The Zwebers’ 250-acre farm lies in Scott County, though Dakota County to the east is only a stone’s throw away. The Dakota County Fair is where generations of Zwebers have shown their cattle and taken home multitudes of blue ribbons. It’s where the 4th generation of Zwebers, Tim and Emily, decided to make their relationship permanent.
The farm has been in the family since 1909. Tim’s parents, Jon and Lisa Zweber, took over the operation from Jon’s father in 1984, and their eldest son, Tim, and his wife, Emily, became partners in the farm in 2006. While Jon and Lisa’s other children, Sarah, Steven and Samantha, have pursued off-farm careers, they come back to help when they can.
Like most family farms, the Zwebers face many challenges. Smart farmers that they are, they have learned to create positives out of negatives. Much of their land consists of steep hillsides that taper into tight valleys. Instead of trying to grow crops that require operating tractors on steep inclines, they use the majority of the land for pasture for their cows.
Encroaching development is another challenge. Located just 30 miles south of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Scott County is the fastest growing county in Minnesota, and neighboring Dakota County to the east is the third most populous county in the state. The Zwebers have acquired a lot of neighbors. But they have turned population density to their best advantage with a direct marketing business. Their poultry, pork and beef are sold to nearby subscribers who come to the farm to pick up their product. However, the milk from the Zwebers’ herd of 90 Holstein and Brown Swiss cows is sold exclusively to Organic Valley.
Jon and Lisa’s decisions to transition to organic and join the Organic Valley cooperative were made so that their children could continue the family tradition and stay with the farm if they chose to. Jon and Lisa had talked about transitioning to organic for a long time. “It didn’t make sense to live on the edge at conventional dairy prices when 75 percent of how we farmed qualified as organic anyway,” Lisa says. “When Tim decided to continue the family tradition and stay with the farm, we were ready for it. Joining Organic Valley was the best choice for us. We like their emphasis on pasturing and the fact that the farmers own the company.”
Tim and Emily couldn’t agree more.
“The cooperative structure is best for farmers. We have a voice and the opportunity to be involved in leadership. We have access to a support system of professionals, and we get tremendous support from our fellow OV farmers, especially within the Generation Organic community (made up of young CROPP farmers). We’ve formed lots of friendships with farmers from east to west coast. We remember clearly the first CROPP Annual Meeting we went to. It was such a shift from where we had come from. People were excited and happy. It was like a big family reunion. There’s a culture of community in our co-op. We’re all family and friends. That culture really keeps us going.”
The cooperative and its dairy products have benefited from the Zwebers’ dedication, too. Since joining the co-op in 2008, they have received quality awards for their milk every year. And in 2015, Tim and Emily received Organic Valley’s Generation Organic Award. The Gen-O award recognizes young (ages 16 to 35) Organic Valley and Organic Prairie farmers who have demonstrated their commitment to organic farming and preserving family farming culture and rural communities through leadership, stewardship and innovation.
If farmers can ever say they actually have “spare time,” the Zwebers spend theirs with their three kids. “We go to parks or the zoo, or to the library, and then to bigger events like dairy expo, conferences and state and county fairs,” Tim says. “But they love to help out with chores, too.”
The Zwebers also share their farming heritage by hosting schoolkids and Organic Valley Farm Discovery tours on the farm. “We like having people out so we can show off what we do.”
Thanks to multiple generations of Zwebers, the hills of southeastern Minnesota blaze with life, hope and an eye to the future.