Organic Sense

The Organic Cycle: Healthy Soil & Animals Means Healthy Food & People

by Jon Bansen, Organic Valley Farmer-Owner  on March 01, 2011

One of the joys of farming organically has been connecting the dots between healthy soil and the health of everything else on this earth—especially human health, as we are at the top of the food chain. It's a basic principle, but one that has been largely pushed aside by farmers in an effort to get more efficient in the face of decreasing returns. One only has to open up any farmer publication and read the articles and advertisements for products being sold to increase milk production next to the ads for antidotes which will cure the problems faced by cows straining under increased demands.

Organic farming, with its sustainable pay price to the farmer, has allowed us to focus on the health of our soils and the health of our cows. The general public may assume that all farmers would understand this link better than the average consumer; however, farmers are oftentimes less informed about the importance of the whole system’s health because most of the research done and courses taught at our agricultural schools are focused on maximum production at any cost. A conventional farmer often must unlearn what modern day agribusiness has taught them in order to learn how to farm organically. It is a journey to reconnect to our natural world. 

For our farm in Monmouth, OR, it has meant focusing on how nature intended our cows and calves to thrive. Cows are ruminants and are much healthier when allowed to eat mostly forage. This means we needed to put our emphasis mainly on a nutritious, mineralized pasture. Soils needed to be tested for minerals, and plant tissue had to be tested for uptake of these minerals. We discovered that our plants’ roots would take up micronutrients more readily if we spread calcium (in the form of powdered limestone) on the land. Once the pastures were growing nutrient-rich forage, we were able to greatly reduce the amount of grain the cows were fed. This led to less production per cow but also had the more important result of increased cow health and nutrient density in the milk. The cows’ immune systems became healthier and they passed this health to their calves. Calves were meant to survive and flourish on their mother’s milk while their stomachs develop to eat pasture. So as they grow, we have increased both the amount of milk and months that it is fed to the calves, and we make sure they also get quality mineralized pasture when they are ready for it.

My grandfather farmed at a time when there were no pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics or manmade hormones (agribusiness farming aids). He farmed using wisdom about the natural world passed down over the generations. They didn't always understand the science behind their farming practices, but they understood what basic principles led to healthy cows. Today, we have the advantage of understanding the science behind those basic principles of my Grandfather’s time. We also have the ability to understand why and how the modern farming aids weaken and destroy the health of our natural world. These aids have been sold to the conventional farmers as labor saving products to help them become more efficient, but what farmers don’t realize in the beginning is that using these aids pull them into a vicious cycle of declining soil health, declining animal health, and more and more inputs in an effort to bring the cycle back around.

Understanding the science behind organic principles has led to the greatest benefit for our family: eating well. Since our transition to organic farming, we have better understood the need to eat organically produced food for our own health through watching our animals thrive on the organically managed land. Along with many city dwellers, we now seek out organic foods in order to get mineralized foods free of synthetic farming aids. As our understanding of the principles has grown, so has our vegetable garden. One of the ironies of modern farming is that most farmers no longer raise a garden to feed their own families. On the other hand, a majority of organic farmers I've visited have beautiful vegetable gardens.

The organic food movement is a partnership between everyone who has a stake in our food—that means everyone from food growers to eaters working together for a healthy food future. Without this rural-urban partnership, it isn’t possible. Together, we’ve built a new cycle, one of trust and partnership between farmers that are responsible to the earth and animals and conscious consumers who choose to “vote with their dollar” to support organic practices and farming families like mine. This partnership allows my family to continue doing what we do best—focusing on soil and animal health and producing quality food for a healthy future.


Jon Bansen is a third generation dairyman who milks around 170 Jersey cows twice a day on his family farm, Double J Jerseys in Oregon. He spent six years working for his father learning the dairy business and purchased his own farm in 1991. He then become a member-owner of the Organic Valley cooperative in June of 2000. He is currently the West Coast Regional Leader of Organic Valley’s Farmer Ambassador Program and one of the Cooperative’s Dairy Executive Committee Representatives for Oregon. He regularly speaks to students, consumers, and other farmers about the role of organic farming techniques in a sustainable world and is a contributing writer for Graze Magazine focusing on cow nutrition.

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Comments

Jan Ensign from from Baltimore, Ohio on April 28, 2011 at 07:10:20 PM
Are there any independent studies that I could cite to naysayers of the organic movement? There seems to be conflicting information depending on whose "side" your reading. There is a study by the University of Illinois that says canned and frozen may be more nutrient rich as fresh fruits and veggies depending on how they are handled after picking. I have no way of knowing who paid for that study or who is behind it. What is a consumer to do to know who is telling the truth?
Angie at Organic Valley

Hi Jan, The Organic Center does independent research on organic food and farming, and can be a very good resource. Thanks for asking!

Bill from from Southern Illinois on March 21, 2011 at 07:27:08 AM
I really enjoyed reading this article. I'm not a farmer but I do enjoy having a small garden in my back yard. I like growing vegetables organically. Your thoughts on healthly soil feeds healthy animals feeds healthly people makes all the sense to produce our foods.
Janine Davis from from PA on March 18, 2011 at 05:37:46 AM
Thank you so much for the hard work and dedication to organic farming!! You are doing a great job!!
La Vaughn from from Aurora, Co on March 16, 2011 at 05:56:20 PM
Thank you for your concern about your animals. We all need to be aware of animal suffering in factory farms. We should choose from dairy farmers like you. I am curious about the fate of male calves and what happens to your cows when they can no longer produce milk? Again, thank you for what sounds like humane treatment of the animals in your care.
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