One young farmer, from an entirely new generation of farmers, is daring to create a revolution. While it's happening in Vermont - where four percent of the dairy farms shut down each year and 123 dairy farms, or nearly seven percent, folded in 1999 alone, the worst failure rate in ten years - it is carrying an inspirational message of hope to farmers across the nation.
Not only has Travis Forgues of Alburg Springs, Vermont, brought a new spirit of optimism to despairing Vermont dairy farmers and their families, but he's helping to empower them to realize their first-ever economic stability as well. As a result of Travis's and other organic farmers' efforts, 129 Organic Valley farm families whose land might otherwise have been cut up for house lots, are now living and working on the farm, raising cows on pasture, producing delicious organic milk and getting a sustainable pay price.
College-educated Travis Forgues has been spreading the word about the benefits of organic agriculture. He's rounded up dairy farmers all over Vermont and alerted them to the benefits of a method of farming as Mother Nature intended it to be - pure, sustainable, pasture-based feeding, with no use of toxic pesticides, hormones and other chemicals that inevitably bring harm to wildlife, humans and the earth.
The result is rich, healthful organic milk made by Travis and his fellow farmer-owners, all members of the Organic Valley cooperative of organic dairy farmers, the largest one in North America, and a model studied by farmer cooperatives worldwide. Travis jokes about being a new type of Minute Man who brought word of a new day, a new way of life, to dairy farmers who'd just about given up. Every word is true.
Travis hadn't always farmed organic. He grew up on his Dad's conventional farm in Alburg Springs, Vermont, just across the road from Lake Champlain near the Canadian border. He loved life on the farm with his parents, Henry and Sally, and his two younger sisters, but he was always aware of the stress his parents felt trying to make ends meet. It was always a struggle.
Believing there was no future in farming, Travis' two college-educated parents encouraged Travis to go to college and carve out a career away from the farm. He went to St. Michael's College in Vermont, where organic farming advocate Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) had gone, and pursued degrees in psychology and computer science. While finishing up at school, however, he heard about new approaches to dairy farming that involved grass pasturing and organic agriculture, and they intrigued him.
He soon married his high school sweetheart Amy, moved to Burlington, Vermont, and began working with high-risk youths. As he and Amy began to think about raising their own family, however, Travis realized he wanted to give his children the same rich rural upbringing that his parents had given him.
When he approached his dad about making a go of farming, however, his Dad agreed to Travis' return to the land, but insisted he had to make it work. Travis and Amy bought the house next door to the farm and started co-farming with his folks.
Since he had been downsizing his farm to keep afloat, Henry Forgues hadn't chemically treated his fields. He'd always resisted the use of drugs, genetic engineering and other conventional technologies used to get cows to produce more milk. He'd also already switched to grass pasturing to cut the high costs of feed. By the time he and Travis began thinking about switching to organic, which commanded a higher price, they realized they were already well on their way.
Two years after Travis was out of college, the Forgues got a visit from Jim Wedeberg of Organic Valley/CROPP Cooperative that was supplying organic milk to major New England manufacturers like Stonyfield Farm Yogurt. Jim encouraged the Forgues to convert to organic and become farmer-owners in CROPP. Within two years not only had the Forgues signed up, but Travis had convinced two neighboring farm families to join as well. This guaranteed there would be enough milk to justify a steady truck run to northern Vermont.
Today, that first pool of three farmers has grown to 130, thanks to Travis' constant visits and calls to farmers throughout the state. After rising before dawn every day to milk the cows and then milking them again towards the end of the afternoon, Travis would put in an additional 2-3 hours each night helping farmers understand how organic farming maintained the integrity of their product, brought stability to their finances and protected the environment of the communities in which they lived. Now so many farmers are on the waiting list anxious to join CROPP that it pains Travis to talk about it. He says: "They know organics is a lifeline, and they want in."
Where once the Forgues Family Farm could barely eke out an existence for one family, that same farm --- 240 acres with 70 milking cows --- today is able to support two families with ease. It's all because they converted to organic farming. Travis knows that he'll be able to sustain his family and pass down the farm to his children when the time comes one day. He has faith that organic agriculture protects the earth with such love that only good things come to the farmer, the animals and the consumer as a result. Organic is not just a way to farm to Travis. It has become a way of life -- of sustainable life.