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 that he put out a load of feed for his Holstein cows. “Within the hour, I had one hundred animals on the ground trying to die,” Chris says. He called the vet immediately, who happened to have enough anti-dote 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. Still, 13 of the cows died outright 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. I don’t want my cows getting near anything like that.” In spite of a community fundraiser to help the Hoffner’s recover, they’re struggling still from that loss. “Amazingly, that poison is still legal,” Chris says. “Farmers are using it to this day and the consumers don’t know. Since then my mindset was more organic than I realized.”
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 and drive a tractor!” She is often called upon to pitch in.
By the time 2004 rolled in, the earlier losses and the debt were taking their toll. Chris figured he had three options: get big, get out, or do something different. The idea of getting out made him sick. “I’m the third generation on this farm,” Chris says. “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 of other farmers in the region and once he got more information, he thought heck yes, we could do this! The Hoffner’s had already been rotational grazing since the early 90’s. “Truth is,” Chris says, “my parents had already been pushing towards organic.”
Still, Tara points out, she and Chris were skeptical at first. “We were really worried about losing one of these cows 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. Now that I understand what it’s all about, I firmly agree with it. My garden is organic. I would rather eat an ear of corn with a worm on it that one without it that had been grown with chemicals. That experience Chris had with the poisoned cows really speaks volumes.”
And Tara feels safer without all those chemicals in her home environment. “When I drive to town and pass somebody spraying their fields, I roll up my windows, turn off the ventilation, and hold my breath until I get past. I think we’re going to have a big backlash against all the stuff we’ve been doing to our world.”
Chris says it took his granddad a little longer to come around to organic. “But now that they’re getting more exposure to it in society in general and seeing it on Oprah, they’re more comfortable with it. Some farmers think we’re crazy and we’re going to have nothing but weeds, but when I go to town and hear from the consumers, they’re all for it. They want organic.”
Meanwhile, there’s a lot of work to do on the Hoffner’s organic farm. Occasionally, they get part time help from local high school students. Most fortunately, for the past 7 years, they’ve had the steady help of Jorge Cornejo, who is practically a member of the family. “We met him through friends in town. He had no farming experience, but he picked up everything instantly. He’s extremely talented. If it wasn’t for Jorge,” Chris says, “we wouldn’t be able to do what we do.”