Farmers face so many obstacles on any given day, it’s no wonder that tenacity is chief among the strengths needed to stay in agriculture. One of the obstacles that doesn’t get talked about much is something Gary and Connie Moore have come up against on their 150 acre home farm in Oregon, and that is a lack of agricultural services nearby. It’s a problem more and more farmers face as they watch the continual tide of farm closures taking family farms away from the countryside. When the farms disappear, so do the services—feed, equipment, equipment repair, veterinary, processing facilities. The support infrastructure farmers rely on to do business is replaced by fast food restaurants and cineplexes, though thanks to Oregon’s land use laws, this has not been the case around the Moores’ farm. Even so, “you’d have to go fifty miles to find the nearest dairy to me,” Gary Moore says.
Gary’s grandfather bought their original thirty acres in 1924 after immigrating on his own from Switzerland at age 15. His first stop was Wisconsin, where he hand-milked cows for other farmers before he saved up enough money to make it to Oregon. Up until the 1950s, Gary’s grandpa was an organic farmer, though because it was the only way to farm, it did not yet have a name. Gary remembers his grandpa bemoaning the coming of tractors because they compacted the soil so much. The man knew a thing or two about soil. When his grandpa passed away in 1963, Gary’s dad took over the farm just as the heyday of the “new” farming model—synthetic fertilizers and pesticides—was really taking hold. That’s the model Gary grew up with and practiced with his dad on their farm.
In 1992, Organic Valley CEO George Siemon was in the Northwest visiting farms and stopped by the Moores’ farm. “He sat in this chair I’m sitting in right now,” Gary says. “We talked about different philosophies of farming, and I talked about how I was burning out cows quicker than I could replace them, and we didn’t even use rBST [a synthetic growth hormone injected into cows to make them produce more milk; use of rBST is banned in organic agriculture]. I went to a meeting George had with a bunch of dairymen around Trout Lake and my interest was perking.” Although Gary’s dad didn’t feel it was the way to go, after much discussion the transitioning to organics started in late 2000.
“We have always pastured our cows some, but not as intensively as we do now. I really like working with the cows and I don’t like seeing them unhappy and unhealthy, so it’s great to see how much healthier and happier they are now that we’ve transitioned to organic. We have had as many as 20 displaced abomasums a year when we were conventional. We’ve only had one since we went organic. I guess the good roughage content has something to do with that.” Gary’s referring to cows with twisted or kinked stomachs, a condition that has increased drastically in the last two decades in conventionally managed dairies where grain-heavy diets are the norm.
And in Gary’s herd of 170 milking Holsteins, the birthing rate is really high now, too. “It’s so high we have to sell off some of our young stock. For the first 40 years of my life I don’t think I ever saw a calf being naturally born because the cows had so many problems. Now they give birth so much easier.” The biggest health problem Gary faces these days is hoof rot, a common ailment given the extremely damp weather in Western Oregon. Fortunately, this can usually be treated using organic-compatible methods such as garlic tincture and extra minerals in the diet.
Given the long road Gary walked from the day he met George Siemon to the day his farm was certified organic, he couldn’t be happier with the results. “My family was wonderful about the transition. They were behind me every step of the way.” Gary’s daughter Melissa lives on the farm with her husband Andy and their four children. Melissa does the books for the farm and her husband is Gary’s herdsman on the dairy. “They’re raising their kids organic,” Gary says. Their son, Tygh, lives nearby and visits the farm as often as possible. Their community is behind them, too. “When we see our neighbors in the store, they thank us for going organic. The reaction has been very positive.”
Gary points out that the support he has received spreads even beyond that. “Organic Valley really backs its producers and that’s great. I think it’s really important that most of the people running the co-op are farmers themselves. They know firsthand what we’re going through.”