The economics of joining the co-op made good sense then, and still do. Unlike most milk co-ops, where prices can fluctuate depending on the whims of the market, Organic Valley sets an annual price designed to provide a fair return for farmer's labor. That, along with the co-op's commitment to pasture-raised animals, was enough to convince the Stueves. They became one of the first California families to join the Organic Valley co-op, and they brought some neighboring families along with them. "We figured we can get enough dairy cows together, we can all get on board and transition over together. We just have to figure out how to make a tanker load of milk," Guy recalls.
Organic may have been a new word and a new market back then, but, as Guy says, "We were organic before there was the official seal. It's in our blood. My family is very health conscious. Plus, we were already grazing cows. We know firsthand that cows do well on grass. That's the way God made cows."
A decade later, the two brothers and their father together milk 1,000 cows, making it the largest operation in the Organic Valley co-op. To keep that many animals grazing on pasture requires nearly 8,500 acres of certified organic pastureland—carefully cultivated, lush, nutrient-rich grassland that supplies virtually all their cows' needs.
By managing the herds with rotational grazing practices, the Stueves ensure their milk is of the highest quality. Cows like the Stueves' that live on open pasture live longer and give healthier milk that is higher in nutrients like vitamin E and Omega-3 fatty acids.
"It takes a fair amount of planning," says Guy. "We run milk cows and dry cows and young stock, and we also run a Black Angus beef herd, and of course there are the calves and heifers and spares. Since our growing season is long, we basically graze different types of animals every day of the year." The health of the pastures is a critical factor. "We work really hard on the pastures to keep them as high quality as possible."