Just half an hour from Olympia, the capital of Washington, Stanley and Mary Heisey and their 4 youngest sons farm a little over 300 acres bordering the Chehalis River. On clear days, they can see the snow-capped peak of Mt. Rainier.
They moved to Washington from Pennsylvania in 2001. As a Mennonite pastor, Stanley had been asked to start a new church in Rochester, Washington. Five of their oldest children are presently living in Pennsylvania. Stanley and Mary are glad to have their four youngest boys with them to help meet the demands of farming and church work in Washington.
Stanley says the change in landscape took some getting used to. “Back in Pennsylvania it was wall to wall fields laid out one right next to the other. Here the fields are patches of green grass surrounded by patches of trees. The fields aren’t as big.”
The Heiseys weren’t sure at first how long they’d be in Washington. When they realized it was going to be long term, they bought a dairy farm minus a house, just a couple of miles away from where they were living. Both properties were run down and needed rejuvenating. Normally a farmer might be uncomfortable being so far away from his stock, especially during calving time. But, Stanley says, the Jersey cows they run have so little trouble calving they don’t need to worry.
Back in Pennsylvania they milked Holsteins, but they started a herd of Jerseys here in Washington because they were thinking of direct marketing and the Jersey milk has better “components”, meaning it’s richer and higher in butterfat. But Stanley quickly realized direct marketing was going to require a lot more time and work than he’d have between the dairy and his pastoring work and thought it would be better to sell the milk through a bigger entity.
Today Stanley and the boys milk about 85 Jerseys and sell their milk to Organic Valley.
hey weren’t always organic, though. “We started grazing our cows before we went organic. Organic or not, I would be a strong proponent of the grazing concept because of the health benefits to cows and because that’s the way God intended a cow to eat.”
“I have always preferred a simpler approach to farming, one that does not use a lot of chemicals, herbicides and drugs, so it was a natural for us to lean toward organic. There was an economic stimulus, no doubt, but we’ve also come to appreciate the low-key approach that organic farming provides.”
The dairy they bought in Washington was basically a turnkey operation for grazing because the pastures surrounded the farm buildings. They had to do some pasture restoration, but now have nice stands of Alice white clover, rye and orchard grasses.
“We employ the managed intensive rotational grazing (MIRG) technique. It seems to be the most effective. You keep fresh grass in front of the cows all the time and it maximizes their consumption.”
The boys are responsible for the grazing schedule. Typically they move the cows and fencing twice a day according to the milking schedule. The cows are brought into the parlor for milking and then sent right back to fresh pasture.
Cows on pasture don’t produce as much milk as cows on high grain diets, so it’s often a hard decision for farmers to make. Stanley says, “I was prepared for the loss of production and income, but we felt that we were compensated properly with the organic price structure. The other huge benefit was the improvement in herd health. Previously, we had a lot of feet problems and other health issues, but now they are minimal. Our vet bills have been greatly reduced..”
“The boys are very excited about organic farming, not that I need to convince them that that’s the way to go. They have a lot of respect for this approach to farming. They feel it’s the right thing to do.”
They do a lot of custom baling work in the community, too. “We have good neighbors and really appreciate them.”
The boys, Jason, Nathan, Joel, and Philip all want to continue farming. “We look at this as more than just an occupation that earns you a paycheck. It’s a lifestyle. It’s the family working together and being good stewards of the resources God has given us.”