George Siemon, who helped Organic Valley become one of the crown jewels of the organic foods industry, has stepped down as the company’s longtime chief executive officer.
The La Farge-based company did not say why Siemon stepped down as CEO of the company he helped start in 1988. It said the cooperative’s board has appointed Bob Kirchoff as interim CEO. Kirchoff has been Organic Valley’s chief business officer since 2016.
The long-haired Siemon was a unique CEO and the perfect face for Organic Valley. He rarely wears shoes and walks the walk as an environmentalist, and always believed in putting people ahead of profits.
Under Siemon’s watch, Organic Valley evolved and expanded as it became the first organic foods company to surpass $1 billion in revenue. It helped make Wisconsin a national leader in the organic industry and revitalized rural communities across the state before turning its attention to the rest of the country. The cooperative has grown to more than 2,000 farms — or 14.4 percent of the country’s organic farms.
The products it offers have grown to include a variety of dairy drinks, yogurts and other products. It also opened a meat division, began selling ingredients to General Mills and started a partnership in 2017 with Dean Foods.
Siemon was one of a group of dairy farmers from Kickapoo Valley to start the company as the state and country were mired in the 1980s farm crisis. He leaves as another crisis rocks the farm and dairy industries.
Last year, Siemon announced at Organic Valley’s annual meeting that the company in 2017 posted its first financial loss in 20 years even though gross sales were over $1.1 billion for a second straight year and business growth was at more than 4 percent. Continued low milk prices that led to excess supplies of organic and conventional milk were among the reasons the company suffered an after-tax loss of about $10 million compared to a $6.3 million profit the previous year, the company said.
Siemon admitted at the meeting that the company could have increased its profit line if it had decided earlier to lower the price it pays to its members. “Maybe that was a mistake,” he said.
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The La Crosse Tribune reported that even after two price cuts, the co-op’s price of $31 per hundredweight to producers remained nearly double the price conventional farmers receive. In 2017, the average national pay price was $32.85.
The company also gave $5.2 million in mission-aligned donations and sponsorships to more than 700 organizations and supported hurricane relief efforts in Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico as well as fire-ravaged parts of California.
Also in 2017, the company announced it was planning to become the largest food company in the world to be 100 percent solar powered by sometime this year.
“Our priorities are, and always have been, our farmer-members, our employees, our animals and our consumers,” Siemon said at the annual meeting. “We’re confident that, as we continue to work together as a cooperative, we are a force for good in a troubled time. If we ever lose our mission, we should stop growing.”
Organic Valley spokeswoman Elizabeth McMullen said Siemon’s decision to step down caught many in the company by surprise and that he was much loved throughout the company. But she said the company was not saying anything else beyond what was in its press release.
Earlier this week, in a statement released by Organic Valley, Siemon said it was an honor to lead Organic Valley from the beginning. “Our cooperative is a beacon of light for the natural food community, agriculture and all food-conscious people. I appreciate the opportunity to have been part of the team of employees, farmers, consumers and all the many stakeholders who have worked for and allowed the co-op to become the accomplished vision it is today. I have been blessed by this experience and stand ready to help Organic Valley in any way I can in the future.”
Organic Valley Board chairman Arnie Trussoni said in a statement that Siemon created a path that saved countless families and allowed more generations to stay on their farms.
“George has also created a culture of employees who work for the mission and are as dedicated as he is to making the cooperative succeed for the farmers, the environment and the consumers,” Trussoni said. “We are fortunate to have worked alongside a leader with his passion, intellect, creativity and good partnership.”