George Siemon, Ransom School Class of 1970, returned to campus to visit Jen Nero's AP Economics classes and share his journey from our school on the bay to his current position as CEO of Organic Valley, the largest farmer-owned cooperative in the world. George also returned to Coconut Grove to reconnect with a place that he credits with much of his formation as a scholar and leader. You most likely have seen Organic Valley products in the supermarket; next time you find yourself pondering which carton of milk to purchase, I hope this column comes to mind.
A naturalist from a young age, 11th grader George arrived to the Ransom School in the age of hippies and war protests. He still wears his hair long and is known throughout the industry as someone who would prefer not to wear shoes. After two brief and enriching years at the Ransom School, he headed to Colorado State University where he received his bachelor’s degree in animal science. After graduation, George went into forestry and soon realized that working for the government was not his calling. He joined the "back-to-the-land" movement and bought a farm on a beautiful piece of land in Wisconsin. Cattle farming led to joining a new cooperative created to protect farmers who were feeling oppressed and desperate for solutions. He ended up guiding that cooperative into Organic Valley.
Organic Valley was embraced by family farmers and now has more 2,000 members and 1,000 employees. Once a small enterprise, Organic Valley is a thriving cooperative business that has both successfully penetrated the broader market and expanded globally. Gross sales exceed $1 billion annually, and Organic Valley provides millions of people with organic food of the highest quality. George is proud that the cooperative has always been a "learning organization" whose mission is to create a healthier future. After his visit to Miami, George was headed to Europe to explore recent advances in recyclable plastics. Plastics is a scourge of the environment but very important to shelf life and quality control in the food business.
George told our students during his Feb. 4 visit that doing the right thing with respect to people and the land and environment was good for business. He also told them that they were in high demand and important to the business world, as they will have insight into the choices and preferences of the next generation of consumers.
Business may not have been George’s calling, but coupling business acumen with his love of the natural world and a deep commitment to a sustainable future has made for a remarkable career.
Last year, George wrote a letter to Dan Bowden, thanking him for the positive influence he had on his life. A reluctant boarder at the Ransom School, and an even more reluctant student, George found a community of generous and scholarly teachers here who awoke in him a desire to learn that also developed in him a love of words. He is a "devoted student to this day" and Dan was a pivotal influence in that awakening. George went on to write that "after saying that I never wanted to be in business I am now running a national farmer cooperative that produces Organic Valley products. I have learned to combine common sense (an emphasis of yours) intelligence, experience, understanding of human nature and intuition into a unique person who is using his God-given rights to serve the greater good.”
George also shared his story with me in the Pagoda. I watched as he took in the history of our oldest building, pausing in front of some of the old charts and photographs that decorate the walls. He told me that he had taken a kayak out on the bay the evening before, poking in and out of the many inlets around the school. He enjoyed being back on campus. Our conversation touched on his abiding respect for the environment, the classroom, Dan Bowden, farming, raising a family and the past, present and future of Organic Valley. As our conversation wound down, and it was time to get to the airport, George presented me with the question I had been anticipating since the start: "Where's your conservation?" An important question that is very much on our minds as we expand and re-envision the Ransom Campus. There wasn't time to discuss in depth the STEM building that is designed to comply with LEED certification standards nor the acquisition of La Brisa and its flora, fauna and magnificent mangroves that will inform elements of our curriculum. Preliminary designs for the new dining hall/commons building on La Brisa that focus on outdoor dining, sustainability and healthy food options never made it into our discussion. He had already toured the campus and seen the aquaponics tank and the recently installed FarmBot. I did not attempt to elaborate on the emerging initiatives in sustainability, the coming solar panels at the Middle School or the new "green" cleaning products on both campuses. Instead, I said: "It's here, but it’s not enough." With that he left me with his card and a promise, now mutual, to stay in touch.
On the bookshelf in my office I keep a yellowed and dog-eared copy of the book written on the occasion of our school's 75th anniversary: Ransom Everglades: Reflections of a School, 1893-1978. After George left my office and in anticipation of this column, I opened it and reread the introduction written by the legendary journalist and conservationist (and woman’s suffragist), Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Imagine – a book about our school with an introduction written by one of the most influential figures in the history of South Florida! Mrs. Douglas worked tirelessly for the preservation of the Everglades, the spectacular "river of grass,” which was threatened by drainage and development. She wrote: "The boys and girls who study here, not shut away by masonry, artificial lighting, air conditioning and windowless walls from the earth and the sea, the growing plants, the wild creatures, the love of natural things, have a wider approach to wisdom, to the great truths of human thought, a more reasonable approach to the realities of human life. Because of the presence in their early lives of tides and rains, flowers, birds and trees, a horizon of waves and stars as well as books and thoughts, they will be able to take great part as the citizens of the preservation, restoration and intelligent management of our natural world, the basic source of our lives and the hope of an intelligent future for our society.”
Mrs. Douglas’ inspiring vision of a Ransom Everglades student, and the influence of Dan Bowden, our school’s most legendary educator, are both in glorious evidence in George Siemon. Thank you, George, for using your life and livelihood to make the world a better place.
Head of School