by Jenna Miller, Organic Farmer
Some days as an organic dairy farmer all I can do is bow my head and simply admit that nature is the best at doing what nature does. Whether that means pollinating the crops growing in our fields, developing the calves that are gestating in many of the cows in our herd right now, or flourishing a healthy pasture, I am simply awestruck. Nature will always be a better farmer than I ever will be, no questions asked. Instead, it is merely my job to make decisions on how to utilize nature as my family and I see best, mowing the hayfields at the right time, milking the cows in a sanitary and comfortable environment, and directing the herd to a specific pasture so that they eat the most nutritious grass available before we cut it to encourage its regrowth of more nutritious grass. So, I suppose you could say that it’s my job as an organic dairy farmer to make a series of decisions that not only encourage, harvest, and utilize the very best that nature has to offer, but that, more importantly, it is my job to not get in nature’s way.
Yup – it’s my job to work in accordance with nature without getting in her way.
While sometimes this is easy – there’s absolutely nothing I can do to encourage or discourage it from raining – other times it’s more difficult. Like at the times when the crops we’ve tried to foster have been barraged by weevils or borers or when our herd has been pestered by lice, nasty flies in the summer or intestinal worms. Yes, then I secretly wish they’d all just go away, but again, it’s my job not to get in nature’s way and to work with nature rather than against it. And that’s why on my family’s organic dairy farm we don’t use toxic pesticides.
Because if we used toxic pesticides to kill the borers or the worms that eat the seeds, then what else in the soil would we be killing or harming? Again, nature is a far better farmer than I ever will be and there’s a lot more happening to produce an ear of corn or a crop of wheat than I can ever control. All of the microbial activity beneath the surface is just as important as the sunshine and photosynthesis that drive the plants’ sugar production. And I can’t risk getting in the way of that.
So what does my family do to avoid toxic pesticides? As an organic dairy farm we try to work with nature, planting crops in a time frame when the soil is warm enough to allow germination without stunting a seed’s growth – and while helping the seed to avoid a lengthened period of vulnerability to hungry worms before sprouting through the soil. The cows’ diet includes kelp, which strengthens their hair coat against parasites like lice. We hang fly tape in the barn to capture as many of the pesky flies without introducing any harmful chemicals to the herd itself. And our pasture rotation is set at a 27-day interval between pasture use, which we believe breaks the worm cycle so that our cows do not suffer from intestinal worms. In short, we try to make decisions that will help us avoid the need for toxic persistent pesticides in the first place.
And what does not using toxic pesticides mean for farms like my own family’s? It means that the cow patties in the pastures are reincorporated into the soil at a faster pace as the dung beetles, among others, do their work because the place they call home is still hospitable to them. It means that we don’t have to protect our cows from the very grass they eat or the very harvests they consume throughout the year. It means that we don’t have to worry about getting harsh chemicals on our skin or having to call the local emergency squad about a spill. It means that our relatives who visit us can rest assured that wherever their kids go and dig in the dirt, they won’t end up with rashes or irritant coughs. It means that when I was growing up (and now still) my father could come into the house and give me a hug without the worry of getting toxic pesticides on me. And, above all, farming organically without toxic persistent pesticides means that the next generation such as my cousin and I see a life we want to live farming as nature’s coworker. Which, if you believe in working with nature rather than against it too, then knowing that organic, toxic persistent pesticide-free farming will be here tomorrow should be pretty good news.
–My family owns and operates Millers’ Organic Dairy in upstate NY, a member-owner of the Organic Valley Coop. We milk a loving and happy herd of Holsteins while growing the majority of our own organic grains ourselves.