When Delmar and Theresa Westaby saw the Organic Valley milk truck in their driveway, Theresa was so excited that she took a picture of the truck. To the Westabys, the milk truck was a symbol of their farm’s survival, and it was worth a photograph or two.
Up until that moment, Delmar, Theresa, and their four children, Kaleena, Austin, Ceara and Braden, had been on an emotional roller coaster. They’d come close to realizing that their five-generation dairy farm wasn’t going to make ends meet, and then they’d worked hard to turn their conventional operation into an organic one despite a few obstacles.
In the late 1990s, the Westabys sold milk from their herd of 80 registered Holstein cows on the conventional market where the pay price rarely resulted in enough income for them to break even.
The Westabys struggled to pay farm bills. “We were losing money every year,” Theresa recalled. “Our debt was rising as our income dropped.”
Forced to choose between staying on the beloved farm that had been in Delmar’s family for 141 years, or walking away from it, the Westabys felt that their only option was to make a change. They spotted an advertisement in a local newspaper from a cheese maker asking for organic milk. The Westabys had been running their farm as a “biological farm” for seven years. They had eliminated chemicals; reduced the use of fertilizers; and used antibiotics for their cows only when necessary.
“I called the cheese maker who posted the ad, and learned that we had more milk than he was willing to buy, but he gave me Organic Valley’s phone number,” Theresa said.
When Theresa called Organic Valley, she learned the co-op was known for its practice of setting an annual pay-price for organic milk gathered from dairy farmers across the country. Because organic milk costs more to produce, Organic Valley farmers garner about 60 percent more than the pay-price for conventional milk and benefit from a higher, predictable income.
Since the Westabys’ operation was close to organic already, the transition would only take one year, compared to the three-year transition period for most conventional farmers. However, the process was daunting. So Delmar and Theresa put it off. A year later, they got a call that inspired them. A field man for the National Farm Organization (NFO) called to say that the milk price was going to drop from $14 to $10 by December. Theresa pulled out the stack of paperwork from Organic Valley and an organic certification agency. Before they knew it, Delmar and Theresa’s farm was certified organic in April 2002. The Organic Valley milk truck made its first stop in August.
Today, the Westabys’ 600-plus-acre farm is a self-sustaining, certified organic farm. The Westabys grow and harvest crops of organic hay, corn and oats to feed their herd of 81 cows.
Since joining Organic Valley, the Westabys have been able to pay down their debts, pay everyday expenses, and pay for long-overdue improvements to their 100-year-old farmhouse and their barn. “When the bills come, we’re not as stressed out, and we’re confident we can pay them,” Theresa said.
Delmar and Theresa appreciate the benefits the environment, their cows and their family reap from organic farming. For example, the Westabys’ cows, which graze freely in pastures, appear to be much healthier, requiring fewer visits from the veterinarian. The national average number of lactations for a conventional cow is one-and-a-half, which is common in cows that are about four years old. The Westabys have 14- and 15-year-old cows that continue to produce milk.
“It feels good to be an organic farmer,” Delmar added. “If the chemicals you spray on your crops have a skull and crossbones on it, they can’t be good for you. With organic farming, I know that the things my children touch on the farm and the food we produce are safe.”
By farming organic, the Westabys have not only been able to preserve their five-generation, 150 year old farm, they have preserved a cherished way of life that can be passed onto their children.
“We couldn’t farm without the kids’ help, and they’re learning so much out here,” Theresa said. “Our sons are now 21 and 17, and have expressed their desire to farm here as the 6th generation. And if they do take over, they’ll be able to make a living.”
“We can’t imagine selling our milk to anyone else,” Theresa said. “With Organic Valley, our opinions are valued, and everyone at the co-op, including our milk-truck drivers, are committed to saving rural farms like ours. In fact, I’ll never forget what our driver said that first day he came: ‘So how does it feel to be the highest-paid dairy farmer in America?’ We are so thankful to Organic Valley for giving us a voice and hope for the future.”