Organic dairy is a fast-growing sector in U.S. agriculture that provides substantial societal benefits in comparison to conventional, CAFO-based dairy farming.
In our 2012 report, Cream of the Crop, we present the evidence for the economic benefits of organic dairy, and recommend changes in federal farm policy to level the playing field and increase public investment in these highly beneficial farms. The modest federal support we recommend would help expand the organic dairy sector by assisting farmers who are already contributing to their regional economies and supporting those who want to begin, or transition to, organic dairy farming.
Here, we present the stories of three organic dairy farmers whose success illustrates what a smart investment organic dairy farming can be.
Steve Morrison and Sonja Heyck-Merlin
Clovercrest Farm, Charleston, Maine
Seventeen years ago, Steve Morrison inherited his parent’s dairy farm. At that time Clovercrest Farm was a 250-acre dairy farm with 35 dairy cows that his parents had established on abandoned land in the 1970s. Steve took over management in 1995 and made the transition to organic production in 1997, with the vision of making Clovercrest Farm sustainable and expanding his herd to meet the growing public demand for organic milk. Today, Clovercrest Farm, located in Charleston, Maine, is home to 85 organic cows that are milked twice daily, 365 days a year.
As Steve can attest, farming is a costly business. The milk checks he receives from Organic Valley are barely enough to cover production costs. To keep Clovercrest Farm viable, Steve grows some of the grain needed to feed the cows. He has also received grants from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) in the farm bill to cover capital improvements on the farm, including gravel laneways, pasture development, and manure management systems. Without grant programs like EQIP, it would be nearly impossible for family-scale dairy farmers to cover their production costs while simultaneously improving and expanding their farms.
Clovercrest Farm is still a family affair. Steve works alongside his partner Sonja, his parents, his cousin Ross, and several part-time employees to manage all of the feed production and daily farm chores. Whether his daughters will want to take over the family business is still uncertain but Steve’s transition to organic farming has made Clovercrest Farm a productive, sustainable enterprise that will be waiting for the next generation if they are interested.
Rick and Valerie Adamski
Full Circle Farm, Seymour, Wisconsin
For Rick and Valerie Adamski, owners of Full Circle Farm in Seymour, Wisconsin, farming is a family business. The 160-acre, 90-cow organic dairy farm has been owned and operated by Rick’s family for over 100 years. Today, the Adamskis are a great example of how to make a farm both profitable and sustainable.
The Adamskis transitioned to organically certified farming in 1998. For these self-professed embracers of change, the transition was relatively easy as they were already employing sustainable farming practices.
Both Rick and Valerie have mission statements that guide their work on the farm. Rick strives to value labor over capital, meaning that his main goal is to receive a fair return for his work while sustainably using the land to turn a profit. Rick’s model features managed grazing as a cornerstone farming practice and selling milk to Organic Valley Cooperative. He also works to make the farm energy efficient—for example, building a wind turbine on the property to generate clean, sustainable electricity that powers the entire farm.
By day, Valerie is an agriculture professor at a local technical college, but by night, she is a cattle breeder and milker. Her philosophy is that conventional farming is prescriptive, while organic farming requires the farmer to be more in tune with the land and animals. Her 89-year-old father-in-law says “the farmer’s footsteps are the best fertilizer.” Consistent with her mantra, Valerie knows each of her cows by name, some of whom are named after Green Bay Packers players like Brett, Aaron and even Clay.
Full Circle Farm has received minimal assistance from farm bill programs compared to conventional dairy farms; however, they are quick to note that programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program are important for promoting good farming practices. They also believe the farm bill should provide more support for beginning farmers. Valerie helped create a grazing apprenticeship program using grant funds available in the farm bill.
Putting belief into action, the Adamskis started a milkshare agreement, a partnership between themselves and a novice farmer. They split all inputs, labor and revenue with their sharemilker, Andy Jaworski, a 27-year-old farmer who holds a degree in business and finance from the University of Wisconsin. In addition to milking with the Adamskis, Andy works on his own family farm growing organic grains and raising heifers. Andy’s crops are used as feed for the cows on Full Circle Farm.
Full Circle Farm has achieved balance and sustainability, and under the Adamskis' stewardship, the farm will be there should their children want to join the family business.
Beyer Crest Farm, Rollingstone, Minnesota
Rory Beyer is not your typical organic dairy farmer. He owns Beyer Crest Farm, a successful 300-acre, 110-cow organic dairy farm in Rollingstone, Minnesota, which he manages in partnership with his parents, Sharon and Richard. But Beyer Crest wasn’t always a profitable organic farm.
Sharon was raised on a traditional farm in the 1950s, long before conventional farming methods were developed. On the other hand, Richard was taught conventional techniques in agriculture school. When Sharon and Richard married, Richard and Sharon’s father did not see eye to eye on farming techniques. Richard purchased Beyer Crest Farm in 1975 and built a conventional dairy farm.
As the farm expanded, there were indications that the conventional method wasn’t working. The farm wasn’t profitable, and then Rory became sick, which opened their eyes to more wholesome and gainful farming practices, like organic farming. By the time Rory was 13, he was over six feet tall. When doctors discovered a tumor on his pituitary gland, Sharon, a firm believer in holistic medicine, began feeding her family organic foods. As a result of his illness, Rory and Sharon became more attentive to the quality of their cattle’s feed.
When Rory returned from college to manage the farm in 2000, he worked with Richard on the family’s dairy CAFO (confined animal feeding operation). By 2006, the cows were producing higher than average quantities of milk, but in order to generate such huge volumes of milk, they were replacing the herd every other year, which is an expensive problem. The numbers weren’t adding up, and Beyer Crest farm wasn’t making money.
One evening, sitting around the kitchen table, the Beyer family had an "a-ha moment": by transitioning the farm to an organic operation, they could keep healthier cows, preserve the land, create more nutritious milk, and make the farm financially viable.
By transitioning their farm to certified organic, the Beyers were also able to expand and improve it. Rory and his parents now produce organic milk, and they also grow organic grain to feed the cattle. This has reduced their operating costs, and in some years they are able to make as much money from selling their grain as from the milk—essentially doubling their annual profits.
Today, Beyer Crest is doing better than ever by being prosperous as well as healthy. And according to Rory, “what we’re doing is right; it’s good for human beings and good for the earth.”