Steve Pierson jokes that he must have been a dairy farmer in another life because he certainly doesn’t come from a farming background. “I didn’t know any farmers,” he recalls of his childhood in Indiana, where he grew up as the son of an engineer. But ever since he was very young, Steve was powerfully drawn to the idea of working with animals and living in a rural environment. “One of the things that makes me different from a lot of farmers,” Steve adds, “is that I made a conscious effort to choose this lifestyle. I am an example that if you want to farm, it can happen.”
Susan’s story is stunningly different. “I was raised on this farm,” Susan says. Steve and Susan manage the farm in partnership with Susan’s dad, Marlin Rasmussen, and their two sons, Kevin and Ryan, who make the fifth generation of dairy farmers in the family. Their daughter, Sara, is in college but comes home every weekend to help out. Sara has also been named Marion County Dairy Princess two years running, a position that requires her to represent the dairy industry at many functions and conferences across the state.
“The word sustainability is very applicable to our situation,” Susan says. After talking to other Organic Valley farmers in the region about their grass-based dairy operations, the family decided to transition their farm over to a grazing model in 1997. “We went from all black and white (Holstein) cows in a barn surrounded by cornfields to a more mixed herd of cows outside on 165 acres of pasture, and we graze New Zealand-style, where the cows are rotated to fresh pasture every few hours.
“Transitioning to organic in 2005 was the next natural step for us. We wanted to do what worked best for our farm, and we saw organic as the way. When deciding who we wanted to sell our milk to, we knew Organic Valley was the one because of the cooperative’s emphasis on family, land, animal and fiscal health. And thanks to Organic Valley’s sustainability department, we were able to get grants to help us install solar panels.”
Steve adds, “It’s just another part of our whole philosophy about the environment. We've seen the positive effects organic agriculture has on the environment just by putting in permanent pastures. We know from plenty of studies out there that grassland is great at sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, which helps reduce the effects of global warming. It all ties together. The small steps we take individually add up to large, positive influences on the environment. It’s like the old adage goes: Think globally, but act locally. The earth has an amazing capacity to heal itself when we stop harming it. That's what we're trying to do at the local level.”
He continues, “Our quality of life is very high. We work hard and there is a lot of risk involved, but we get to work together.”
Since Steve was elected to Organic Valley’s board of directors and has to travel frequently to Wisconsin, he and Susan are even more grateful that their children are able to farm with them. “When I’m away at the monthly board meetings, it’s Susan, Kevin and Ryan who manage the day-to-day operations on the farm, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve the co-op and my fellow farmers. We have more than 1,800 farmers, and farmers are notoriously independent. Yet all these individuals come together for a common good.”
While Susan’s and Steve’s passions for farming arose from diverse sources—one from a deep family well and the other from youthful insight—today they are united. “Our goal is to make these same opportunities available for our children and theirs.”