Between their 40 Holstein/Dutch Belted cows, beehives, and three children (two boys and a girl), 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 2002 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 the Westaby family, who farmed nearby and were Organic Valley members. “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!”
Since transitioning to organic, Jeff has noticed that their herd health has really improved. “When we first switched over, we were using homeopathic remedies to treat illness in the cows. Now that they’re on pasture, eating clean food, we rarely have to use anything because they’re healthy. If a cow does get sick, she responds very quickly to the homeopathic treatment and springs back fast. Cows are not meant to eat grain; they’re meant to eat grass and hay. In organic production you strive for longevity. You can’t afford to burn out cows all the time like in conventional production.”
Probably the most important reason for the Koesters’ transition was the family. “We wanted our kids to have the best start,” Sheila says. “This lifestyle really draws the family together. If you want to be satisfied with what you’re doing you need to make sure you’re in it for the whole package. We started homeschooling and transitioning to organic in 2003 and people thought we were nuts. But we’ve learned is that it’s okay to think outside the box.”
“It’s really just common sense,” Jeff adds. “We have got to get back to using our common sense.”
Jeff and Sheila love to have the boys involved on the farm, and they love to oblige. “I can remember when I was a kid and couldn’t wait to get big enough or old enough to do this or that. Our boys are the same way. They couldn’t wait ‘til they were tall enough to be able to hook the milker to the pipeline and now they are. When I was making hay this past week, the two boys milked the cows for me.” Throughout the year, their oldest son is in charge of giving the cows their mineral supplements, and both the boys take care of bedding the calves in winter. “Makes me wonder how I used to do it without their help,” Jeff says.
Besides the benefits to the immediate family, the Koesters benefit from their extended Organic Valley family. “Organic farmers are more than willing to share their knowledge,” Sheila says. “They’re not afraid to share what they know. We help each other.” And that’s a pretty good definition of family.