The switch to organic production has had an impact on Brendan's satisfaction in farming and on the natural environment of his land. It's also had an impact on his bottom line. Simply put, it's saved him. "To make that transition to organic growing was the only thing that kept us in the business, otherwise we would have sold the cows again," he explains.
Conventional milk prices fluctuate at the whims of the market, as investors and speculators gamble on the future of commodities. Organic Valley uses a different calculus to set milk prices. The nearly 900 family farmers who belong to the co-op set a price at the beginning of the year that is designed to provide a fair wage for the hard work that goes into bringing their milk to market. As a result, while conventional milk prices have stagnated, forcing farmers out of the business, or to consolidate with factory conditions, prices paid to Organic Valley farmers continue to provide a living wage for the members.
The economic pressures of dairy farming have prevented a lot of young farmers like Brendan from taking up the profession. "With the price of land and the price of equipment," he says of his generation, "they get laughed right out of the bank." He is the only one of his six brothers who makes a career out of farming.
To encourage young farmers like Brendan to carry on their family tradition—or to take up farming from scratch—Organic Valley has started "Generation Organic," a program of education, networking, internships, and hands-on support. Brendan's friend and neighbor, Travis Forgues has been a champion of the "Gen-O" program, visiting college campuses and attending youth events visits, to encourage young people to take up organic farming.
Like his father and his grandfather before him, Brendan only asks for the opportunity to work hard and come out ahead at the end of the year. "I should probably get married," he muses, "but I got a barn full of cows and that's been my life. It's been like the Alamo—I've been firing with everything I have. I'm just getting to the point where I can relax a little bit."
The market has changed pretty dramatically from the days in the 1929 when his lumberjack grandfather worked the land, practicing "sustainable" and "organic" farming before there was any other kind, just to feed his family. The farm grew, it changed, and now, it's changed again.
Today, as Brendan surveys the gorgeous valley, his healthy cows, and the life he's always wanted, he's happy that those "sustainable" and "organic" ways have found their way back home.