Farming Magazine - June, 2013

COLUMNS

New England Farmers Union: One Farm's Cooperative Story

By Sarah Andrysiak

Lush. That's the first word that comes to Tony Brown's mind when envisioning June at his dairy farm. The cows are out on pasture and everything is green. Tony and his wife, Christine, manage Pembrook Heritage Farm, located on a hillside overlooking the Green Mountains in Randolph, Vt. They care for 80 cows and tend 150 acres, most of them leased.

Dairy farmers steward much of New England's scenic landscape - rolling pastures studded with cows, barns and silos, and tractors crossing hayfields. Dairy farmers own or lease nearly 1 million acres of New England cropland, pasture and woodland. They purchase hay, grain, silage and replacement cows from myriad other farms.

Although there's a steady demand for dairy products in New England - we consume twice the amount produced in the region - dairying is not easy. Most dairy farmers face wild fluctuations in the price they receive for their milk (the pay price), as well as sharply increasing input costs. Between 1997 and 2002, the number of dairy farms decreased by half (some due to consolidation) and dairy acres decreased by 36 percent.

A third-generation dairy farmer, Tony started out on his father's property. Dairying was challenging in the 1980s, with the increasing costs of grain and other supplies. When the lease was up in 1992, his parents decided to sell their herd. Tony found logging work, but longed to return to dairy farming.

In 1994, Tony and Christine bought Pembrook Heritage Farm. It was too small for a dairy operation and it needed a lot of work, but it was in foreclosure and affordable. Tony logged for six years while they worked on the property and built their dairy herd. They leased land from neighbors and launched the dairy business.

Three kids came along. Tony continued logging on the side, and Christine worked part-time as a nurse and managing a nursery plant business.

"There's always talk that farmers need to diversify to be profitable, but there's a limit to diversifying. You only have so much time and energy," Christine says.

Managing a dairy operation leaves few hours to work off-farm. The USDA's Economic Research Service reported that due to the time required for dairy farming, farm income is a large share of total household income for dairy farm households (80 percent in 2011, compared to 30 percent or less for households involved in other agricultural products). New England dairy farmers need farm-based ways to make their dairy business more profitable.

Christine noticed that their neighbors, the Beidlers, were making a different dairy model work. The Beidlers operated an organic dairy farm. As members of the Organic Valley cooperative, the Beidlers were receiving a much higher pay price for their milk - and a steady price.

Organic Valley, the brand of CROPP (Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools) Cooperative, is one of the nation's leading organic brands. Organized in 1988, Organic Valley's CROPP Cooperative represents 1,834 farmers throughout the U.S., including 1,560 dairy farmers.

While producer cooperatives have been helping New England dairy farmers gain pricing leverage since the 1880s, Organic Valley is able to offer farmers something more. With an exclusive focus on organic, Organic Valley pays New England members about $33 per hundredweight for fluid milk, a higher price than conventional dairy farmers receive, and this price has been consistently far more stable than conventional milk prices.

Organic Valley moves 4.3 million pounds of organic milk a day, and demand is growing. To maintain a stable price, Organic Valley only adds new farms as dairy demand merits. Farmers learn the needs of the market. They don't overproduce, and they receive a pay price that is based on their costs of production.

As the Beidlers and Browns became friends, Christine became convinced that Pembrook should be an organic dairy farm. As a nurse, she appreciated the value of organic food, but Tony wasn't so sure.

"He's a typical Vermont farmer," Christine said. "Change? No thanks."

Then, Tony had a logging accident. They scrambled to keep the farm going, hiring help, filling in and feeling stressed.

"I hate to say it, but we took advantage of his weakness and convinced him to try organic," Christine said. With the Beidlers' encouragement and Christine's optimism, the Browns joined Organic Valley in 2004.

New England is a great grass- growing region, making the conversion to organic relatively easy. Organic Valley bottles the Browns' award-winning milk and distributes it in New England. Their regional model ensures fewer miles from farm to table and supports the local economy.

"Since I keep the books, I appreciate the higher pay price, but I really appreciate the predictability," Christine said. The Browns paid off their house mortgage in 2007 and the farm debt in 2010. "I don't think we could have done that farming conventionally," she added.

Cooperatives like Organic Valley play an important role in the economic health of New England's farmers, foresters and fishermen. The New England Farmers Union (NEFU), of which Organic Valley is a member, promotes cooperatives and the way they benefit family farms. NEFU recently received a significant grant to establish a Cooperative Development Center, which will provide technical assistance to farmers and fishermen who want to explore cooperative and collaborative business models. Cooperatives can help producers retain power and leverage as we develop local and regional food systems.

Farming is hard work, but cooperatives help farmers receive a fair price. Tony's grandmother half-jokingly told Christine not to learn how to milk a cow, because then she would never do anything else. Dairy farming is that all-consuming.

So far the Browns' children haven't indicated an interest in taking over the business. "We can't seem to convince our kids that agriculture isn't just a ton of really hard work," Christine says. Perhaps the children will change their minds. For many Organic Valley families (like the Thurbers of Brattleboro, Vt., and the Meyers of Hardwick, Vt.), the stability and increased profitability of organic has made farming attractive to the next generation.

Meanwhile, the Browns' dairy farm provides financial stability, connection to the land, a beautiful view ... and delicious milk.

Please join NEFU (www.newenglandfarmersunion.org) to support New England's cooperative businesses and the farm families that produce our food.

Sarah Andrysiak is a communications consultant for New England Farmers Union.