Despite the overcast October day, the Willy Street Co-op’s annual farm tour left early in the morning and traversed the beautiful hills of Wisconsin’s driftless area on the way to the Wedeberg family farm. The fall colors illuminated the hills, making the drive to Gays Mills dynamic and enjoyable in spite of the dreary weather. We saw the remnants of the spring floods as our tour bus traveled across patched areas of washed-out roads and passed areas of saturated fields, months after the deluge hit the Midwest.
The bus navigated the winding roads of the Coulee region and delivered us to the Wedeberg farm high atop the rolling hills where their Holstein and Swiss cows graze the gently rolling pastures. The Wedebergs, many Organic Valley employees, and Dr. Paul Dettloff, DVM greeted us. We enjoyed a tasty brunch as we listened to Jim and Julie Wedeberg’s farming history. Their roots in natural and organic dairy were firmly planted decades ago—when Jim and Julie began farming, they didn’t need to use pesticides because they practiced crop rotation and only occasionally used herbicides. Then in the late 1970s, when the State of Wisconsin passed a law requiring farmers to become licensed to apply herbicides and pesticides, Jim attended a certification workshop just in case he would eventually need to apply them to his fields. What he learned about pesticide application at the workshop from other farmers frightened him, and he began searching for a better way to farm. As a result, he and Julie began using even more organic methods.
Over a decade later, in 1988, they saw an announcement in the local newspaper about a meeting for organic farmers who were interested in forming a cooperative as a means to market their products. Seven months later, the Wedebergs became one of the founding members of Coulee Region Organic Producer Pools, or CROPP Cooperative, which now markets its products under the Organic Valley and Organic Prairie brands.
Jim and Julie’s sons are the fifth generation of Wedebergs farming the land Jim’s great-grandparents immigrated to in the 1800s. John and Jake have taken over most of the daily business from their father, as he has become the Dairy Pool Director for Organic Valley. Jake, a recent college graduate who returned to the farm, was on hand to talk to our group about their twice-a-day milking operation.
In addition to hearing from one of the founding members of CROPP Cooperative, the Willy Street Co-op tour group was also lucky enough to hear a small sample of Dr. Paul Dettloff, DVM’s, expertise in the area of natural large animal treatment. Dr. Dettloff, the Organic Valley staff veterinarian, has over 30 years of experience and now specializes in natural and organic animal treatment methods. He briefly taught our group about organic veterinary tools, including tinctures, homeopathy, essential oils, aloe products, whey products, botanicals, vitamins, trace macro elements, probiotics, and acupuncture. These methods follow the organic standards, which stipulate that a certified organic livestock producer cannot use antibiotics, hormones, analgesics, or any other synthesized molecule in the production of food.
Following our tour of the Wedeberg’s farm, we went to the Organic Valley Headquarters in La Farge where we were treated to a delicious hot lunch in the Organic Valley café prepared by the staff chef Kristin Woodhouse. After lunch, Julie Morgan, Retail Promotions Manager, and Theresa Marquez, Chief Marketing Officer, gave our group a tour of the LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certified headquarters, which is the administrative center to the largest farmers’ cooperative in North America, with nearly 1,300 organic farmer members in 32 states and one Canadian province. The 45,000 square foot barn-shaped building overlooks the Kickapoo River and is occupied by over 150 employees. The design of the building is based on the “Cool Day Lighting” concept. The building is positioned to maximize northern and southern exposure; therefore, natural light allowed into the building is maximized and heat gain is kept to a minimum. A lumen sensor adjusts the interior lighting based on the amount of natural light coming in. The building materials were locally sourced, and the majority of the wood used in construction came from rapidly renewable wood sources in Wisconsin instead of old-growth forests. Among many other sustainable design and building practices, the building’s insulation is made from recycled cotton. Additionally, employee gardens and nature trails surround the building, allowing employees to live the life they work to promote.
After the tour, we were sent on our way with Organic Valley goodie bags and a reinforced appreciation of Organic Valley’s mission to promote regional farm diversity and economic stability for the farmers who produce the food we eat. A very big thank you is due Organic Valley, especially Jim and Julie Wedeberg, Julie Morgan, David Butterfield, Theresa Marquez, and Kristin Woodhouse for hosting our large group and sharing their wealth of knowledge about the organic food industry, the cooperative model and principles, and specifically Organic Valley.