Organic Valley sees renewed interest and promising future for next generation of dairy farmers

By Mary Ellen Shoup

- Last updated on GMT

Organic Valley's future rests in the next generation of organic dairy farmers.
Organic Valley's future rests in the next generation of organic dairy farmers.

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Organic Valley operates within a cooperative business model that pools together family dairy farms’ products and profits, and it’s been that way since 1988 when the company had just a handful of Midwest family farmers in its circle.

After 28 years in business, Organic Valley now encompasses more than 1,800 farmers across 36 states. The company says its mission is to save family farms through organic farming and to support local economies, in an approach that is distinctly “un-corporate.”

Sales of organic products in the US jumped to $35.1bn in 2013, up 11.5% from the previous year’s $31.5bn, according to the Organic Trade Association. In December 2015, Organic Valley sales reached $1.04bn in sales, representing a profit of $36.8m.

DairyReporter spoke to Melissa Weyland, regional pool manager for eastern Wisconsin as well as some parts of Illinois and Michigan, at the World Dairy Expo last week about how the interest in organic farming will help the next generation of family dairy farmers form a strong network.

Weyland assists and consults with roughly 100 dairy farms to either transition conventional dairy farms to organic ones, or helping existing organic farms maintain their status.

“I do work with a fair amount of farmers that are veterans in organic,” ​Weyland told DairyReporter. “They’ve been organic for about 15, some of them almost 20 years.”

“Typically, that first visit is us sitting down, going through their cropping history, often times even field by field and determining when exactly those dates were that would make them eligible,”​ Weyland said.

In order for a dairy farm to receive an organic designation for its raw milk production, the land must be free of prohibitive substance for a full three years. Dairy cows require a one-year transition from the last time they might have been fed a prohibitive substance.

Passing the torch to a younger generation

And it seems that many of those “veterans”​ of organic dairy farms are passing on that dedication and cooperative mindset to their children, who are returning to their family farms with a restored interest in organic farming.

“I think that the marketplace is appealing first of all to the younger generation,”​ Weyland said. “What we’ve been seeing is that some of our farmers’ children are coming back to farms with PhDs. They spent their time out in the business world and they miss that core value of farming and they want to raise their children on a farm.”

The price stability of organic milk is another attraction, Weyland cited, saying that dairy farmers within Organic Valley’s 1,800+ network are receiving about $30/cwt.

“That’s probably about double of what conventional is getting right now,”​ she said. “The organic market provides the stable price and the premium price that they feel they can raise a family on together, so that someone doesn’t have to have an off-farm job.”

Another trend is that organic dairy farms are growing their dairy herds. It was typical to see a farm with 50 cows, and Weyland said those are still out there, but the average herd size within Organic Valley’s cooperative has grown to 74 dairy cows per farm.

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