Organic Valley Co-op
It was the hottest day of the summer, with the thermometer registering 102°F in the middle of the afternoon, when Kowalski's Dairy/Frozen Department managers boarded a bus for the rolling hills of River Falls, Wisconsin, and the scenic dairy farm of Matt Grimm. A third-generation farmer, Matt and his parents Gary and Judy invited Kowalski's to come and learn about organic farming along with the staff from Organic Valley Cooperative. Under the shade of the trees in their yard, we had the chance to meet with three dedicated farm families and hear their stories.
Matt's grandfather came to River Falls during the Depression, when many farms were facing foreclosure. "If you could make a payment, the farm became yours, so that's how my grandfather got started," said Matt. "I grew up on the farm and ended up back here after college when there were no other jobs. My major in agronomy and plant science with a minor in dairy science made this a natural fit for me." After meeting with neighbors, Matt discovered that he was using a lot of the organic farming methods, and eleven years later he became certified organic and signed on with Organic Valley Cooperative.
As a family business ourselves, we really embrace the mission of Organic Valley, which is to keep farmers on the farm. David Butterfield, Marketing Manager at Organic Valley, explained, "For every million dollars in sales of Organic Valley products, we are able to keep five families farming or bring five additional families onto the farm." Matt added, "When I was growing up, there were twenty-seven dairy farms in the township. Now there are four. Organic Valley is the third largest producer of organic milk in the country, and by providing a cooperative for farmers to sell their milk to, they are establishing a stable price so we know what we will be paid every month."
Matt Grimm has a herd of 85 Holstein cows that graze on some of the most pristine pasture land in the state. Dr. Paul Detloff, veterinarian for Organic Valley, calls Matt's land a "salad bar" for his cows. "Everything starts in the soil. Since these farmers can't use nitrogen and potassium, they have to learn how to grow that in the soil naturally, the way Mother Nature did it," says Dr. Paul. "Many of the young farmers we work with have degrees and are willing to share information with other farmers in the cooperative so they will all succeed. It is not to their advantage for their neighbors to fail so they can expand," he adds.
Many of the cows in the Grimm herd are 13 years old, unheard of on large production dairies. "The average age of the cows on larger corporate farms is two years old, since they are raised to grow quickly and pushed for production in confined quarters," said Dr. Paul. "Cows almost never get sick on an organic farm thank in part to the biodiversity of the natural organic pasture land they feed on. The variety of grasses and clover they consume provides the cows with many different nutrients and is what helps them to remain so healthy."
Also joining us on the Grimm farm were Organic Valley farmers Mike Petherbridge and Doran and Mariann Holm. Mike and his wife, Julie, along with their six children milk 40 diary cows on their farm in Dresser, Wisconsin. Unlike Matt, Mike did not grow up on a farm but always wanted to own one. He worked nights in a factory and just recently was able to make farming his full-time work.
Doran and Mariann Holm and their eight children are first-generation farmers as well who purchased their farm in Menomonie, Wisconsin, over the phone while living in Newport Beach, California. "After reading the book All the Places to Love, we decided to move back to the Midwest and raise our family here," said Mariann. It is a move that has been great for their family. Besides farming, Doran also works off the farm for Organic Valley.
For more information about Organic Valley, visit their website at www.organicvalley.coop. It is a movement that is gaining momentum and a story that we are eager to share.