This is part 1 in a series by Garnet Bruell, an AmeriCorps VISTA with the West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition VISTA. As a Registered Dietitian, Garnet is attending the 2015 Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo in Nashville, Tennessee.
Since 2013, I’ve been a member of the Hunger & Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group, which provides resources for members to become leaders in sustainable and accessible food and water systems. Every year, at the annual FNCE, the HENDPG offers a farm tour for its members, and this year, we got to visit Whippoorwill Creek Dairy Farm in southern Kentucky. Whippoorwill has been owned and operated by a Mennonite family for the past five years, and is a member-owner of Organic Valley Dairy Cooperative.
Organic Valley was founded in 1988, and was farmer-owned and focused on organic dairy production since the beginning. With 1800 current farmers, they are continuing to grow in order to increased demand for USDA Certified Organic milk.
Farmers who are members of Organic Valley have a number of benefits. Being farmer-owned, the mission is to pay farmers first and create access to a thrivable income stream. While the price of conventional milk is volatile due to a large number of outside factors, Organic Valley creates sales products and opens markets that allow them to better predict their costs, allowing them to maximize their payments back to their farmers.
Farmers are paid based on both how much milk their herd produces, as well as the quality of the milk, which is measured a number of different ways, including bacteria count (including a lab pasteurized count), milk solids, and somatic cell count (white blood cells).
Whippoorwill Creek Farm is USDA Certified Organic, which means that it has met a stringent set of requirements and inspections. While this is not a complete list, organic dairy farms must:
There are over 100 Mennonite families in the area, although only 6 farms are organic. The farm has a herd of approximately 150 Jersey cows.
At my grocery store in West Virginia, organic milk is generally $2-5 more per gallon than conventional milk. It seems like a lot – but what does that difference mean on the farm?
I was most interested to learn that animals raised on an organic farm are generally quite healthy and produce milk for longer than conventional cows – 8 or even 10 years; sometimes even longer. The pasture-based system produces less physical stress than spending a large portion of life standing on concrete, and the diet results in less disease. In 5 years of operation, Whippoorwill Farm has not had to remove a cow from its herd to administer antibiotics.
In addition to the benefits to the animals themselves, organic milk will generally last longer than conventional milk. This quality is what allows Organic Valley to pay farmers more for their milk in the first place. Low bacteria and somatic cell counts, along with proper cooling and pasteurization create a product that has a much longer shelf life. If you find yourself throwing milk away because it’s going bad before you drink it all, you might consider shelling out the extra dollars for an organic product.
One of the more interesting differences between organic and conventional is the different levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Organic milk contains higher levels of omega-3, and lower levels of omega-6 fatty acids. This type of ratio of fatty acids can help reduce the risk of cardiac diseases.
Given all of this, the extra price is starts to look a lot less mysterious!
With abundant pastureland, West Virginia seems like it might be a great place for more certified organic dairy farms. A quick look at the National Organic Program shows that just about 10 farms in West Virginia are actually USDA-certified organic. You may recognize some of them: Perk Farm Organic Dairy and Little Brown Cow Dairy. Most were certified by the Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association.
Becoming certified organic isn’t easy or cheap, but it does open up new market opportunities, and the demand for organic products continues to grow. Additionally, certified organic dairies are required to feed their animals certified organic grain(if they feed grain), so this may be a market opportunity for farms that do not raise animals.
Have you ever thought about making your farm certified organic? Why or why not? Feel free to email us at email@example.com.
Full disclosure: Organic Valley is a sponsor of the HEN DPG and sponsored Garnet’s tour to Whippoorwill Creek Farm.