Dan and Terri Pearson like a good challenge. Their willingness to venture into new and unfamiliar territory has led to the success of Pearson’s Mann Valley Dairy since they took over in 1982 as the fourth generation of family farmers. Thanks to their desire to innovate, belief in the principles of grazing and organic production, and a strong relationship with Organic Valley, they have taken the next step to sustain a 100% grass-fed dairy operation.
Dan grew up working on the St. Croix County, Wisconsin, family dairy through college. He stepped away for just one year to teach, but the farm called him back in 1979. He and Terri married three years later and officially took over the farm. Early on, there was no way to foresee the farm’s entire transformation, but they did make one pivotal decision: no chemicals.
Dan remembers the feel of the mist from the sprayer on the back of his hands and neck when he was on the tractor. Terri recounts the concern about health effects on their young children. “We didn’t like all the chemicals my parents had been using. We wanted to do it differently.”
At the time, Pearson’s Mann Valley Dairy was a conventional farm following the recommendations of “everyone” to produce as much milk as possible. But Dan and Terri soon felt exhausted pushing themselves and the cows so intensively. It took up to four hours just to mix feed and deliver it to the animals. The couple started looking for alternatives, ways to make the system more sustainable.
“When we would go to grazing meetings and talk with other farmers, there was this buzz in the room,” says Dan. The transition from conventional dairying to grazing was exciting, invigorating. Grazing was an opportunity to see hope in farming, where prior you felt almost like you were carrying a 100 pound sack on your shoulders.”
Gradually, the Pearsons let their herd out to graze, turning the old hay fields of the fertile Mann Valley into pasture instead of corn. By the early 1990s, all 160 acres of the home farm were in pasture. To them the transition felt easy and natural, but their neighbors thought they were crazy. Why would they let their cows out to eat grass when they could grow the best corn in the area?
Dan’s response was simple, “I can’t make a living growing corn, but I can make a living with healthy cows giving me milk off pasture.” The system was working in all the right ways. Expenses and veterinary bills decreased and the pressure on the cows eased. Though the cows produced less milk, the lowered input costs still meant more money at the end of each month, a plus for any dairy farmer.
Between the expense and health concerns of chemicals, Dan felt confident he could run the farm without them. By 1988, they saw the market demand for organic milk and realized their farm was on the cusp of being considered organic. They applied for organic certification and soon after joined the Organic Valley cooperative as farmer-members, where they have remained ever since.
The transition to organic allowed the Pearsons to maintain a true small family farm (only 95 cows) and a special way of life. Not only does the price premium for the organic milk serve as recognition for their dedication, but it allows both Dan and Terri to work exclusively on the farm. Being a member of Organic Valley provides a direct connection to consumers who want a special product and who, they say, “vote with their dollars to make this world a better place.”
Now Dan and Terri are ready to shake things up again as they transition the farm to be 100% grass-fed. Their main strategy is to strengthen farm management and ensure the soils stay rich in nutrients, which will help the forages and grasses remain high in energy. During winter months, nutritional supplements like molasses, apple cider vinegar and others will enhance the cows’ diet of forage harvested and dried during the growing season.
“If it weren’t for Organic Valley, we probably would have had to get off-farm jobs or leave the farm. Many times we look back and see how going organic allowed us to keep farming. It saved our way of life,” Terri explained.
A partnership with Organic Valley allows the Pearsons to keep the farm strong. In the end, a successful business is the best way for them to steward the land and leave it better than they found it. “We have four grandchildren, with one on the way. They love coming out to the farm. We’re going to hang on to it and keep it viable for future generations.”