By the time Tim Vosberg was 11 years old, he was milking 50 of his father’s cows every day on their farm in southwestern Wisconsin. Farming was all around him—it was what his family did; it was what everyone he knew did. Living close to the land and working with animals was a way of life. But with older brothers working the farm, Tim set out for college, earned a degree in animal science, and got a job driving a milk truck.
Still, he longed to get back to the land. “Every time I went to a young dairyman’s farm and he was doing a good job, I wanted to do that,” he recalls. “I could feel it in my bones. That’s what I dreamed of.”
When he met Heidi, a farm girl who’d recently graduated from a dairy herd management program, the two of them decided to marry—and to buy their own spread. In 2002, the couple bought a farm near Cuba City, Wisconsin, about four miles from where Tim spent his childhood.
Here, in these beautiful rolling hills and lush green valleys where red barns still dot the countryside and cattle roam the ridges, it’s hard to believe that the small family farm is endangered, that millions of small farms have disappeared during the past several decades.
But the economic pressures that dairy farmers face are intense, and the Vosbergs came face to face with the realities relatively quickly. “When we were conventional it was check to check. We had high production, which was helpful, but we could just barely pay the bills on that,” he says. “We either had to get bigger conventionally, or we could enter the organic market,” Tim says.
The choice was an easy one for Heidi: go organic. She remembers going with her parents to meetings almost 20 years ago, where a group of local farmers came together to create an organic producers’ cooperative. Now known as Organic Valley, this organic co-op has provided an economic lifeline for hundreds struggling farmers in Wisconsin and across the country. She felt transitioning to organic and joining the co-op was best for their farm as well.
As members of Organic Valley, the Vosbergs enjoy a guaranteed milk price that ensures a fair wage to the farmers. And they no longer need to spend thousands of dollars on herbicides, sprays, and antibiotics. Tim says the switch is allowing them to catch up and get away from ever-increasing debt. “We’ve been organic for a year and it’s helped tremendously.”
The financial benefits that the Vosbergs are experiencing are no fluke. Consumers looking for wholesome organic products are willing to pay more for them—and at Organic Valley, that premium is passed directly on to the family farmers. For several years now, the average Organic Valley farmer has earned a stable, reliable pay price.
What that’s meant for the Vosbergs is that they can devote their time to working on the farm. Tim doesn’t need to rely on off-farm income, like his father did before him. And Heidi is able to be home, taking care of farm chores and the couple’s four young children.
Even more important to the Vosbergs than the economic health of their farm is its environmental health. The Vosbergs raise 65 cows on 142 acres they own, as well as 80 they rent from neighbors. The cows are raised on pasture with some grain supplements, and they keep their herd closed, raising all their own calves. These measures alone ensure a healthier herd—and milk.
“My wife had been talking to me for years about switching over to organic for the health benefits,” Tim said. “One of her biggest things was she couldn’t stand to spray for weeds, even having that stuff around. We didn’t want our kids to be unable to come out and work with us because of the poisons we were working with. That’s what we’re farming for is our kids—we want to raise them in a farming environment, and if they can’t work with us it defeats the purpose. With organics, there’s nothing to hurt them. Now it’s a safe haven.”
Heidi identifies this family ethic as part of a broader web of connections that takes in the family, community, and the consumers who buy their milk. “Organics is something I’ve always wanted for farming,” Heidi says. “It’s just a whole mindset of healthy families coming together to care for healthy farms. Seeing the whole picture means knowing it’s about more than making a profit.”
As economic pressures have put small farms out of business, it’s increasingly common for young farm families like the Vosbergs to turn to organic methods. Still, in a farming community where change is slow and industrial methods have been the norm for a generation or more, the organic mindset can be unsettling for family members and neighbors. Both Tim and Heidi have had to answer questions from their families and communities about the changes they’ve made on their farm. They can always point to the health of their herd as a living, breathing answer.
“The health of the cows is number one for me,” Tim says. “It’s one of the best things about going organic. It’s so nice not to have to deal with a bunch of sick cows.” When he was working his farm conventionally, he fed his cows concentrates to increase production, but that led to multiple health problems, including ketosis, milk fever, and displaced abdomen. These problems disappeared along with the chemicals and antibiotics when the Vosbergs went organic. “Pasture is comfortable for the cows,” he says. “It’s what they’re designed to do.”
Best of all, the kids can ride out on the tractor with Tim or hang out in the barn and really learn the methods of organic farming. Tim and Heidi love the idea of handing down the tradition to the next generation. And they know that as the kids grow with these values, this respect for the land, the family and the community will be a part of them as much as the healthy food that they grow on.
“That’s our goal: to be able to work together as a family and have this whole healthy mindset. That’s our future,” Heidi says. The satisfaction of raising a family on a clean, green farm goes beyond debates about organic standards and milk prices, Tim says. “My son was out there shoveling manure yesterday and he was so proud of himself. He’s only four, and his abilities will grow every year. Watching my kids grow up to enjoy farming—it’s like a dream come true.”