In the summer of 1997, the Gates family of Franklin, Vermont, made a big jump. They decided to convert their dairy farm over to organic. It was a choice driven by economics, according to third-generation dairy farmer Johnathan, a member-owner of Organic Valley, the organic farmer cooperative that produces Northeast Pastures milk.
"We went organic due to the economic gain it promised," he said, "but I'm surprised at the things I'm thinking, and doing, now."
"Well, I know when I talk now it sounds like I've had something along the lines of a religious conversion. The way we look at the land, and our overall philosophy has really changed. It's a whole change in lifestyle, really," Gates said.
The change didn't come easy, and it has become, as Gates says, much more than an economic change. It's a whole agricultural system that mirrors nature and seeks to nourish the soil, cleanse the water and sustain rural communities while providing the most nutritious, delicious and safest foods available on the market today. "If you're really serious about going organic, you're going to take your lumps for a while," Gates said. "But we're bucking the trends now."
He described the difficulties involved in the transformation from conventional to organic agricultureĖthat a certain amount of time and money must be invested in organic methods before certification is complete. In the mean time, higher organic input costs cannot be recouped until the farm is certified organic. In a conventional dairy market that has seen the lowest prices for farmers in thirty years, such a leap really can be a leap of faith.
But as the Gateses are finding, sometimes it's better to leap than to founder. After four years of certified organic milk production, Jonathan, Karen and their three boys truly have undergone a transformation. Today this fifty-eight-year-old family farm is thriving like never before. Even Jonathan's parents, Mary and Howard, who continue to farm every day with their children and grandchildren, agree that organic farming has breathed new life into their beloved New England farm.
"I am rooted in Vermont," said Mary, genteel matriarch of this dairying family, adding in a maple-syrup-smooth voice her gratitude that organic practices have allowed her family to once again flourish here. "I wouldn't be anywhere else!"
Even though the Gatesesí 60 registered (full-bred) Jerseys produce less milk than larger Holsteins or Guernseys, the higher milkfat and excellent quality from the Jerseys, combined with the higher organic price per gallon (often twice that of conventional prices), offers the Gates family a stability they mean to sustain.
Overall, organic cows lead much longer lives than conventionally raised cows. On average, organic cows lactate for 4-7 years, as opposed to 2-4 for conventional dairy cows. Organic practice stresses natural balance. The Gateses' cows are never given antibiotics or hormones, and their stress levels are reduced in other ways as well. Jonathan said this farm was the perfect size for pasturing, a pillar of organic humane principles. "Organic methods, we quickly confirmed, were best suited to the size of our farm, and especially for grazing," Gates said.
Of their 235 total acres, 45 are used 150 days every year exclusively for the rotational grazing of their cows--the practice of moving the herd from one section of pasture to another several times each day with the help of lightweight, mobile fencing. Rotational grazing, Gates said, offers so many benefits to the cows: fresh green organic grasses, fresh air, freedom, exercise. "They are out doing what nature intended and all the farmer needs do is set them free to do it."
Indeed, his unique method of carrying fencing rods over his shoulder in an old golf bag adds to the atmosphere of play. His cows follow close, curious, nudging him, displaying the undeniable aspect of approval as they saunter off to graze the afternoon away.
Rotational grazing is also a vital way to maintain the pasture and greatly decrease erosion and runoff. By moving the cows often, each section of pasture is able to rebound quickly, absorb the cow's natural fertilizers and refresh the delicate green grasses that contribute to an extraordinarily high levels of Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) in the cows' milk. Recent studies at the University of Wisconsin attribute strong cancer-fighting qualities to CLA.
During the winter months, the Gateses' cows are fed a complete organic diet of hay and grains. Because they don't raise any crops themselves, the Gateses' purchases of organic feed contributes to the stability of other organic producers in the New England region. In some ways, the organic conversion has brought the farm back to the days when Jonathan's grandparents first came to this land with seven cows, and many dreams. The Gateses are much more self-suficient, as were their forebears.
As member-owners of Organic Valley, they are directly involved with all major decisions of the cooperative, including the pay price they receive for their milk. The Gateses no longer feel the conventional pressure to increase costly chemical inputs and milk outputs. Organic agriculture focuses more on sustaining a natural balance while reaping a fair price for honest labor. If that means a smaller operation makes more sense, smaller it is. In fact, Jonathan plans to take the unheard of step to decrease his herd size and expand the barn. "It'll make the cows much more comfortable through the long New England winter," he said. "Just like us."
Jonathan also hopes to spend more time in the local schools talking to children, educating them about farming in general and organics specifically. Not that he's looking for converts, but sometimes a new way of thinking just brings along surprises.