The East Penn Valley of Berks County, Pennsylvania has a rich, Pennsylvania Dutch cultural tradition. German immigrants traveling north out of Philadelphia in the 18th century found an abundance of rich farm land in the East Penn Valley. They brought their traditions with them and established distinctive communities in the area.
The Valley is home to a small community of old order Mennonite families who have farmed the rolling hill country for generations. The Weaver Homestead is a “new” operation in a way, since the young family only started out on this 109 acre dairy in 1993. Today they are three sons strong, and milking about 25 Jersey cows that give their rich, buttery milk to Organic Valley.
Before they were married, the Weavers grew up on their separate family farms, but never really knew each other. As children, they milked Guernseys and Holsteins by hand. When they married and settled Weaver Homestead, they carried on with Holsteins, but soon decided to switch over to Jerseys. The cows are smaller, more manageable and the family felt Jerseys might do better on a grass-based dairy.
Weaver Homestead started out as a conventional, confinement dairy, because that is the model the family had grown up with. Transitioning to a grass-based model became their first priority. Acreage that had been used as cropland was slowly planted to grasses and clover for the grazing season, and hay ground to be harvested for dried forages to feed the cows over the winter months. The majority of the tillable land today is pasture, with some acreage planted to organic corn and soybeans.
Many farmers transition to organic methods for financial reasons, but Weaver Homestead did not become organic for that reason. They were uncomfortable with the chemicals they used in various applications, and could not help thinking about the possible ill effects they had on the family, the land and the animals. Instead, they were thinking of not only the future of their own children but the future of all generations to come. When chemicals were applied to the land, they saw a connection to what they ate and to the product they sent out into the world for others to consume.
Farming conventionally as the family had growing up, they lived with animals that were always sick. Once they moved their cows out of the barn and onto pasture, and had transitioned fully to organic, what they expected to happen really did happen: the health of their animals improved dramatically. These days, the vet rarely visits Weaver Homestead.
As other conventional farmers witnessed the transition of Weaver Homestead to organic and to health and security on the farm, they began to think twice, mostly for financial reasons. But the family counsels others to consider organic for the right reasons: do it because it’s a better way to work, and do it for future generations.