next layer up, of course, once the soil was healed, was pasture. It seemed a no-brainer: decontaminate the soil, allow its organic health to return, grow much, much better forages, and let the cows do their thing.

According to what organic farmers saw with their own eyes—loamy, living soil, healthy pasture and vastly healthier cows—they were sure the milk was healthier, too. For a few decades this was an article of faith between organic farmers and consumers. Late in 2013, it became a matter of scientific certainty.

In a groundbreaking study—the largest, most comprehensive of its kind—scientists at Washington State University, in a peer-reviewed study published by the esteemed, open-source science journal PLOS ONE, demonstrated that Organic Valley’s whole milk from pastured cows contains 62 percent more of the essential fatty acid omega-3, an ideal, healthful ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, and 18 percent more cancer-fighting conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). The scientists credited these beneficial differences to the organic, green pastures the cows graze day after day.

“Organic Valley is proving what our farm families have known for a long time,” said George Siemon, a founding farmer and CEIEIO of Organic Valley. “Not only is high-quality pasture and forage better for cows, it produces nutritionally superior whole milk. It's been said the organic industry has been lacking in science. Today it's getting harder and harder to argue that.”

Andy Radtke lives and works in Wisconsin’s ancient Driftless region, northwest of Madison. After ten years as resident of that city, where he attended the University of Wisconsin, waited tables at a west-side eatery and learned to make art, he moved back to his family’s retired farm in the rolling hills. Andy writes for family farmers in between bouts of picture making.

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