American Food Hero 2019: George Siemon
Who he is: Founding Farmer and Former CEO, Organic Valley
What he's doing: Crusading for better organic standards
George Siemon will be the first to tell you that he's nothing if not an old hippie: he has long hair, lives on a ridgetop in rural Wisconsin in a house called "The Kettle" and he hates—and rarely wears—shoes. But make no mistake: in his 31 years at the helm of dairy giant Organic Valley, his counterculture values, in particular the art of cooperation, have served him—and us all—very well indeed.
First, there's Organic Valley itself, the co-op Siemon started with a handful of other struggling Wisconsin dairy farmers. They could have tried to build the business from scratch. Instead, they formed partnerships with other family farmers who had a similar vision of producing a healthier, more sustainable food system—sharing in the hard work and profits—a model that helped Organic Valley grow into a billion-dollar company without making huge investments in infrastructure.
It's now the largest cooperative of organic farmers in North America, with nearly 2,000 family farms across the country. "We went from having farmers try to survive to helping them thrive, which was always our pure objective," he says. "Organic was the tool we chose to make that happen. It allowed us to take sustainable care of the land and return a fair price to our farmers." And even when the company itself got big, Siemon never stopped listening to his farmers: at its annual meeting in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, 600-plus farmers—a ballroom filled with a sea of plaid, as one attendee described it—showed up to have their say. Those who couldn't make it had Siemon's direct dial at company headquarters.
Then there's the federal organic standard, which he helped pioneer, birthing an industry now worth $50 billion a year. And he has been one of its staunchest defenders. When the Trump administration blocked an organic animal welfare ruling that would have, among other things, banned the docking of cows' tails and mandated more space for livestock, Siemon fought back. Along with other organic leaders, he filed a lawsuit to force the USDA to step out of the way. (Round 1 went to Organic Valley. But the battle continues.)
Siemon stepped down from the company in March, but his legacy of pushing to further organic, sustainable practices remains in the company's DNA. Just prior to his departure, Organic Valley announced a grass-fed dairy standard that farmers can add on to their organic certification, which it developed with New York dairy company Maple Hill Organic. Creative thinking paired with cooperation and some good, old-fashioned hippie love: a magic formula for organic growth.