My obsession started with a trip to Vermont earlier this month. Stonyfield Farms asked me to come visit a couple of the local dairy farms they work with, and I was like, “Vermont in October? Yes, please.”
Sadly, some of the bummer stories you’ve heard about conventional dairy farms aren’t made up.
While there, one of the first things I learned about was conventional dairy farms. They are probably what you are picturing, and what you’ve heard about in articles that detail problems with large-scale dairy. The cows can be stuck in a barn all the time, where they live short, sad lives and are often sick. On the farmland surrounding the barn, corn and other grains are grown; grown and harvested to feed the cows. Because of the ongoing feed crop farming, the land and soil get consistently depleted. In order to keep yield high, lots of fertilizers and chemical pesticides must be applied to the soil and plants. Some of these chemicals are known carcinogens and truly harmful to humans, animals, water and soil.
Eventually, topsoil on these farms erodes away. When it rains, the ground can’t hold the water. The rain runoff from the farms, which is filled with manure and pesticides, creates algae blooms in the local bodies of water (like Lake Champlain pictured here). The algae blooms make dead zones where nothing in the water can live. There’s currently a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that’s 6000-7000 square miles.
And maybe worst of all? Conventional farming is not good for the farmers either, in two specific ways: 1) They’re regularly exposed to harmful pesticides and chemicals, so the incidence of cancer rises considerably for dairy farmers. And 2) The way the dairy buying and selling is set up in our country is truly bizarre. The price of milk changes radically and unpredictably, based on nothing the farmers do or don’t do. Often, the farmers send their milk off to a buyer, and they don’t know how much they’ll get for it until a check arrives. There’s no negotiation or setting a price for an especially good yield. It’s totally out of their control.
It’s an unsustainable system. It’s not healthy. We all know it. We may try to close our eyes and ignore it, but we all know it’s happening. And different aspects bother different people. For some, there’s a weight of guilt about the sad life of the cows. Others worry about the water damage and soil erosion. Still others have deep concerns about hormones and antibiotics that end up in the milk.
That’s the bad news.
Now let me turn that frown upside down while I tell you about organic dairy farms.
The good news is, organic dairy farming is entirely different. I visited 2 farms — Green Wind Farm and Windy Hill Farm — that both converted from conventional to organic. (Which is not an easy task — I’ll talk more about that later.) I took the most photos at Green Wind Farm so I’ll use it as the example here.
Green Wind Farm is run by Julie. She’s in her 70’s, she’s a lifelong Vermonter, and she’s been farming for decades. She has 25 dairy cows. Her acreage used to grow corn to feed her cows, but not these days. Now, it grows a huge variety of grasses and clovers and herbs native to Vermont. These are perennial plants that don’t have to be re-seeded every year.
As you can see in the pictures here, these plants aren’t in straight rows, ready to be irrigated, they’re just naturally growing everywhere across the fields and meadows and even the rocky terrain — like they would be if no humans were around to bother them.
Julie’s cows spend time outside the barn daily. Lots of it. In order to qualify as an organic farm, they have to spend a certain amount of hours a day outside no matter the weather. While they’re outside, they graze on the wild grasses and plants. Julie told us the cows have certain plants that are favorites, and that they might seek out a particular herb if they’re in the mood. She mentioned one of the herbs acts as an aspirin, so if the cow isn’t feeling well, the cow will spend time munching that herb in particular and ignore the other plants.
When the cows have finished grazing an area, they don’t return to it for 21 days. Why 21? Well, in Vermont, it takes 21 days for the grazed areas to grow back, to “recover.” So her farmland is split into 21 paddocks (or grazing areas). Each one is different — some are hillier than others. And the cows move from area to area each day.
The soil is always fully covered, thick with plant life, and when it rains, the ground acts like a huge sponge. It soaks it all up. I saw this first hand because we were there on a very rainy day. And there were no little streams gathering in the fields. The water just soaked right in. No runoff.
While the cows graze, they also poop. This means each of the grazing areas is being fertilized regularly. No chemicals are needed. No pesticides are needed. Before cows grazed these lands, they would have been grazed by cousins of cows (like elk and deer) who would have fertilized an area and moved on to another grazing area in much the same way.
Julie knows each of her cows well — their names, their personalities, their habits. She has discovered that farming this way means her cows live longer — twice as long. And they are much happier and healthier. In fact, she said visits from the vet, which used to be a weekly thing, are pretty much non-existent now.
And organic farming doesn’t just benefit the dairy cows. It means healthier lives for the farmers too. It means healthier water systems for everyone in the area. It means healthier dairy products for the rest of us.
Green Wind Farm is as picturesque as can be. It’s a beautiful site to behold, and exactly what you would hope a dairy farm would be like. In fact, it totally reminded me of the dairy farms in Normandy. When we lived in France, our neighbors had a gorgeous dairy farm that was run in a similar way.
I’m telling you, if you’ve had worry over dairy, it would totally disappear if you saw Julie’s farm. It’s basically a super healthy mini-ecosystem. The cows nourish the earth, the earth nourishes the cows. With no chemical run-off, no algae blooms, no dead zones, no waste. It’s amazing.
Another huge benefit for the farmers? The prices! Organic milk isn’t sold the same way conventional milk is sold. It’s a completely different market, with a much more dependable, consistent price. And it’s a higher price, too. So the dairy farmer makes more money, and makes more money more reliably. Which is a game changer. It means they can plan and budget in a way they couldn’t as conventional farmers.
