Organic Sense

A Day in the Life of a Farm Woman: Staying True to the Mission at Home and Work

by By Louise Hemstead, Chief Operating Officer for Organic Valley  on November 10, 2010

The sky is inky black when I slip out the door in the early morning. I am a quick riser, preferring to sleep until the last possible moment before rising to meet the day. The fresh air wakes me swiftly, and I begin my morning walk to wake the 25 cows that support our farm. Our farm, Lazy Daze Farm near La Farge, Wis., has a dairy barn similar to the logo on the Organic Valley package and sits in a low valley. Springs run through the pastures providing ample fresh water for our cows, which prefer to sleep on the fresh, green, grassy knoll several hundred yards from the house. Knowing my voice, the cows amble to their feet and saunter to the barn for a snack on some grain and their morning milking.

By the time I arrive at the barn, my husband, David, has sanitized the milking equipment, drawn warm water for washing the udders, and opened the back door for the cows to enter. Our routine is pleasant in the quiet morning as the pneumatic milking equipment gently milks each cow with a “pluck-swish” sound.

This morning routine allows me to connect with all of the farmers of the co-op, starting my day in the same way they do—and have for decades. By half-past seven, I leave the barn and head to the house for a shower and then off to my day job. Forty-five minutes later, I am at my desk in the Organic Valley headquarters, where as Chief Operating Officer, my time is divided between tactical meetings—ensuring that all of our farmers’ products (milk, eggs, produce, meat) are produced into wonderful organic products—and strategic work for future farmers and generations of products.

While my computer is starting up, I attend the first session of daily Organic Valley product tasting. On this day the product is chocolate milk, and we taste three samples to determine if there is a difference in color, mouth-feel, aroma and flavor—our task is to see if we can correctly identify the “unique” sample. Back at my desk, I check my calendar, scan emails that have arrived since I shut down last night, and prepare for the day.

My first meeting of the day addresses the development of supply chain software, which may not sound exciting, but it’s really an amazing project. We hope this software will replace the dozens of Excel spreadsheets that we’ve used for 15 years to guide the push-pull supply and demand rhythm of our business. An amazing project – we will spend 9 months in design and 6 months in implementation. In the end this software will guide the very pulse of the business.

Then on to planning the business growth for the next 12 to 18 months. We commit to organic dairy farmers 13 months prior to their completed conversion to organic production, which is an expensive time period for farmers, who are feeding 100% organic feed while still being paid conventionally for their milk. We help farmers with this burden with our early commitment to making them members of the co-op; however, the farmer still carries the risk. Our decisions in the office impact their livelihood, and that is something we address very thoughtfully, since the forecast of milk needed for sales at this time next year is an estimate at best.

A couple more meetings, and then I go to lunch with members of the “Pools” department (“Pools” are groups of farmers who produce the same products, and the term applies to our office farmer support staff as well). Here I casually catch up on some of the daily workings of this department. Many of us at the table also have our own egg, dairy and/or beef farms, and we share a few stories of things at home, as well as talk about ideas for member-farmers who have called for support with a variety of farm issues.

The afternoon starts with a regional dairy quality meeting where we review statistics for farm milk quality and finished product quality regionally. We are intensely committed to the highest quality products, a commitment which requires attention at all levels from the farm to store shelf. Then on to Leadership Council, a quarterly meeting with the top leaders of the cooperative. At Organic Valley we believe in NUASAA—“None of Us Are as Smart As All”—and this think tank tackles the top challenges and strategic goals for the upcoming year.

Five to six p.m. is my quiet hour. As the building slowly empties, interruptions lessen and I have time to review the previous week’s performance in preparation for my weekly email to our farmer-elected Board of Directors updating them on production, sales and inventory statistics, and the cooperative’s “gold standard”—utilization of the farmers’ products organically.

Thankfully, milking bookends my day. By 6:30, I have joined David back in that “pluck-swish” rhythm of milking. We share stories from our days, and soon the routine of milking takes over and I am lost in thoughts of how the statistics show positive progress—as utilization is up, sales are up and inventories are on target. Organic Valley first and foremost is for the people; we begin with farmers and end with consumers. What a blessed business opportunity we have.

The routine I have each day—farm chores in the morning, working in town, then returning in the evening for more chores, family and household duties, with days off spent in haying, fencing or other farm chores—is not a unique occurrence. Farm wives all over the world have been a driving force in agriculture. Some are independent farmers, some have support roles, many work off the farm for the sake of health insurance for their families. But all of us farm women have a love of agriculture that rivals our love for our families. I am fortunate that my day job and home-front are aligned in mission, and my movement between the two is a seamless adventure called life.

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Leah from from Boston, MA on November 15, 2010 at 11:57:16 AM
Great post!
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