Trends in food are moving in favor of methods that are better for animals, people, and the environment – but it’s not always simple for producers to cater to the demand. Organic and grass-fed farming methods are far more expensive and difficult to do right than conventional, which is why when communities and cooperatives make it even a little bit easier for farmers to do the right thing, we need to take notice.
Maple Hill is an organic grass-fed dairy cooperative that has invested an enormous amount of time and effort into creating grass-fed dairy that lives up to the hype – and the company is taking a giant leap in rewarding farmers for doing the right thing.
Maple Hill: Tough Beginnings Pay Off
Today, Maple Hill is a 150-family-farm-strong grass-fed dairy cooperative, but back in 2003, it was just one family and one farm.
Maple Hill founders Tim and Laura Joseph had no farming experience, in 2003, but Tim Joseph had known he’d wanted to be a farmer since he was thirteen.
“I just always messed around with chickens and things like that, while working in other industries,” he says. “In 2003, I was working from home, I had a corporate job, and I was sort of desperately trying to leave that job. I basically said to my wife, ‘Why don’t we use this time to buy a farm and see what we can do?’”
They purchased Stone Creek Farm in 2003 and quickly decided to invest in the regular paycheck that dairy brings. In 2004, they began producing conventional dairy, with an eye towards transitioning to organic as soon as possible, a move that became official in 2007 – and led them to become champions for organic, grass-fed dairy almost by accident.
While they had long been interested in grazing, it was the recession that really brought about the transition to grass-fed, Tim Joseph recounts.
“We couldn’t afford organic grain anyway," he says. "So we just basically went grass-fed.”
With invaluable help from Tim's sister Julia and her husband, Pete Meck, the Josephs toiled to overcome their lack of funds and began producing organic, grass-fed yogurt, which they sold at farmer's markets before seeking out their first distributor.
“That’s sort of where the seeds of the current Maple Hill began,” says Joseph, noting that in 2010, they brought on another farm to help meet growing demands.
“Those two things together - adding an institution and adding farms to support it - just happened, sort of – no pun intended – organically over the years.”
Growing demand for grass-fed dairy helped the farm to grow too: in 2012, the creamery could no longer support increasing orders. The families sold the original farm and moved to Stuyvesant, New York, where a larger facility helped them found the extremely successful operation they run today.
Today, Maple Hill produces whole and reduced fat milk, reduced fat chocolate milk, and raw milk cheddar and gouda-style cheeses, all made with 100 percent organic, grass-fed dairy. The company’s flagship product – yogurt that Tim Joseph first created on his kitchen stove – is now available in a variety of flavors as well as in blended, drinkable, and cream-on-top varieties.
A Commitment to Grass-Fed Dairy – Nationwide
From their first discovery of grass-fed dairy, the Josephs have remained committed to grass-fed principles. Grass-fed dairy, after all, is not only superior for the environment, thanks to a reduced need for fossil fuel in the shipping of grain and a cyclical rebuilding of soil naturally stemming from the grazing process, but it’s also better for the cows themselves.
“100 percent grass-fed equals happier, healthier cows,” says Maple Hill CMO Hannah Robbins. “Our cows live two to three times longer than a conventional cow. They're eating what nature intended them to eat.”
And of course, consumers reap these benefits as well: Grass-fed dairy has a superior ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids than conventional, a ratio that aligns far better with the research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition exploring the recommended intakes of these essential fatty acids for improved health.
But studies have shown that not all "grass-fed" dairy has the same nutritional profile. Last year, the Washington Post found that some organic dairy, which is supposed to be grass-fed at least part of the year, had omega fatty acid profiles more closely aligned with conventional, proving that some dairy claiming to be produced from grazing cows isn't – or at least not in the way that most consumers expect it is.
“There are many brands out there that say that they’re grass-fed, and they aren’t," says Robbins. “They could technically feed their cow one blade of grass and decide that they want to call themselves grass-fed.”
For Maple Hill, grass-fed means 100 percent grass – no grain or alfalfa in the system, not even for calves. This means that cows graze on pasture in the spring and summer and eat hay or baleage in the winter months.
“We often call our dairy farmers 'grass farmers' because they essentially harvest grass—with their cows!” writes the cooperative. “Every single one of our farms practices 'managed grazing,' which means that the farmer plans, times, and moves their cows through many paddocks to where grass is the lushest and most optimal for milk production.”
As part of their belief in this system, the Josephs have embarked on a two-part journey as champions of grass-fed.
1. A New Way to Reward Grass-Fed Dairy Farmers
Most dairy farmers, Joseph explains, are paid on commodity volume, a method that gives farmers no financial incentive to go the extra mile.
But Joseph notes that there are practices that farmers can undertake that "enhance the milk, and also the wellbeing of the cattle and the financial viability of the farm,” practices that Maple Hill wants to reward.
“Over time,” he says, “We see the path of paying farmers, incentivizing farmers for implementing specific practices that yield those positive benefits.”
Farmers who have put themselves at a real financial risk to do the right thing, Joseph notes, should not have to compete with farms that are calling themselves grass-fed without living up to the healthier, more costly standards.
“That’s why it’s meaningful on so many levels, beyond the fact that when a consumer spends their dollar on something, they should be getting what it is that they think they’re buying," he says. "Just like we wouldn’t tolerate fake organic, or fake non-GMO, fake grass-fed is no better.”
Joseph notes that the program is still in its early stages, in large part because of a drop in demand for milk that, he says, “has just been absolutely brutal.”
“But we still carry on,” he says, noting that the foundations for the program are already underway, with in-depth monitoring of individual farms' practices, from calve-raising methods to organic matter in soil to grazing plans.
“I'm hoping that over the next year or so, as the milk market starts to become a little bit saner, and now that we've got the data," says Joseph, "We'll be really getting better situated to roll that out.”
2. Improving Grass-Fed Dairy Labeling
The Josephs are also keen on ensuring that consumers seeking out grass-fed dairy can find farmers producing these products the right way, something that has brought them to lead the charge in favor of a truly grass-fed label.
Until recently, no certification has existed for grass-fed dairy, and a USDA grass-fed beef certification was retracted by the USDA in 2016. The lack of certification has contributed to confusion and false labeling.
"It is frustrating, candidly," says Robbins. "I mean, all we've ever done is been 100 percent grass-fed."
But along with Organic Valley, the nation's top producer of 100 percent grass-fed, organic dairy, Maple Hill has championed a voluntary grass-fed standard that will assure consumers that farmers are living up to the very high standards followed by Maple Hill farmers.
“It’s obviously still voluntary, there’s no government agency saying you must use this," says Robbins. “We’re just hoping that retailers and distributors start to take note of the fact that they’re selling products that are in fact mislabeled, and that there’s a whole group of competitors who are cooperating for the greater good of grass-fed, and the producers that are producing this milk, and that we need to clean up the dairy case.”
While the Josephs’ work has now gotten them a lot of media attention, they remain humble.
“My personality is as such that it’s actually sort of embarrassing, to be completely honest,” Tim Joseph said in response to being named one of EatingWell's 2017 American food heroes. “It’s actually less about me, and has brought attention to our farm network.”
“There’s a lot of hard work and risk and human suffering that went into creating that, on the farmer side, so it’s great to be able to really recognize the broader success we’ve had in creating that.”
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