Like his father before him, Jim Gasser was an only son, and always helped out on the farm when he wasn’t in school. Also like his Dad, he just assumed he would farm. “I didn’t really have a desire to do anything else but when people would ask me what I wanted to do, I had no idea.” It wasn’t until he was exposed to organic farming that things really took hold and he’s had a strong interest in farming ever since.
He was about 20 when he went with a neighbor farmer to a winter meeting. An organic beef farmer gave a slide show of his operation that night and, Jim says, “It was absolutely convincing.” Other than his Dad’s organic Gardening magazine that he always read, Jim hadn’t had any substantial exposure to organic agriculture prior to that beef farmer’s presentation. “In my mind it was only applicable to a small garden type of situation, never a whole farm. This guy brought it to the farm level, talked about proper tillage, soil health, green manures and the life in the soil. I always thought organic farming meant messy fields and lots of weeds, but they showed pictures of beautiful fields of oats, corn, soy and clover.”
It’s one of the classic misgivings conventional farmers have when thinking about transitioning to organic. Without the chemicals, their fields will look ragged and unkempt. Community pride has a big impact on a farmer’s status, and weedy fields do not contribute to pride. Today, 17 years after transitioning to organic, Jim’s fields look great. He has to cultivate more to achieve that, but it’s worth the tradeoff.
Through visionary planning, the Gassers have also managed to overcome another pitfall facing all farmers today, which is finding land to farm. When Jim and Janice got married, he started working his father-in-law’s acreage, which was only 4 miles away from Jim’s father’s place. Just as fortunately, his father’s place was only a couple of miles from his grandparents’ farm, which Jim bought when his grandparents passed away. Between these combined farms and acreage they’ve been able to pick up over the years, Jim feels confident that he’s got land to pass on to his children. The 3 oldest sons, 20, 19 and 17, and the youngest daughter, 14, who definitely want to continue farming.
Since the farms had always been dairy operations, there was plenty of hay ground to work with when it came to grazing their cows. Jim has experimented with the “salad mix” content of his pastures, always trying to make sure the cows are getting the most nutritious food possible. When he overseeds, Jim uses a mix of alfalfa, white clover, medium red clover, perennial rye, timothy, orchard grass, and festolium (a meadow fescue/and rye grass cross).
“I’m very fond of the orchard grass and alfalfa, but we have volunteer quack grass, white dutch clover, bluegrass, dandelions and plantain that are very nutritious and palatable to the cows. There’s always more to learn about what you’re growing. In the older pastures there was a lot of old fashioned chicory which I didn’t like because it bolts and gets quite stemmy and the cows don’t like that but they do eat the leaves that grow around the base of the plant and they love it. I didn’t realize that at first and on the flat areas of my old pasture I actually tried to get rid of it. In the meantime I learned that chicory is good so last year in my seeding I included chicory. It’s drought resistant, too. This year we planted something new which is burnett grass. It’s a deep-rooting herb that brings up minerals, making it a more nutritious and healthy plant.”
The Gassers’ manage the animals’ grazing by moving them to fresh pasture every 12 hours to make sure they’re getting the maximum nutrition and enjoying the plants at the stage that’s most tasty to the cows. While the overall head count of animals on farm is higher, about 82 cows are in milk production at any given time.
The Gassers have always milked grade Holsteins, but this year they switched things up a little and started breeding their first year heifers to a Jersey bull. “Jersey’s are smaller, and this gives the heifer a smaller calf her first time out. It helps her not just in the birth process itself, but for months down the road. A low-stress birth means she’ll recover more quickly and be less stressed in future births.”
When Jim and Janice were married in 1988, Jim was able to start transitioning his father in law’s 120 acres to organic. When his grandma passed away, they bought that farm in 1996 and transitioned it to organic. They made the commitment in spite of the fact that there was no market for organic dairy in Ohio then. They had to sell their milk to the conventional market until enough farms in Ohio came into organic production and Organic Valley was able to start picking up their milk.
In their area, just ten miles north of the college town of Wooster, Ohio, the Gassers used to be the only organic farmers. Now there are roughly 20 crop and dairy producers in the area. “Our road is like a row of organic,” Jim says. “It doesn’t seem like much in the big scheme of things, but when you drive down our road, there’s continuous organic farming for over two miles. We’d sure like to see more of that.