Large organic farm co-op with Wisconsin roots aims to be carbon neutral by 2050
Organic Valley — known for its milk, butter and other assorted dairy products — got its start in La Farge, Wisconsin. Today the co-op touts its status as the nation’s largest cooperative of organic farmers from whom sustainability is a mantra.
Now Organic Valley is relying on its 1,600 farms to help reach a goal — to be carbon neutral by 2050. That would mean reducing greenhouse emission at the source and storing the rest.
A family in Crawford County is helping to make that happen.
The farm sits atop a ridge about 10 miles east of the Mississippi River near Gays Mills, Wisconsin.
A perfect spot, Organic Valley’s Marina Dvorak says to talk about the co-op’s plans to reduce its collective impacts on the environment.
“We’ve set a goal to be carbon neutral by 2050 and we’ve set some really achievable goals along the way to get us to that goal,” Dvorak says.
Dvorak, a member of Organic Valley’s marketing team, says the co-op won't become carbon neutral by purchasing carbon credits.
Instead Organic Valley is relying on its farm members — most of them dairy.
Dvorak says the co-op will help farmers amp up their ability to farm with even fewer negative impacts on the ecosystems they share with the help of a USDA grant.
“When our farmers are interested in doing more and making a more positive impact when it comes to the climate, we’re helping them invest in agro-forestry and different practices whether it be solar or wind," she explains.
Dvorak says bottom line, Organic Valley wants family farms to remain sustainable — do good by the earth and be able to make a living — and becoming climate resilient is one means to that end.
“(What's) important for us is making sure those small family farms are protecting that land that they’re farming on. Like you see here today on the Wedeberg farm,” Dvorak says.
The Wedebergs have a strong connection to Organic Valley and an even longer one to dairy farming.
“This is our home farm. I grew up in that house. My parents live there and this farm’s been in the family over a century,” says Jake Wedeberg.
His parents milked 15 cows. Today, Jake and his brother milk about 80.
But in between, making it as dairy farm hasn’t always been easy. That’s why in 1988, Wedeberg’s dad helped create the Organic Valley co-op.
“In the 1980s with the farm crisis and the ups and downs of the dairy industry, that’s how it was founded — it was looking for a stable milk price and keeping small farms viable. And we’ve just seen in the last five years of ups and down in the dairy industry, it’s a huge, huge thing,” Wedeberg says.
Before Wedeberg jumped full time on the family farm, he worked at Organic Valley’s headquarters.
“I worked in the sustainability department working on energy efficiency and renewable energy projects and that was eye-opening to meet so many more OV farmers and work on sustainability and reducing energy loads and I’ve taken some that stuff here,” Wedeberg says.
The Wedeberg family had already been taking steps to consume less energy and store carbon in their soils, including the installation of special equipment to drive down his family’s farm’s energy consumption.
“(To) harvest some of that heat off from the milk-cooling compressor and it preheats water before it goes into the water heater and we precool the milk before it goes into the ball tank to be cooled down to the correct temperatures,” Wedeberg explains.
And he says one of his trucks runs on used vegetable oil.
But Wedeberg says the farm’s most meaningful measures are its farming methods: grazing cows rotationally on pastures and rotating crops to build healthier soils, that both retain moisture during dry spells and hold stormwater when big systems hit.
Manure management plays a large role too.
“We can let the cows spread their own manure so we have every group of cattle out on pasture throughout the growing season,” Wedeberg says.
In the depths of winter, the cattle move indoors and Wedeberg collects their manure. “Pushed up into a windrow — so it’s probably 10 feet wide by five feet high up to 300 feet long,” he says.
Come the following fall, Wedeberg and his brother apply the composted manure across the 425 acres they plant rotationally.
“Yeah, it’s been fun to see the progression of some of our fields maintaining or increasing fertility and then organic matter as well, like even the pastures are by far the highest organic matter that we have,” Wedeberg says.
Organic matter means carbon storage and that results in keeping carbon underground and contributes to healthier soils.
Wedeberg hopes by continuing to tweak their methods, he and his brother can sustain the family farm for another hundred years.
Organic Valley is a financial supporter of NPR's Climate Week coverage. The WUWM newsroom independently reported this story.