It's the first calendar day of Summer 2008, and Jeff Koester has just finished getting in his first cut of hay. It's a month later than usual, because Spring weather in the upper Midwest has been tumultuous to say the least. But this day is balmy and mild and, since they couldn't make the parade that morning, Jeff and Sheila will take their sons, aged 11 and 9, along with their 6 month-old daughter to a bee-keeping class this afternoon. As was the case for bee-keepers across the country, the hives they started last year didn't make it through the winter. The Koesters started new hives this year in hopes of a bumper crop of honey, just one piece of Jeff and Sheila's desire to be as self-sufficient as possible, which includes being able to grow the feed for their 40 Holstein/Dutch Belted cows.
Indeed, the Koesters' farm hums with life, but there was a time when it might all have gone differently. In August of 1994, Jeff's Dad was badly injured in a tractor roll-over accident and succumbed to his injuries ten days later. While they took a step back when they lost Jeff's Dad, they took a step forward three days later, right up to the altar where Jeff and Sheila were married. It seems kind of providential to Jeff now. "If my Dad had died before that time, I don't know if I would have stayed in farming. We were conventional then and I was sick of the roller-coaster pay prices."
When they decided to transition to organic, they had a host of reasons under their belts for the change, but Jeff remembers vividly the moment he'd had enough. "I always had someone come in and spray the corn because working with that stuff was something I refused to do. Dad used to do the spraying—I remember how bad it smelled—and after a week of that he would say he felt like a wilted weed from being exposed to those chemicals. In the Spring of '02 I was on the hill watching them spray and for some reason I just shook my head and thought this isn't right. That was the last year I allowed chemicals on my land." The next year Jeff visited Organic Valley farmers, the Westaby family, who farm nearby. "I talked to them about how to transition to organic. I was worried about having weedy corn, which didn't turn out to be a problem. My yields did not drop, plus I'm not paying for the pesticides and the fertilizer. It's actually cheaper!"