Neighbors, Farmers, Friends
Organic Valley was founded 34 years ago by seven organic farmers who valued the sense of community. In 2017, Organic Valley farmers Les Miller and Don Oldick shared their stories in this video that shows the powerful connection of “Neighbors.”
Les Miller and Don Oldick of Richfield Springs, New York, have a great deal in common. Both are farmers, both ship milk to Organic Valley, and they are neighbors. However, their relationship as neighbors expands far beyond living next to each other. Miller and Oldick are friends, like their parents before them and their children after them. Miller and Oldick are members of multi-generational families farming side by side for more than 50 years.
The Miller family has been farming on the same land for about 50 years, while the Oldick family has been there for close to 60 years. As Miller will tell you, there has not been a cross word between the families in that time.
The Millers and Oldicks have been each other's support systems over the years.
“We know they are there when we need them. Whenever we need something, we can holler. Whenever they need something, they can holler,” Miller said. “We share equipment back and forth, and if we get behind they’ve done some harvesting for us and vice versa.”
Oldick echoes this sentiment. “If you need something, they’re here. And we do the same for them,” he said.
They have supported each other when equipment has broken down, when they have been shorthanded, or get caught off guard by the weather. No matter the challenge, the Millers and Oldicks watch out for each other.
The connection between Miller and Oldick goes far back in their memories. Miller remembers riding the bus with the kids in the Oldick family as far back as kindergarten.
“We work with them, and they work with us but at the end of the day we go milk our own cows,” Oldick said. “Since I was a kid until now. It’s always been that way.”
Farming is a unique profession because it does not fit within the 9-5 mold that many other jobs require. Farming requires work 365 days a year, without weekends or holidays off. If their families want to take a vacation, they need the support of others to continue milking the cows. This is one of the many reasons having a support system is vital to maintaining small family farms.
Miller recognizes the value of supportive neighbors. “When you get those relationships you can’t put a price on it,” he said.
This notion of community has gone back many decades. Miller said, “We’ve always felt that two farms side by side are worth more than either one apart.”
Transitioning Farms to Organic
This partnership was exemplified as both farms transitioned to organic farming. Though their practices were already close to the standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Program, their families were there to support each other and share equipment to help make the official transition to being certified organic easier.
The Millers and Oldicks were there to coach and assist each other in becoming organic farms, and they grew together as a result. The transition to organic has been worth it to both families, as the health of the land and animals has improved over time.
Though this unique farming friendship developed between these side-by-side neighbors, Miller believes this is a reflection of the supportive community they live in.
“Being side by side we are able to reciprocate and work together closer,” he said. “But as you get over the hill down the road a few miles if someone needs help, that’s the way this area is. If you go to other areas, it’s dog eat dog sometimes. We are fortunate that this area is not that way.”
The supportive relationships between farmers is not limited to the Millers and Oldicks; the little bit of give and take between farms is a sentiment throughout their entire community of farmers.
Though the Miller and Oldick families' younger members help on the farm, they are running out of generations to take over their farms. Their community is facing a continually diminishing number of small family farms in the area. There were 52 small dairy farms in Miller’s township when he started farming. Over time, many of those farms have disappeared, with only about 12-13 remaining.
As a cooperative, Organic Valley’s mission is to continue supporting and saving small family farms across the country like those run by the Millers and Oldicks. Saving these small farms helps preserve the connection between neighbors that is the cornerstone of thriving communities. This is the spirit of cooperation our founding farmers dreamt of at the inception of our cooperative, and is still a vital piece of our mission today.