“In 2005, I quit growing corn,” Dan Casler says. “And then I transitioned our farm to organic in 2006.” But it didn’t create much of a hiccup on the farm. Dan’s been grazing his registered Holsteins for as long as he can remember. That’s how his father farmed before him, and that’s pretty much the way it’s been on these 650 acres since Dan’s ancestors began farming it in the late 1700s.
The Caslers’ farm sits between the town of Little Falls, New York, and Interstate 90. In fact, Dan’s Holsteins have to cross a bridge over the highway to get to some of their pasture, but it doesn’t seem to bother them one bit. They know there’s luscious pasture to be had on the other side. To the north, the Adirondack Mountains loom on the horizon.
Dan always knew he wanted to farm. “I really like working with cows. I recognize a cow immediately according to her family.” But unlike most farmers who either prefer working with the cows or in the fields, Dan likes both. “I love haying season and throwing bales. When I grew corn, I loved plowing and disking and the smell of the dried plants at harvest time.”
When he transitioned to organic, there wasn’t much of a change in Dan’s management style. “Probably the biggest hurdle was getting over that mindset that you couldn’t manage cow health without crutches like antibiotics. My cows were pretty healthy to begin with. Now they’re super healthy. They’re out grazing almost 20 hours a day in summer.”
Karen Casler is a school teacher in a neighboring district and takes care of all the accounting and tax preparation for the farm. “I’m very grateful for her expertise!” Dan says.
Karen was all for the transition to organic, and she’s gung-ho about health and fitness. “She keeps our diets as organic as possible,” Dan says. “She grows all our veggies in the summer, and of course we drink our own milk, raise our own beef and pork, and keep laying hens for eggs.” As if that weren’t enough, Karen trains for and runs several marathons a year.
Dan and Karen’s three sons, Jesse, Jeremiah and Samuel, have always helped out on the farm. “They’re always there when I need them,” Dan says, “which is pretty much every day!” The boys are also involved in activities to support Organic Valley, of which the family has been a cooperative owner since 2007. Jesse is featured on the Organic Valley New York regional carton, and all the boys like going with their dad to Organic Valley’s annual and regional meetings to learn about the workings of the business.
“I knew that when I went organic, I’d go with Organic Valley, because I was very familiar with the cooperative and I like what they do for farmers.”
Dan knew about Organic Valley/CROPP Cooperative since the early ʼ90s, because he’s been a National Farmers Organization (NFO) board member since then, and the bond between the two organizations is tight. When the fledgling co-op was struggling to establish itself, NFO brought Organic Valley under its wing and helped it get off the ground. Dan knew many of Organic Valley’s founding farmers, like Art Wedig, who made quite an impression on Dan. “I remember Art saying he wasn’t going to be organic by default, meaning that his corn would be cultivated, his cows would be healthy and his land would be cared for. Art had that gravel in his voice that made you sure that when he told you something, he meant it.”
Dan’s not one to let the grass grow under his feet. “I only let grass grow under my cows’ feet,” Dan says, laughing. As active as he is still with NFO, he gives plenty of time and energy to Organic Valley’s Farmers in Marketing (FIM) program and really enjoys getting out to events to meet consumers and talk to them about his farm.
“When I do events in a big city, person after person is amazed to actually meet a farmer. They’re always surprised to discover that my family has been farming for many generations. I have a great time and feel good about meeting folks and talking to them about what I do. I love what this co-op stands for and I’m proud to be an Organic Valley farmer-owner.”
Recently, Dan and a handful of other Organic Valley farmers from across the country were chosen to take part in a Regional Understanding Tour of organic farms throughout the northeastern United States.
“As much as I love meeting the consumers who benefit from what we do, I really enjoyed getting to know and talking to farmers from other parts of the country. I talked to Kore Yoder, an Organic Valley farmer from Pennsylvania, about what it was like to transition to organic, and he phrased it better than anyone. He said, ‘At first, you transition because of the financial advantage, but once you transition your farm, your farm then transitions you.’”