When Louise Hemstead ’82 joined a five-year-old farmer cooperative in La Farge, Wisconsin, in 1993, it had just surpassed $1 million in sales and had 22 employees and 21 farmers in its membership. Today that co-op — Organic Valley — has eclipsed $1.1 billion in sales, has 903 employees, and 2,013 family farms in its organic agriculture orbit, says Hemstead, the co-op’s chief operating officer and a 1982 graduate of UW–Madison’s College of Agriculture and Life Science (CALS).
Hemstead recalls starting out in the music department at UW–Madison, then English and, finally, agriculture. “I recall sitting on the steps of Ag Hall and thinking, ‘I’m home,’ ” says Hemstead. She is now a vice chair of the CALS Board of Visitors.
“I love working with farmers, and in a co-op, that embodies the essence of the value of working together with people,” says Hemstead. Organic Valley sells dairy, egg, meat, and other products in all 50 states, Canada, the Bahamas, and the Pacific Rim — but they are intentional about doing business in rural Wisconsin. “We’re passionate about being in a small, rural community. There’s a commitment to the social impacts of being here,” says Hemstead whose job oversees many facets, including production planning, scheduling milk routes and quality assurance.
In addition to its headquarters in La Farge, Organic Valley has recently opened a facility in Cashton and operates another production facility in nearby Chaseburg.
“We’re in the business of producing quality products,” Hemstead says. “It’s organic and it’s the very best.”
“I recall sitting on the steps of Ag Hall and thinking, ‘I’m home.'”
Organic Valley and its members have been strong supporters of the university’s work. The Farmers Advocating for Organic program, funded by Organic Valley’s members, gave grant funding to support the Wisconsin School of Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers. Organic Valley also teamed up with Clif Bar and the Morgridge Foundation to fund a $2 million endowed professorship and has contributed $100,000 for the renovation of Babcock Hall.
Organic Valley is also the workplace for a number of UW–Madison graduates. “There’s a marked difference in UW–Madison grads,” says Hemstead. “Their ability to think critically and be aware of global affairs is second to none.”