America has champions for organic dairy hiding in its midst – and they still travel by horse and buggy. Plain communities – the umbrella term referring to Amish, Mennonite, and other Anabaptist groups – have become some of the country's most important people in the production of organic dairy today.
Amish Moving Towards Organic
Despite what their quaint wide-brimmed hats and suspenders might have you believe, the Amish abstinence from modern technologies like telephones and cars does not extend to GMO seeds or the pesticides and herbicides that go with them.
“Most Amish farmers are conventional farmers,” writes Amish America.
However, this is changing. According to the Washington Post, organic dairy farmers are popping up in Plain communities across the country, one of the most influential of whom is Eldon T. Miller, 71, an Amish dairy farmer in Kalona, Iowa. A little over 20 years ago, Miller began holding informational meetings about organics in his basement. Slowly but surely, he has put the word out about organic dairy in his little community, and today, there are more than 90 operations USDA certified organic dairy operations within a ten-mile radius of Kalona.
Part of the reason for the increased interest in organics amongst Amish dairy farmers stems from the higher price point: organic milk is sold for about double the price of conventional milk, which means that Amish farmers can afford to continue to work the land, something that is, unfortunately, no longer the status quo.
While according to Amish America, farming remains the “ideal” occupation for members of Amish communities, land pressures and prices have made it difficult for Amish fathers to provide farms for all of their sons, and many have been forced to choose alternate occupations, such as manufacturing in local plants or opening small businesses. In some communities, such as in Holmes County, Ohio, and northern Indiana, fewer than ten percent of Amish are full-time farmers. The transition to organic, with its higher revenues, has made it easier for people to remain farmers.
But organic dairy production also melds better with the Amish philosophy and way of life than conventional.
"The Amish are more inclined to doing things naturally," Amish farmer Glen Mast told the Post. "We have large families, and we have a close connection to the soil."
Choosing a farming philosophy that highlights the importance of the soil via biodiversity and grazing seems to be a no-brainer for these Plain communities.
Selling Organic Dairy to “English” Folks
While Amish farmers have traditionally sold their wares at local farmstands, when it comes to dairy, it’s a bit more complicated, especially if they want to sell to the “English” – the Amish term for anyone who is not a member of a Plain community.
Milk laws in the United States require that milk adhere to strict hygiene regulations for processing and sale.
“Every farm must be attached to a single processor,” notes Phil Forbes, a liaison between Amish farmers in Kalona, Iowa, and the company that buys their milk, which sells in the Midwest under the brand name Kalona SuperNatural. “If there’s a recall, it needs to go back to the chain.”
For this reason, Amish farmers need to team up with processors in order to sell their organic dairy.
Kalona SuperNatural sources 99 to 100 percent of its milk from Plain communities, but it's not the only company to do so. National organic dairy brands including Organic Valley and Horizon also source their milk from Plain communities. In the case of Organic Valley, more than 800 farmers in the cooperative belong to Amish, Mennonite, and other Anabaptist groups – about 44 percent of the cooperative’s member-owners.
“We have worked with Plain community farmers from the earliest days of our cooperative in 1988,” says Travis Forgues, Vice President of Farmer Affairs. “They are a strong presence in Vernon County, Wisconsin – which is where our cooperative’s original seven farms are located.”
This cooperation makes it easier for consumers to access organic dairy produced by Plain producers – and that’s something that more and more people are going to want, if current trends in organic farming are any indication.
Are Amish Farmers the Future of Organic Dairy?
Organic dairy has been in the news of late, and not for good reasons. In May, the Washington Post broke the news that Aurora Organic Dairy, the country’s largest organic milk producer and supplier of store-brand organic milk for retailers including Walmart, Costco, and Target, had been operating illegally, notably insofar as grazing regulations for its 15,000 organic cattle were concerned.
Aurora isn’t the only farm operating like this. Land in Western states is cheaper, so many dairy farmers are buying up out West and starting dairy farms where there once were none: the weather is drier and pasture is harder to grow.
"The cows would go hungry looking for grass," Miller told the Post of these locations. "Those cows probably get as much cactus as grass."
While a formal legal complaint was filed against Aurora, some of these retailers claim that they will continue to source their milk from the company.
But if Amish farmers can hold out during the milk glut currently sweeping America’s dairy market, which has seen prices drop by more than 33 percent in places like Kalona, these Plain communities might be the solution to the discrepancy between what consumers want from organic and what they're actually getting. After all, when we buy organic dairy, we imagine it coming from small family farms where cows are grazed naturally, and that’s exactly what an Amish farm is.
“Many Plain community farms start from a place of farm diversity, since many grow fruit and vegetables, raise egg-laying hens and broilers, and maybe some hogs, beef cattle and sheep as well,” says Forgues. “Many of these families value self-sufficiency on the farm, so they frequently have this biodiversity already working for them. “
In addition to being biodiverse, Amish farms tend to be small, typically no larger than 80 to 100 acres, with between 40 and 50 cows on average to Aurora’s 15,000. Some of Kolona SuperNatural’s farmers only milk about ten cows a day, by hand – and that’s just fine, for this processor.
“In the dairy industry, let's be honest, it's incredibly efficient to pull up a tanker and fill up at a farm,” says Forbes. “But we will pick up that three-cow guy who might not have a market with anyone else.”
If consumers vote for this sort of production with their dollars, Amish organic dairy may become the saving grace for the industry.
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