But organic farming is actually even better than what I’ve described here. Why? Well, because of Carbon Sequestration.
Move over recycling, here comes Carbon Sequestration.
I hope you’re still reading, because this section is super important. I predict if you haven’t already, you’re going to hear about carbon sequestration ALL THE TIME moving forward. It’s a big deal.
What it means is actively taking carbon from the air and putting into the ground where it belongs (and where it was originally). And it turns out the the best way to do this is through agriculture.
For a long time, when concerns about excess carbon in the air have come up, the focus is on how to prevent further damage from happening. We’ve concentrated on things like recycling, making more efficient transportation, and finding alternative energy sources. And these are all great things.
But organic farming can make a much bigger difference. It doesn’t just prevent more carbon from entering the atmosphere, it actually reverses the amount of carbon in our air, and does so in a very effective, efficient way.
In the Sustainable Agriculture movement, the big goal has been to aim for carbon neutral or zero impact. But the Regenerative Agriculture movement, focused on carbon sequestration, goes beyond that — it takes carbon from the atmosphere and puts it back into the ground. It’s not just less bad, it’s more good!
Organic farming is the real deal.
The hormones in dairy we worry about? Yes, organic dairy farming eliminates that worry. But it’s so much bigger than that. It’s taking carbon from the air and putting it back in the ground where it can help grass grow and give us healthy plants for animals to eat.
Organic farming means restoring and caring for our soil and land in a literal way. It’s bringing a much more natural order back to farms, and it’s creating revenue opportunities for small family farms that were previously going out of business.
So why don’t all farmers switch from conventional to organic? For several reasons. A big part of it is that old habits die hard. If you’ve been farming the same way your whole life, and are an expert at it, are you going to be willing to start again as a beginner with lots to learn? You truly have to learn an entirely new way of farming. It’s intimidating. It’s scary.
You have to stop planting corn and bring the land back to a more natural state. It’s likely you’ll need to replant native grasses and herbs. Give the land time to heal. Restoration of the soil is necessary before a healthy cycle can be implemented.
You can’t qualify as an organic farm overnight. The organic processes have to be in place for 1 year on a dairy farm (or 3 years on a produce farm), before you can apply to be certified organic. That means there’s a period of time when your product can’t be sold to organic markets, and may not get a good price at other markets. It can feel like a big risk.
In addition, to be officially organic, there’s a bunch of paperwork and official documentation required. In some ways it’s a pain in the neck. The switch doesn’t happen casually. Farmers get converted to the idea of going organic on a one-by-one basis, and it’s talking with other farmers that convinces them.
But something encouraging is that companies like Stonyfield, who are focused on organic products, help farmers make the switch. And not in an abstract way. Representatives from Stonyfield, who have lifelong farming experience, become coaches and mentors; they physically show up on the farm to consult and help them make the transition from conventional to organic farming. In fact, Stonyfield even has a training program to help folks who want to become farmers and have no idea how to start.
So if a farm is interested in going organic, there are resources to help make that happen. (Even more encouraging: Stonyfield isn’t the only one. I went to a panel the other night where representatives from North Face, Numi Organic Teas and Annie’s all talked about what they were doing to assist or encourage the move to organic farming.)
While we were in Vermont, we had dinner with the Stonyfield co-founder Gary Hirshberg. He is completely committed to all of this — to organic farming, to promoting carbon sequestration, to teaching farmers how to transition from conventional to organic, and to spreading the word about the benefits. It’s his whole life. He’s been doing this a long time, and he’s knows everything about it. He gets it. (Did you hear him in the How I Built This podcast? It’s so good!)
While we were with him, we talked about prices. He mentioned getting involved in organic farming in the early days when he was just starting out, and that organic was never supposed to be just for the rich; it was supposed to help everyone. We talked about how as organic food becomes more available (you can find it these days at Costco, Trader Joe’s, Walmart, pretty much everywhere), prices are getting better. And that experts can see when the prices of organic and conventional get close, as they have with carrots and grapes, that people choose organic. Which I found very hopeful.
Organic dairy currently makes up 4 percent of the dairy sold, and it’s growing. But clearly, there’s still plenty of room for more change.
So what can you do?
I’d say it comes down to this: choose organic when you can. I can’t pretend that we eat all organic, all the time. Not even close. But when we have the option, when it works for our budget, we can feel good about choosing organic. It’s better for you. It’s better for your kids. It’s better for the cows. It’s better for the farmers (both financially and health wise). And it’s better for the Earth — it not only doesn’t do harm to the earth, it actually helps and does good for the earth.
So that’s why I’m obsessed with organic farming. I’m sure some of you already knew everything I’ve detailed here, but it was totally new to me. I remember a few years ago, my friend Megan telling me her family (most of whom are are doctors) were convinced that nutritionally, organic and conventional food are equals. So she felt organic was a waste.
I remember thinking: I can see that. And giving weight to her words because of the medical degrees behind the opinion. But I feel different now. At the farm level, it’s clear they are drastically different, and nutritionally there are nowstudies that show they are different too. To me, the whole situation is so much better when it’s an organic eco-system, versus an unsustainable system that was built to prioritize scale and efficiency over everything else.
What’s your take on organic food — fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy? Do you seek it out? Do you feel priced out of the options? And on dairy specifically — have you ever avoided it out of concern about growth hormone, or worry about the treatment of dairy cows? Did you already know about carbon sequestration? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
My trip to Vermont, and this report about the trip, were sponsored by Stonyfield Farms.