Three outstanding organic farmers--one operating an exemplary small dairy and livestock farm, one overseeing over 45,000 acres of certified organic vegetable production, and one leading other farmers to join the largest U.S. organic cooperative-- have been chosen to receive the Organic Trade Association’s 2020 Organic Leadership Awards. Sharing their passion for organic farming, they are leading by example to foster further growth for the sector, whether on a small scale or by something way bigger.
Growing the Organic Community Award
In 1988, Jim Wedeberg of Wedeberg Farm was one of seven farmers who helped found CROPP Cooperative in Wisconsin, and became the fledgling cooperative’s first dairy member. Jim was a driving force in the early years, serving as a leader in the quickly growing organic farming community before there were even organic standards to guide them.
For more than 30 years, Jim has farmed and been a leader in the farming community, first in the upper Midwest, and then across the country. Many cooperative farmer-members will say their having coffee or meeting with Jim at an event convinced them to take the leap into organic. In fact, Jim might have recruited more farmers to organic than any other farmer. A straight talker, he directly addresses farmers’ concerns and helps others see how becoming part of a farmer-owned cooperative business can provide economic stability, support and sense of togetherness.
Most recently, as Director of International Cooperative Development for CROPP Cooperative, he worked tirelessly to influence cooperative development and organic agriculture in other parts of the world. His personal commitment and vision for a future for small family farms with a stable pay price built through the marketing of organic products have been essential in building the organic community. He also has shown a strong commitment to the next generation of organic farmers, transitioning his own dairy farm to his eldest son John in 1998, and today, his other son Jake also has a stake in the farm.
Over the years, he personally visited potential organic farmers to talk face-to-face, sharing experiences farmer-to-farmer. His leadership can be credited with helping growing CROPP Cooperative from its initial seven farms to the more than 1,800 total organic farms today, helping shape new markets across the country and internationally for organic food.
“It is very important to grow the organic community. I believe that organic production is more vital now than any time in history to help provide healthy food during this pandemic through local food and local processing producing healthy food for consumers,” said Wedeberg.
Meg Plucinski and her husband, Derek, have been dairy farming for the majority of their lives. Together, they operate D&M Family Farm, a 341-acre dairy farm in Wisconsin where their animals graze intensively on well-maintained, award-winning pastures. In addition, they raise certified organic beef, pork, and poultry sold from their online farm store.
Meg first reached out to the Organic Trade Association in October 2018 to gain a greater understanding of what the trade association and its newly formed Organic Dairy Council do to assist farmers. She had heard other small farmers question whether the trade association was, in fact, a good fit for the small- scale certified producers. Rather than accepting their doubts about the trade association at face value, she reached out to the Organic Trade Association to judge for herself. Through phone conversations and other outreach, she excitedly chose to join, with the goal to play a role in spreading her positive messages within its Dairy Council, and bring some of those small scale concerns to the forefront of the organic dairy industry.
She soon found she was also a perfect fit for the trade association’s Farmer Advisory Council (FAC). FAC provides the Organic Trade Association’s Board of Directors and staff with input from small- and medium-sized organic farmers, ranchers, and growers on matters pertinent to the advancement of organic agriculture, with a specific focus on the trade association’s policy agenda.
Just a few months after joining the trade association, she was headed in a minivan with a babysitter and her 9-month old son to D.C. for her first trip to the East Coast to join other FAC Members on Capitol Hill to advocate for organic. She met with lawmakers, including Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, to outline the trade association’s policy agenda while sharing her struggles and joys of being a small-scale organic dairy farmer.
Her story was spot-on for showing the challenges faced by young couples who want to farm organically, and obtain the land to do so. She and her husband currently are purchasing their farm in a transition agreement with the present owner--a fine example and inspiration for other organic farmers who are trying to set up their own farm but are struggling with conventional loans and purchase agreements.
ORGANIC FARMER OF THE YEAR
Jeff Huckaby, currently President of Grimmway Farms and Cal-Organic Farms, started farming organically in 1999 as a farm manager for Grimmway in Bakersfield, California, growing several hundred acres of organic carrots. In 2000, he took over all of Grimmway’s organic farming operations throughout California. A year later, he became general manager of Cal-Organic Farms after Grimmway purchased Cal-Organic to expand their organic operation. Today he still leads the organic operations as President.
During Jeff’s tenure, he has grown the business from several hundred acres to over 45,000 acres of certified organic vegetables. His commitment to owning the land and building up the soil has allowed Grimmway to convert over 95 percent of its owned land to organic and grow over 65 different organic vegetables each year without the use of any outside growers. Today, Grimmway’s organic footprint has grown to cover multiple growing regions in California as well as Washington, Colorado, Georgia and Florida.
Jeff has been the visionary for Grimmway’s organic program, helping develop year-round programs with most major retailers. His leadership allowed Grimmway to work with Costco to convert all of their carrots to organic. As a result, Grimmway is the sole supplier of carrots for Costco in the U.S. and several other countries. He has educated hundreds of buyers and has been asked to speak at multiple retailer produce training programs. He has given farm tours to hundreds of produce buyers, educating them on what it takes to grow organically and be sustainable. He has spoken at organic conferences and USDA meetings, and has testified before a House Agricultural Committee to emphasize the importance of the National Organic Standards Board. He serves on various agricultural boards and advisory committees.
His expertise in organic farming has been tapped by regulators, trade associations, elected officials, California Department of Food and Agriculture, and USDA for input into all areas of organic production. Jeff actively represents Grimmway and Cal-Organic Farms in their support of the Organic Trade Association and The Organic Center.
“It is a tremendous honor to be recognized by my peers and fellow members of the trade association. I look at this as one of the greatest awards anyone involved with organic can receive, and I am grateful to accept on behalf of the many dedicated farmers who work alongside me at Grimmway and Cal-Organic Farms,” Huckaby said. “My passion for farming spans four generations of my family and almost every decade of my life. I’ve been growing organic at Grimmway for more than 20 years, and I am proud to have helped build our organic program and expand the Cal-Organic Farms brand. Over these years, I’ve witnessed the commitment, hard work and downright grit among all members of this community who are fighting to ensure a bright future for organic in the U.S. I am deeply proud to help lead in this charge and pave the way for the next generation of farmers. Thank you for your support.”
The Organic Trade Association’s Annual Organic Leadership Award was established in 1997. Awardees are nominated by their peers and chosen unanimously by the association’s Board of Directors.
“Each year we look forward to recognizing those within the organic sector who have led with valuable contributions to help grow and expand organic agriculture and products. It is exciting this year to have three organic farmers who together represent the real diversity of what organic farming looks like today in the United States, yet each is a steward of the land, helps feed their communities, and inspires others to do the same.” said Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association.
This year’s three awardees were recognized during the trade association’s virtual Annual Meeting. You can watch their video remarks and learn more about past honorees on OTA.com. //