Organic food begins on the farm with certain kinds of production practices and ends with consumers who make the choice to purchase organic products.
What happens in between is an important part of the process.
On the edge of Cashton, beneath two huge wind generators, stands the warehousing and distribution center for Organic Valley, the farmer cooperative that grew from a small core of farmers to serve the needs of consumers who wanted to eat food produced with organic methods.
It is now the nation’s largest cooperative of organic farmers and a leading organic brand. This distribution center operates six days a week, servicing orders for the cooperative’s national customer base, shipping to all parts of the nation.
Members of the board for the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection held their Sept. 12 meeting at the headquarters of Organic Valley in La Farge and then drove to Cashton to tour the distribution center.
Ryan McKittrick, who has been the manager of the distribution center for seven years, explained the computerized systems that help him and his staff gain efficiencies in the center, which serves Organic Valley customers all over the country.
The 80,000-square-foot warehouse is divided into areas that require certain storage conditions. He showed board members where fresh vegetables come into the facility from member farms.
There were a lot of late season vegetables coming in that day – kale, cabbage and similar kinds of cole crops.
Other parts of the facility were designed to store the many dairy products handled by Organic Valley – milk, cottage cheese, various kinds of organic cheeses. There is also an arm of the cooperative that produces organic meats and that fresh meat comes through this warehouse facility as well.
McKittrick showed the DATCP group an area of the warehouse that produces packages that are used by farmers to box up their produce for shipping into the distribution center.
"Most growers live within 90 miles of here and they project how much they’ll grow at the beginning of the season and then from week to week."
PACKAGING COMES FROM HERE
Packaging that is appropriate for their kind of produce, with the right kinds of labeling, will be sent to the farm to be filled and then returned to the Cashton facility.
Workshops are held each winter to help growers learn about what they need to do to get their produce to market the way it should be.
Workers at this distribution center will also fill what could be called grocery orders for the farmer-members. Farmers send in an order, workers pick and pack it, and then it’s shipped out to farms by UPS.
"We’ll do 50 to 100 packages per day for members," McKittrick said.
While much of the vegetable production is packed right on farms, the co-op has a produce consolidation point in Hillsboro where route trucks bring produce from farms. It is then checked for quality before it is shipped on to the big Cashton center.
Meat is produced under the Organic Prairie family of farms and is "Oregon Tilth Certified." Their labels note the meat is produced from feed that is grown without pesticides, the animals are fed no rendered animal byproducts, are not raised in confinement and have not received any antibiotics.
McKittrick showed the board a "blast freezer," which is used to quickly chill Organic Valley’s butter to suck the warm air out and stop the cultures in the butter to preserve it longer. He was concerned when they put this freezer on line because he thought it would use more electricity.
"But it turns out we got better butter and lower electricity bills."
Energy conservation is a guiding principle at this facility. They found a way to use high-efficiency chargers for their forklifts, which use 80 percent less energy, he said.
Their goal is "energy neutrality by 2020" to bring the "business operations footprint in line with sustainable principles." McKittrick said the operation expects this of itself and so do its stakeholders.
They have built the facility with green principles. The racking that is used to store much of the inventory is made from recycled steel and supports the overall structure of the building, which saved building costs.
As the tour moved through this large cooled warehouse facility, two automatic cranes worked to bring products to the "pick tunnel," the lowest level of the racking, where workers were putting together orders for customers.
The way the system is designed, he said, the pick tunnel is lit, but the other parts of the warehouse don’t need light, because the cranes can work without it, although lighting can be called on for inspections when needed.
Each of the two cranes weighs 8.5 tons but they are balanced so that one person can push them by hand on the rail.
Products in this packing warehouse can linger from one day to just a few. (The newly added aged cheddar cheese may stay as long as three years.)
Seventy percent of the outbound volume, shipped from its 8,000-square-foot loading dock, goes out of the facility on Thursday, Friday and Saturday because that suits the schedule of food wholesalers, he said.
Energy savings have come with new efficiencies in the pick tunnel and in the pallet racking system. "When we first started we could do 50 cases per direct labor hour, with an error for every 200 cases. That would mean eight errors on every truck," McKittrick said, which everybody knew wasn’t good enough.
Workers offered suggestions and changes were made to the system. "Today we pack 200 to 250 cases per direct labor hour and have only one error per 8,000 cases."
Some of the changes involved getting heavily used products where they were more accessible. There are 600 different products in the facility and 300 different products in the pick lane, he explained.
The cranes, which make 15,000-17,000 product moves per week, work on 11 different levels in 44 bays. There are 7,600 pallet positions.
The produce storage is zoned for temperature and humidity variations that are needed by different products. The meat storage area is 28-32 degrees.
COMMUNITY WIND FARM
In line with the cooperative’s value system, they participated in "Cashton Greens Wind Farm", said to be Wisconsin’s first community wind farm. It is a collaboration between the La Crosse-based Gundersen Health System and Organic Valley.
The two-turbine wind farm generates nearly 5 megawatts of energy – enough to power 1,000 homes each year.
Cashton Greens was put into service in May and the turbines tie into the power grid through an existing substation. The project’s construction costs totaled $10.2 million in addition to land, contingency and equity costs, according to material McKittrick provided on the tour.
As co-developers and co-owners, Organic Valley and Gundersen will take care of maintenance and financial roles normally reserved for utility or wind development companies.
Organic Valley purchases its portion of energy to offset its carbon footprint through a renewable energy contract with the village of Cashton (for this facility) and La Farge (for its headquarters facility.)
The energy produced by one of the Cashton wind turbines will offset 89 percent of the electricity consumed at all of Organic Valley’s cooperative facilities, based on last year’s usage.
In addition to filling that role for the cooperative, the wind project represents 5 percent of Gundersen’s energy independence goal. The collaboration between a health care system and organic food organization shows innovative thinking, McKittrick noted.
The 150-foot blades rotate 15 revolutions per minute. Each tower is 330 feet tall and is made from 300 tons of steel.
The main unit on top of the tower, called the nacelle, weighs 76 tons.
The system was designed to eliminate stray voltage.