Wisconsin-based Organic Valley puts premium on sustainability, carbon-smart farming

Jan Shepel
Through programs initiated by their cooperative, farmers are installing renewable energy systems and practicing regenerative agriculture.

LA FARGE – As climate change awareness and concern increases, agriculture has come under greater scrutiny. Yet agriculture is a sector that has the ability to transform from a net-emitter of carbon dioxide to net sequestering of carbon. And the folks at Organic Valley would argue that organic producers are even more likely to excel in sustainability and carbon sequestration.

Practices that are required for certified organic producers are some of the same practices that help with soil conservation and holding carbon in the soil – what is often called sequestering.

Nicole Rakobitsch is director of Sustainability at Organic Valley, America’s largest cooperative of organic farmers. For ten years she has worked with the co-op’s farmers to get closer to climate and conservation goals and for two years she has directed those efforts for Organic Valley, which is based in La Farge, Wis.

“We are on a journey to help Organic Valley and its farmers continue to improve their climate position – reducing greenhouse gas emissions and sequestering carbon. The practices that can make that happen have added benefits like improving soil health and biodiversity as well as water quality,” she said in a telephone interview.

Nicole Rakobitsch

Farmers in the Organic Valley cooperative put a large part of their land in pastures and woodlands; and their 189,000 pasture acres sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Organic Valley dairy farmers double the percentage of their cows’ diets that come from grazing over the amount that is required of them by their organic certification.

“The amount that’s required is 30 percent and our farmers double that to almost 60 percent,” Rakobitsch said.

Through programs initiated by their cooperative, farmers are installing renewable energy systems and practicing regenerative agriculture. Because their farming practices are certified organic they also keep over 440 million pounds of synthetic chemicals off the land.

MORE: Organic Valley campaigns to save small, organic dairies

In 2008 the co-op officially started a program around energy and energy efficiency, she said, and there has been a lot of interest from farmers. The co-op helps its farmers write grant applications under the federal REAP program, which stands for Rural Energy for America Program.

"By and large most of the interest among our farmers has been in solar electric systems. These solar systems are about half the cost of what they were 10 to 12 years ago and farmers like them because they don’t have as much maintenance as a wind system,” she added.

Farmers in the Organic Valley cooperative put a large part of their land in pastures and woodlands; and their 189,000 pasture acres sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

Beyond that grant-writing help, the co-op also offers its own low-interest-rate loan fund in partnership with Clean Energy Credit Union. Rakobitsch explained that the loans are for longer terms and in essence farmers can replace their electric bill with a loan payment for 12-15 years while they set themselves up for greater energy self-sufficiency in the longer term.

Rakobitsch also helps farmers understand that local utilities have different rules about what they will pay for solar energy when it comes onto the grid and what size systems are allowed. Wisconsin has no uniform code for what utilities will pay for solar-generated power.

The cooperative launched that renewable energy loan program for its farmer-members in March. Loans will be available for solar electric systems to offset farm energy consumption and also for farm energy efficiency improvements like plate coolers, LED lighting, insulation and ventilation and geothermal systems and ground-source heat pumps for farm heating and cooling.

Founded in 1988

“Sustainability – it’s been our thing since day one,” the cooperative’s website states. “Thirty years and it’s still the heart and soul of being organic.”

Founded in 1988, Organic Valley has grown to be a multi-faceted organic food brand and is now the nation’s largest farmer-owned organic cooperative and one of the world’s largest organic consumer brands.

The farmer-owned cooperative markets its products in all 50 states and exports to 25 countries; those products include milk, a wide variety of other dairy products and eggs. Under the Organic Prairie brand the cooperative markets organic beef, pork, chicken and turkey products.

The cooperative has around 1,800 farmers in 34 states. In Wisconsin, there are 216 family dairy farmer-members. With members who produce eggs, vegetables and grain there are a total of 359 co-op members in Wisconsin. The Organic Valley family also includes a Canadian cooperative that produces grain, an Australian group that produces grass-fed beef and a group of dairy farmers in the United Kingdom.

Programs called Climate Smart Farming and Carbon Farming are at the heart of organic agriculture. In general, the philosophy of organic farming includes a focus on soil health, biodiversity and soil and water conservation. It is written into the National Organic Standards that every certified organic farmer must follow.

Rakobitsch said all of these practices help with reducing greenhouse gases or sequestering carbon. The co-op’s manure management programs help farmers reduce emissions and help them try composting or covering their lagoons.

“In the future we plan to try programs with feed supplements to reduce enteric emissions,” she said.

Farmers are trying enhanced grazing practices and agro-forestry to sequester even more carbon in the soil, she said.

