"You know," Rick says, "most people are two generations removed from any knowledge of farming." Rick and Dorcas Parker are doing something about that. For the past 20 years, area schoolchildren have come to the farm for tours. It's a tradition that was begun by Rick's Mom and Dad.
"These children have never seen a cow much less touched one," Dorcas says. "They have no idea where milk comes from. We take them on hayrides and let them feed the calves." Dorcas keeps miniature sheep on the farm, too, and that's something the kids really love. Though she confesses to being nervous in her capacity as tour guide, Rick says she's fantastic. "Her passion for the animals and for the farm really comes out when she's working with the kids." And so the Parkers work at keeping people in touch with the land, one child at time.
As 4th generation family farmers, their mission couldn't be more important. They had reached a crisis a couple of years ago, Dorcas says. "We were about to hang it up." They had heard about organic—their area of North Carolina is a hotbed for the local and organic food movement—"and we were interested but didn't know how to do it or even if it could be done," Rick says. They attended several meetings held by Organic Valley farmers and talked to co-op representatives. "Bottom line was we were either going to get totally out of farming or we were going to go organic," Rick says. "The farm's been here a long time and I would hate to see it not be a farm any more. Our children will be the 5th generation on this land."
Though many farmers face difficulties when transitioning from conventional to organic, the Parkers were able to transition fairly quickly. The hardest part of the decision for them was the fact that they had to sell the milking herd and start over with transitioned heifers. Downsizing the herd went against the grain of an agricultural model that is bent on upsizing and production. Other than that hurdle, the 500 acres was predominantly pasture already and could be certified quickly. Rick began grazing his milk cows as well as the heifers.
Normally, the amount of acreage they are able to graze would be sufficient to feed their herd most months of the year, but the summer of '07 brought extended drought to the Carolinas. Without irrigation, the Parkers watched their beautiful green pastures burn to cinders before their eyes, destroying, too, the forages that are cut for winter silage and hay. Spring of '08 was looking good, but the rains tapered off and the crops are suffering. "We're already supplementing with feed we'd laid up for winter," Rick says. "I may have to reduce the herd again." Meanwhile, the Parkers pray for rain.
In spite of the instabilities of their profession, Rick and Dorcas are totally upbeat. They have 6 children to be thankful for, the oldest of whom is stationed presently in Iraq. "We talk to him every week and he lets us know that everything's okay. We know he's doing something he's proud of." Four of the six children are grown and out on their own, but "we still have two and a half here on the farm," Dorcas says. They count twenty-one year-old Brittany as "half" since she's back and forth from college a lot, where she's finishing her degree in environmental education. "Her decision to major in that field was a direct result of our shift to organic," Rick says. "She is passionate about farming. This is where she wants to be."
When Rick was growing up, he always knew he wanted to be involved in agriculture. He started out at North Carolina State University in the pre-vet program but switched his major to Ag Engineering and Technology. After graduation, he came back to the farm and worked with his Dad. His Dad retired in '97 and left everything up to Rick. When it came to the decision to go organic, both Rick's and Dorcas' parents were very supportive. "They just want to see us succeed," Dorcas says.
Rick feels that joining the Organic Valley cooperative will help to ensure their success. Still, even that wasn't an easy decision to make given they'd had negative experiences with other co-ops. "One thing about Organic Valley that enticed me was that the amount of milk they buy is in accordance with the amount of milk they know they can sell. Other co-ops just buy all the milk they can which only ends up decreasing the pay price to their members. That's just shooting yourself in the foot. The other thing I liked about the co-op is that you're an owner, too, and you have a say in the process. Folks who work there are farmers, just like us."
"Given the way the business was going while our kids were growing up," Rick says, "we kind of pushed them to get educated in other fields. Now we feel hopeful that things will work out here, so we're trying to make room for the whole clan."