According to the USDA Economic Research Service, there has been a surge in retail sales of organic milk in recent years due to consumer demand. Reports suggest that U.S. retail sales have been growing since the mid-1990s with sales of organic milk and cream surpassing the $1 billion mark in 2005, up 25% from the previous year.
In order to be sold as “organic,” all agricultural products must comply with highly restrictive National Organic Program (NOP) regulations. All organic livestock operations that sell over $5,000 per year of organic products and those who wish to sell their products to be used as organic ingredients or organic feed by others, must be certified by a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) accredited agent.
Jeff and Sheila Koester, owners of Koester’s Organic Acres in Scales Mound, IL, first talked about transitioning from a conventional to an organic dairy farm nearly two decades ago. Jeff had grown up on the family farm and, as a kid, couldn’t wait to get big enough to do everything there was to do. The only exception was spraying pesticides. That never made sense to him. Fast forward to 2002 and Jeff and Sheila made the decision to transition to organic dairy farming.
The reasons for producing organic food are individual and complex. They generally fall into three categories: health, community, and environment. According to Jeff, they wanted to “stay small, respect the environment, produce quality milk, and make a living.”
Getting started in the organic dairy business requires patience, tenacity, and knowledge. Organic milk and milk products must come from animals that have been under continuous organic management for at least one year prior to the production of the milk or milk products. The crops and forage must be grown on land that has been free from prohibited substances for at least 36 months prior to the harvest of the feed.
Once one makes the decision to “go organic” the lifestyle of the organic farmer requires commitment and vigilance. The cows must have access to pasture during the growing season. The use of growth hormones, antibiotics, genetic engineering, and cloning is prohibited. Records of all feeds, medications, and transactions must be maintained in detail. Organic integrity must be protected by preventing organic livestock and livestock products from mixing with prohibited substances or being co-mingled with nonorganic products.
Organic livestock producers must establish preventative livestock health management practices. While medical treatment cannot be withheld from sick animals, they must be treated using acceptable practices or removed from the farm. Sheila maintains all the farm records for annual USDA inspections.
With 80 crossbred milking cows, Koester’s Organic Acres is a family affair. Every member of the family plays a critical role in running the farm.
Nathan, 20, and his brother, Colton, 18, have been working on the farm since they were about eight. Nathan is now employed full-time at Organic Valley in La Farge, WI. He returns home twice a month to lead the efforts in “research and development.” From genetics associated with crossbreeding to field rotations, he plays a vital role at the farm, even from a distance. With such valuable practical experience, Nathan now has opportunities to travel across the country sharing his knowledge with farmers from Vermont to Kansas.
Colton and nine-year-old Madalyn are both home-schooled, as was Nathan. Colton feeds, milks, drives the tractor, hauls hay, washes down the milking area twice each day, and handles some of the paperwork. He is a utility player, capable of assuming any and all the daily responsibilities on the farm when necessary.
And Madalyn too, plays an important role on the family farm. The alarm in her bedroom sounds every morning at 5:30. She has breakfast and heads to the barn to feed the calves. She’s currently responsible for bottle feeding eight newborns. Madalyn can distinguish the various breeds and does a great job naming the cows. We met Nike, Skechers, Millie, Jay, and Shrek just to name a few.
The organic movement is built on a fundamental principle: healthy soil leads to healthy crops, healthy animals, healthy humans, and a healthy planet. Research conducted at the University of Newcastle has shown that organic milk has a higher concentration of vitamins such as vitamin A and vitamin E. Since organic cows graze on fresh grass and clover, the milk they produce has about 50% more Vitamin E and 75% more beta carotene.
Studies also show that organic milk helps boost metabolism, strengthens the immune system, is rich in antioxidants, reduces muscle and joint pain, prevents cancer and heart disease, and helps prevent macular degeneration and cataracts. It also reduces abdominal fat, cholesterol, and allergic reactions.
By consuming organic milk, you also ensure that you do not harm the environment. Organic farmers rely on crop rotation, companion plants, and animal manure in place of synthetic fertilizers, weed killers, and pesticides to control pests and maintain the quality and integrity of the soil.
The milk truck from Organic Valley arrives at Koester’s Organic Acres every other day. With a capacity of 48,000 pounds, it’s an imposing sight. According to Nathan, his pick for the ideal cow at the farm would be the Fleckvieh. With a wide chest and wide muzzle that allows it to eat large amounts of grass, the cow is an excellent producer.
“We have to be life-long learners,” says Sheila. Nathan agrees. “We’re always asking ourselves why. For every weed that grows… there’s a reason. Why is it there? Is it the nutrient in the soil? The amount of sun or shade? We’re constantly asking ourselves why, always striving to determine what works, what doesn’t, and why.” There’s a commitment to continuous quality improvement among all members of the family.
So the next time you see a milk truck from Organic Valley on the road, think of Koester’s Organic Acres… and the commitment the entire family has to your health, your community, and the environment we all share.