One of the most important missions we have here at Organic Valley is to foster the future of organic farming. According to the 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture, the average age of U.S. farmers is 57 years old, while Organic Valley’s average farmer age is 49, indicating a trend of younger people becoming new farmers or current members’ kids now becoming involved in the family business. For the next few weeks, we will bring you stories from this new generation—the “Generation Organic,” or “Gen-O”—a network of Organic Valley farmers aged 18-35 who are leading the charge toward a sustainable farming future. They are bright and ambitious and have new outlooks on old practices which could change the state of farming in our cooperative and across the country.
We hope you enjoy hearing from the next generation as much as we did.
By Emily Zweber, Organic Valley farmer-owner from Minnesota
Beige cookie cutter houses line winding city streets. Parks and trails connect people to the city’s library, restaurants, churches, full convenience store and gas station. A four lane highway expresses commuters from our growing community to the downtown areas of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Our town of Elko New Market is a robust and friendly place that prides itself on growth and development. Our community is nearly picture perfect.
The only caveat is that our 105 year old family farm is smack dab in the middle of all the hustle and bustle. If it wasn’t for organics, our farm would be another sad statistic of the number of farms lost each day.
In between houses and city side walks, our farm is a beautiful rolling and banking landscape. It is not typical of other farms in our area with their expansive fields over mildly slopping ground. Our land is just not suitable for large-scale commodity crop production. It is suitable for grazing cattle and while our farming techniques have evolved over the years, we have been grazing our dairy cattle since 1906.
Our farming philosophy has always been doing what works best for our animals, land and family. Tilling our hilly ground can cause erosion, so we do not do it. We never liked using pesticides and other chemicals, so we do not use them. Keeping our cows confined all year doesn’t seem fair for them, so we let them graze. Really, our farm has been 90% “organic” for a long time it just took a couple young farmers to give us the push to really go for it.
It has always been a dream of my husband, Tim, to return to the family farm and farm along side of his family. When a son or daughter returns to the family farm, the family needs to make one of three decisions. One, make the farm larger to allow more income for more families. Two, the older family member can retire making room for the younger generation. Or three, add more value to agricultural products produced on the farm.
In late 2006, Tim graduated from college and it was decision time. Were we able to make the farm work for two families? What would that look like: more cows, more land, new location? I remember sitting around the farm house kitchen table listening to the family conversation with our Farm Business Manager. After running numbers for hours our FBM says, “Why don’t you just fill out the organic paperwork? You are really organic and should be compensated as such.” That was our ticket. We didn’t need to add more cows and we didn’t need to buy more land. By adding value to current operation, Tim’s parents were able to welcome in the fourth generation of Zweber farmers.
Thankfully, Organic Valley at the time was also welcoming new farm family owners. We knew about their reputation of high quality organic products while keeping true to the values and beliefs of their farmers. It was a perfect match for us.
On February 14, 2008 we shipped our first load of certified organic milk on the Organic Valley milk truck. It was an exciting day. The best part was our farm didn’t really change from February 13 to 14th. We had always been doing was what right for our animals and land, the only difference was we were now supply milk to people who cared that we continued to do it right. If it wasn’t for organics and Organic Valley, we would not be planning our future for the fifth generation.
Emily Zweber is a mother of two young boys and a partner in Zweber Farms with her husband, Tim, and his parents. Emily and Tim are pen pals with a class of grade schoolers, give several farm tours each year and also maintain a blog on the farm’s website, www.zweberfarms.com