When people ask me why I became a farmer, I usually tell them it’s because I wanted to get rich. This is always interpreted as a joke, and we have a good laugh about it. But when I think about the things I really value, the ironic truth is that farming does provide my family with luxuries that make us feel rich: healthy food, honest work, fresh air and beautiful scenery.
It’s also true, however, that a farming business needs to be profitable in order to be sustainable. This little phrase is just about the only thing I retained from a farm management class I took on a whim my last semester in college. My professor had us pupils recite this phrase over and over at the beginning of each class, and I’m glad she did, because it played a large part in steering me toward a career in organic dairy farming.
When my husband and I started farming, we were young, idealistic and somewhat clueless,
with no money in our pockets and college loans to boot. Although we did have access to a small plot of land belonging to my husband’s extended family, where we raised our heifers for about a year, we had no functional operation to take over, no family farm to inherit. We had lofty visions of a small microdairy, an ecovillage, and other ideals that never came to fruition, because we simply didn’t have the money.
After a talk with an Organic Valley representative at a conference, we learned that we could sign a contract to ship organic milk, start our one-year organic “transition” period, and receive a signing bonus from Organic Valley based on the amount of milk we anticipated we would produce in the first year. This incentive is designed to help operational conventional (non-organic) dairy farms survive their transition year before becoming organic, during which they must feed their cows organically while continuing to ship conventional milk and be paid the (lower) conventional price. With a couple of beat-up milk cows, eight or so heifers, and no place to milk our cows, we were hardly an operational dairy, but the incentive helped finance our start-up and buy some more heifers. The rest of the funds came from the full-time jobs we both worked in addition to farming and some money from family and friends that we received as wedding gifts when we married that year.
A few months before completing our organic transition, we found a nearby farm to rent. It had been a dairy farm and was now neglected and beyond run-down, but there was a barn, a bulk tank, and grass enough for our 15 cows to graze. There was no housing, but we scored a throw-away mobile home from the local trailer park, and happily moved in.
If you’re wondering how we made it through those first few years, that’s where the organic pay price comes in. In the seven or so years since we’ve been shipping organic milk, non-organic (conventional) milk prices have fluctuated between $11 and $25 for 100 pounds of milk, and there is often almost no warning when the prices drop dramatically. By comparison, the organic milk price has increased steadily from about $31 to $35. Though an organic dairy is typically more expensive to operate than a conventional one, the predictability in price allows us stability, and the ability to plan carefully for profit.
After a few years, we graduated to a nearby farm with more land and somewhat better facilities, and left our free trailer for a 2-bedroom apartment on the farm we rent. We quit our off-farm jobs and started a family, and we are still able to pay the bills. We still work like crazy and live close to the bone, but again, I point to the luxuries that I mentioned earlier.
I’ll admit that I only know a handful of other young folks who have started a dairy from scratch, without a farm or a trust fund. They are all organic dairy farmers. I am so grateful to the smart, hardworking folks who work alongside us to manage and market our milk, and to the consumers like you who value clean food and the efforts of family farmers. Thanks to you, I believe that more young people will become organic dairy farmers and secure a safe, healthy milk supply for all of us into the future.