The reasons why conventional farmers transition to organic are many, but one in particular prevails. From their 620-acre family farm in North Carolina, the story is as fresh when Chris and Tara Hoffner tell it as if it were the first time.
Chris remembers the date exactly, the morning of December 27th, 1995, when he put out a load of feed for his Holstein cows. “Within the hour, I had 100 animals on the ground trying to die,” Chris says. He called the vet immediately, who happened to have enough antidote on the truck to treat most of the cows. The fire department came out, neighbors showed up, and folks pitched in, holding IV bags for the downed and struggling animals. Even so, 13 of the cows died that day, and they lost many more in the aftermath.
The culprit was Furidan, a highly toxic pesticide commonly used on corn and alfalfa to kill weevils, among other things. Chris discovered the source when he found an empty jug of the mix that had gotten into the big feed mixing bin that’s a fixture beside most barns. “I mean the container was empty, bone dry,” Chris says. “The scariest thing is I almost used that load of feed the previous night. If I had, the whole herd would have died. We quit using that stuff totally. Amazingly, that poison is still legal,” Chris says. “Farmers are using it to this day and consumers don’t know.”
By 2004, the earlier losses, ongoing debt and roller coaster conventional milk prices were taking a big toll on the Hoffners. Chris and his dad, Buddy, figured they had three options: get big, get out, or do something different. The idea of getting out made Chris sick. “I’m the third generation on this farm,” Chris says. “I told my dad I was not going to be the one to lose it.”
About that time they got a letter from Organic Valley asking if they thought organic dairy would work in their area. Chris thought, no way. But he went to a meeting anyway with other farmers in the region and once he got more information, he thought heck yes, we could do this!
Still, Tara says, she and Chris were skeptical at first. “We were really worried about losing a cow if she got sick and we couldn’t treat her with standard drugs. So before we went organic we decided to test some of the alternative treatment options. We used aloe vera juice and garlic tincture and it worked really well. Some folks think it’s the craziest thing ever, but people always tend to poke fun at things they don’t understand.”
Chris has always farmed because he knew that’s what he wanted to do. He graduated North Carolina State University with a degree in agricultural business—and a newfound relationship with Tara. Though it was her first semester there and his last, they managed to keep hold of each other and eventually married. Tara was familiar with the farm lifestyle since her granddad had a farm when she was growing up. Today she laughs at that. “I think the silliest thing I ever did was learn how to milk cows and drive a tractor!” She is often called upon to pitch in.
There’s plenty of work to go around. Buddy Hoffner manages the crops and Chris manages the cows with the help of Jorge Cornejo, their herdsman. Their goal is to make the farm more self-sufficient like farms used to be. “Farms used to depend on themselves to feed all their occupants, human and animal,” Chris says. “So we try to grow as much of our food and feed for the animals as possible. It makes sense economically and environmentally not to truck food all over the place, but to grow it and keep it close to home.”
Overall, the family feels safer without all those chemicals in their home environment. Tara says, “I don’t have to worry about our kids being exposed to those chemicals when they’re outside playing or running around the barn. I think we’re going to have a big backlash against all the stuff we’ve been doing to our world. Our kids and the environment will benefit from our decision to farm organically, and we feel really good about that.”