Andrew Dykstra likes the fact that his cows, spending eight months out in the pasture, lead a self-determined life. They get to eat when they want to eat and pick and choose the grasses they might need or want that day. The dirt, Dykstra points out, is good for their feet and the fresh air and sunshine helps keep his cows disease-free.
Andrew began his farming career as a second-grader, assisting his father, Douwe, with feeding the calves. Douwe immigrated from Holland in 1964; after a series of odd jobs and renting a farm, he eventually purchased his own place in 1972.
Today, Andrew still works alongside his father and now his wife Sandy and their children help with milking 230 cows and tending to 600 acres of pasture and crops that include corn for winter feed, red and gold beet seeds, green cabbage, broccoli, cucumber and squash. Their Burlington, Wash., farm was one of the first in Skagit County to earn organic certification and get on the Organic Valley truck.
The Dykstra's farm transitioned to organic over a period of 21 years, and each step logically followed the next. As Andrew puts it, we did what made sense for the farm. Douwe started in 1981 by replacing their shavings with compost, which precluded any need for commercial fertilizer. By 1989, most of the land was certified organic and they were growing a variety of organic vegetables. 1992 marked the last time they used antibiotics on their cows and three years ago they phased out their conventional grain and hay. In 2004, the Dykstras had certified organic cows and a robust market was ready for their milk.
Once they changed to 100% organic with grain and hay their cows started living, on average, a year longer. Their pounds of milk per cow went up from 50 to 60 pounds daily. "Our culling rate dropped from 30% to 20% over the course of a year—that is a big difference in both the lives of our cows and in farm finances," he says. "So many things work better when you go organic."
Andrew acknowledges that organic farming has made life easier in some senses but farming still has its inherent challenges. Tractors still break down and you still have to pull a calf once in a while, he says. "Regardless, I would choose the organic way whether or not we had an organic market—it's common sense."