Here are Organic Valley’s top ten practices to remove excess carbon dioxide from the air and sink it into plants or sequester it in the soil:

  • Cover crops -- established for seasonal cover and to prevent erosion
  • Reduced tillage -- limiting soil disturbance
  • Riparian buffers -- streamside plantings of trees, shrubs and grasses
  • Silvo-pasture -- combining trees and pasture together
  • Hedgerows -- the establishment of shrubs and tall grasses to reduce wind speed and provide habitat for wildlife and pollinators
  • Rotational grazing -- frequent moving of livestock between paddocks on a planned basis to prevent overgrazing.
  • Windbreaks – one or more row of trees planted in a linear configuration to reduce wind
  • Compost application – to cropland or grazing lands
  • Range Plantings – establishment of deep-rooted perennials to improve grazing
  • Crop rotation – a planned sequence of crops grown on the same field over a period of time.

Carbon insets

Rakobitsch said that a new program for “carbon insetting” – a play on the term for “carbon offset” – is a way to give farmers financial incentives for new practices that sequester more carbon over time.

The idea of an “offset” is that a farmer (or a business) may do a practice that sequesters carbon and they sell their progress to an agency which can sell that carbon offset to another business that wants to improve its carbon footprint. But with Organic Valley’s “inset” program, all the progress made by its farmers can be maintained within the co-op and can help meet the overall climate improvement goals of the entire business.

“It’s within our supply chain,” she explained.

The co-op’s Carbon Insetting Program is designed to help Organic Valley reach carbon neutrality through real-world deep emission reductions and carbon sequestration on member farms. Some of the practices being considered for the 2022 pilot program include tree plantings, improved manure management, renewable energy, energy efficiency, enhanced grazing and cropland practices.

“Carbon insetting is about so much more than simply reducing a company’s carbon footprint,” said Rakobitsch. “It is about businesses investing in the ecosystems their suppliers and farmers depend on to increase their resiliency and provide significant, measurable benefits to communities surrounding the value chain.”

Organic Valley is aiming to become the first major dairy brand to achieve carbon neutral farm emissions – without relying on carbon offsets.

Began with produce

What is now called Organic Valley began as the Coulee Region Organic Produce Pool or CROPP. It was a group of farmers in the coulee regions of western Wisconsin – mostly in the Kickapoo River Valley. Soon that group of farmers grew to include dairy producers and the name “Organic Valley” was chosen. Today, dairy products may be the best known of the co-op’s products.

The company’s headquarters remain in La Farge, where they have been since the beginning, but in 2016, they completed a second 200,000-square-foot office building in Cashton, 20 miles away, to accommodate continued growth of the business. It also helps spread the co-op’s economic benefit to another community, Rakobitsch said.

When Organic Valley expanded its office and production facilities, they made the venture 100% renewable-powered.

The Cashton building has achieved a top certification for energy efficiency. It is 100-percent heated and cooled by geothermal systems and runs on power generated by rooftop solar panels. It also benefits from a joint-venture (with Gunderson Health Systems) on a Cashton Green Winds farm. The co-op’s warehouse – where orders are assembled for shipping to customers -- has been designed vertically to save energy.

Rakobitsch said that the co-op is also sponsoring three new solar farms, in Cashton and Arcadia, Wis. and in St. Charles, Minn.

California sustainability benchmarks

Organic Valley has partnered with sustainability experts at Annie’s Organic, The Carbon Cycle Institute and the California Resource Conservation Districts to develop comprehensive dairy Carbon Farm Plans, which take into account whole-farm carbon flows.

“This concept originated in California with their local RCDs and we are starting to see these kinds of plans being developed on Wisconsin farms too,” she said.

Organic Valley felt it was important to start with the California farms since state legislation there requires dairy and livestock farms to reduce methane emissions by up to 40 percent by 2030.

Their Climate Smart Farming emphasizes Sustainable Production.

“Organic farming practices on a basic level are earth-friendly, sustainable practices. Many of them, like rotational grazing, are practices that encourage biodiversity, save energy and sequester carbon,” she said.

Rakobitsch emphasizes that Climate Smart Farming is not new at Organic Valley. The co-op began offering support services to farmers for energy efficiency and renewable energy back in 2008 and have enacted over 150 projects with projected net lifetime savings of $8 million, she said.

Manure management and carbon farming became a new sustainability service for farmer-members in 2018, largely due to progressive policy and funding opportunities in California, where the co-op has 18 family farms.

Big business

In 2019, total annual sales for Organic Valley reached $1.1 billion but milk supply and demand issues resulted in the organization losing nearly $30 million that year; restructuring led to 100 layoffs or retirements of employees and the departure of 14 farmer-members. That was the same year that George Siemon, one of the founding members of CROPP and CEO of Organic Valley for more than 30 years, stepped down as CEO.