by Regina Beidler, dairy farmer
In 1998, my husband and I arrived at our newly purchased farm armed only with experience working on other farms, a willingness to work hard, 40 cows and a three-month-old baby. We had worked for a number of other dairy farmers, all conventional, and had spent time working as development workers in Bangladesh and Africa before deciding to settle down on a farm in central Vermont.
We began our transition to certified organic production immediately, driven by our belief in the value of rotational grazing and the experience of watching another family member’s transition to organic and the positive effect it had on his land, animals and family. We also knew our baby would be accompanying us as we went about our work and were determined to establish an environment that could include her in safe and meaningful ways. In the early days, she rode in the backpack as we milked, cleaned the barn and took the cows to pasture. She learned to ride her tricycle and bicycle in the mangers in front of the cows and by age three could name all the cows as they were coming into the barn. Now that Baby is approaching her 15th birthday, her growth has been accompanied by our own growth in understanding and appreciating the benefits that organic production has had on our farm, animals and family.
In 1981, the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, began what has become a 30-year field study of side-by-side conventional and organic crop trials to see how the two compare. Their website includes an amazing laundry list of traits that are true of organic agriculture when compared to conventional. These include soils that outperform in very wet or very dry years, increased carbon sequestration and the building of organic matter in the soil, significantly reduced pesticide residues, dramatically less energy usage, improved water quality, fewer greenhouse gas emissions, as well as crop yields that are equivalent between the two systems.
We see these results mirrored in our own operation, especially as we watch the impact of our system on the health and well being of our cows. Our careful attention to the soil has yielded a variety of high quality, lush grasses and plants that the cows consume throughout the year. Their 100 percent organic diet has reduced any health issues to a rare occurrence. In fact, over the last several years we’ve spent more on our dogs’ annual vet visits than we have on our entire herd of cows! When our cows are grazing we see the benefits of fresh air, sunshine, exercise, socialization and the highest quality feed that our cows can eat. At the same time we see cows harvesting their own feed, spreading their own manure and reducing the energy needs of the farm as they reduce the mechanical needs to do this work for them.
If this win-win isn’t enough, we’re also learning that milk coming from cows that graze on pasture has more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and omega-3 fatty acids. Everyone wins, from the cows and farms to those who consume the milk our cows produce.
According to state records, in 1947 there were over 11,000 dairy farms dotting Vermont’s landscape. When we began farming in 1998, that number had dropped to 1,815, and in 2011 the number dipped to under 1,000 remaining dairy farms for the first time in the state’s history. Of those remaining, more than 200 farms are organic operations. Organic farming often provides a fair and sustained pay price for farmers, which allows farms like ours to continue to thrive while offering opportunities to other farms across the country.
Organic production speaks to the pertinent issues of our world’s waning water and energy supplies while at the same time providing high quality nutritious food and offering true financial hope for family farms. As a farmer and mother, there is no doubt in my mind that the future is organic. It’s time for organic agriculture to be embraced as a model that offers solutions and provides significant benefit to the earth, animals and people.
- Regina Beidler