Crossing Borders — From the Swiss Alps to the North Cascades
Organic Valley farmer Hans Wolfisberg took the road less traveled when he left his family’s dairy farm in Luzern, Switzerland, in the early 1990s. As the only one of seven siblings with an itch to see the world, he hitchhiked his way across Canada, stopping along the way to pursue his outdoor passions: hiking and skiing. But, despite his wanderlust, he never gave up on his childhood dream to be a dairy farmer.
Three decades later, as I share a sunny spring day on the farm with Hans and his wife, Halima, I learn more about Hans' journey and his life as an organic dairy farmer.
"I am so proud of my farmer husband who puts his whole heart into our farm," Halima said. "He loves being a farmer."
The Lure of Farming
After adventuring in the Canadian Rockies, Hans journeyed to Vancouver Island in British Columbia and found work on a dairy farm, where the farmer sponsored his visa application to legally work in Canada. That is where he also met his first wife, Colleen, while on a ski trip in Whistler, B.C.
Curious to learn more about organic dairy farming, Hans and Colleen traveled back to Switzerland, where he continued his education working on an organic dairy and vegetable farm.
"I wanted to learn how to farm without using pesticides and antibiotics, as well as the holistic model of farming that is focused on animal care, sustainability and pasture grazing," Hans said.
Soon, the growing family (Hans and Colleen welcomed their first son in Switzerland) returned to the Pacific Northwest to put down roots.
"I wanted the challenge of farming in a foreign country and starting my own farm," Hans said on his decision to relocate to the U.S.
Hans considered Tillamook in Oregon's coastal range and Whatcom County in the North Cascades.
"Tillamook gets over 100 inches of rain a year, so Washington won out," he said. Plus, at the time, Whatcom County had the highest concentration of dairy cows in Washington.
“When I purchased my Washington farm in 1996, I wanted to convert to organic right away, but there wasn’t a retail market for organic milk,” Hans said. Instead, he implemented the practice of rotational grazing, a system where a large pasture is divided into smaller sections called paddocks, allowing livestock to be easily moved from one paddock to the other.
Hans’ pasture contains a variety of grasses such as perennial rye, bluegrass and clover. This salad bar is filled with nutrients that are passed through the cow into the milk. When you drink Organic Valley milk, you receive some of the nutrients the cows get from the fresh grass!
In 2005, Organic Valley’s co-founder and first CEO George Siemon visited the Pacific Northwest searching for more farmers to join the growing co-op. Back in Wisconsin, Siemon was helping to set national organic standards for the dairy industry and was a leading advocate for organic farming.
The timing was right, and Organic Valley gave Hans a letter of intent to join the co-op in one year, during which time he transitioned his herd from conventional to organic.
To be organic, the herd needed to be free of hormones and antibiotics and its diet supplemented with organic feed when not on pasture. Once the herd was 100% organic, Hans started selling his organic milk to Organic Valley. He has been a co-op farmer-member for the past 18 years and owns one of about 45 organic dairy farms in Washington.
“I love being a member of the Organic Valley co-op and producing food the way organic customers are expecting it to be produced,” Hans said.
All in the Family
Hans, 57, manages a herd of 170 Jersey cows mixed with some Norwegian Reds on his 60-acre organic dairy farm, Edelweiss Dairy, which he named after the Swiss national flower. Like other Organic Valley cows, his herd spends about 50% more time on grass than the certified organic requirement.
Hans raised five sons on the farm, schooling them at home until eighth grade before they attended the local high school. He made sure they all learned how to work in the milking parlor and in the pasture with the herd. When they reached their teens, each boy worked off the farm with other local farmers. Hans has always encouraged them to follow their own path on or off the farm.
But his son, Luke, 23, is following in his father’s dairy footsteps and looking for an organic dairy farm to buy in Wisconsin, where he hopes to join Organic Valley co-op. With some land in Wisconsin less expensive than in Whatcom County, Hans is supportive and excited for his son to make the move!
The approach to Edelweiss Dairy Farm winds through the town of Lynden and along the Nooksack River. The jagged snowy peaks of the North Cascade Mountains cast shadows on the lush valley just south of the Canadian border and not far from Puget Sound.
Though one of the major reasons Hans decided to start his farm there was based on the amount of rain the area gets, he has had a challenging relationship with water.
Rainfall can hit both extremes in the region. The Pacific Northwest has little precipitation during the summer. But in November 2021 water was aplenty, too aplenty.
The Nooksack River bordering his farm overflowed its banks and flooded his pasture.
“It was the perfect storm of intense rain and smaller mountain glaciers that melted too fast,” Hans said. “Our pastures were covered with water, but the cows were safe in the barn and the water didn’t make it into our house. Nearly 100 people in the area were evacuated from their homes.”
The following spring, he had use of only 15 of his 60 acres since the river brought silt, sand and debris which damaged the pasture.
“This was the first time in 25 years of farming here that the river flooded,” Hans said. The Army Corps of Engineers is still working to rebuild the dike along the river to prevent future flooding. His cows are happy to be back on their lush pasture.
On the Horizon
Recently, Hans and Halima welcomed friends, extended family and neighbors to the annual Cow Release Party when the cows experienced the season’s first taste of grass.
Check out this video of Organic Valley cows heading to fresh pasture at South Fork Organics in western Wisconsin:
“Yes, they actually do skip and jump,” says Halima, who traded her Seattle city life for rural living three years ago.
“I love inviting my friends and their children to the farm to see the animals up close. It’s often the first time they meet a cow in its natural habitat.”
Hans and Halima will soon have an empty nest. With their youngest son, Kai, recently graduated from Lynden High School and heading to Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, the couple dreams of their next adventure off the farm — in an RV. (Don’t worry, the cows will be taken care of while the couple explores.)
When not on the farm, Hans and Halima volunteer for the local school district’s mentoring program called Be the One.
“We each mentor a middle school student during the school year and can continue the relationship through high school,” Hans said. “Sometimes we are the only stable adult role model in the student’s life.”
With five sons scattered around the U.S. and a new grandson in Montana, there will definitely be time for more travel, but for now, Hans and Halima are enjoying their cows, their epic mountain views and their organic lifestyle.
“It’s a sweet way to live,” Halima said.
Lisa Hill is a seasoned public relations professional based in Portland, Oregon, and serves as the Pacific Northwest public relations contractor for Organic Valley. With a passion for strategic communication, she specializes in crafting compelling narratives and building strong media relationships. Her expertise spans various industries including sustainable food systems, farm-to-table restaurants and natural grocery.