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“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.” -Margaret Mead
It’s easy to look at the quaint red barns and grazing cows dotting the rolling hills of Vermont and think everything’s just “perfect”. From the outside, it appears to be. But change is underway: only 800 small family dairy farms remain in Vermont today, down from about 20,000 just fifty years ago. It’s a difficult business, getting harder every day. But there might be some hope for many of these farms: organic. It’s a loaded word, but it can be a win-win-win-win for small dairy farmers—and for consumers. A few weeks ago, Stonyfield brought me and a group of fellow foodies to Vermont dairy country to give us a taste of what organic dairy farming looks like. Here’s a recap of our trip.
A farm story
Julie Wolcott and her husband Steve own Green Wind Farm. It’s picture-perfect: a big, rough wood barn, an 1820’s farmhouse, and rolling hills for acres. Against the fire-red leaves of the trees just starting to turn, there are cows: rich brown, beautiful dairy cows.
What stands out about Julie is her deep love for her cows. Each of them has a name, chosen based on family theme like constellations or woman singers. The cows have best friends, she told us: cow buddies they eat with in the fields and nab a spot next to in the barn. And there are even “bossy cows” who rule the roost. As we walked with Julie through her fields, we learned about her passion for soil health and the forages that her cows graze on. You are what you eat, and she wants the absolute best for these cows.
Julie’s dairy farm used to be conventional, and she just transitioned to organic with the help of Stonyfield. Her reason? Sustainability for the future. Conventional dairy farmers can have a hard time making ends meet because the price for conventional milk is unpredictable. In contrast, the price for organic milk is higher and more stable. Making the move to organic could help her farm to stay around for the next generation. And it’s not just financial: it’s also better for the soil to avoid the use of harmful pesticides, and better for the cows’ health. The goal of organic is happy, healthy, stress-free cows.
Many farmers are skeptical of transitioning to organic. So was Julie, at first. But she told a group of us, as we stood huddled under ponchos in rain boots in front of her barn, “All my ideas against transitioning to organic were baseless. You need more patience with organic, but the cows are able to resist disease.” One of the other farmers we visited later in the day agreed: his vet bill for his dog was more than for their entire herd of organic cows.
While the weather was gray and dreary, the rain added a certain charm to the day. Julie invited us out of the rain into the warmth of her rustic farmhouse, where her family had prepared a literal farm-to-table brunch with vegetables from Julie’s garden. A frittata with greens and feta, a colorful pile of roasted vegetables, and fresh-baked bread and butter crowded my plate. I washed it down with a warm cup coffee swirled with fresh cream that added the most earthy, nuanced flavor I’ve ever tasted. And there was moist, brilliant plum gingerbread cake for dessert. As we chatted around the plank table, I felt connected to the land and the people in a way that I can’t quite describe in words.
(Scroll down for more, after a short photo essay.)
Organic: a win-win-win-win
That evening, we met another couple: Peter and Diana. Together, they purchased a conventional dairy farm that was in ruin, Philo Ridge Farm. Their hard work has transformed it into a beautifully restored, functional organic farm that’s also a space for community events and education. Around a large, candle-lit table surrounded by the stone walls of their farmhouse cellar, we dined with them and met another special guest, Stonyfield founder Gary Hirshberg. (You may have heard him tell his story on the podcast, How I Built This.)
Gary has devoted his life to the idea that sustainable ideas can and do work. He started Stonyfield with the crazy (at the time) notion that an organic yogurt business could help to clean up the planet and save family farmers. The company is now 30 years old, and he’s proven his thesis: a business that does good for the planet and our health can also make money. As a fellow world-saver-wannabee, I find this idea endlessly fascinating.
It was around this table that we discussed the win-win-win-win of organic. Instead of a win-lose or a lose-lose, organic dairy has many positives. To distill it down to the most basic, here are the wins:
- It’s better for the Earth. Organic soil captures and stores more carbon, helping to mitigate climate change. (See this video.) Water quality and biodiversity are also improved and preserved.
- It’s better for the cows. Organic cows are happier and healthier, requiring less vet visits than conventional cows.
- It’s better for your health. Organic products are higher in antioxidants than conventional. They also have less pesticide residue.
- It’s better for the farmers. Since the prices for organic milk are higher and more stable, organic dairy helps small family farmers survive.
- It tastes better! And here’s an additional win: organic dairy tastes better! The flavor is nuanced, earthy, and real.
The only downside to organic: it costs a bit more for the consumer. This is something Gary and other thought-leaders in the organic movement are trying to improve. The more people decide to buy organic, the more the prices can become more approachable for the everyday consumer. Currently, organic food is only 5% of total US food sales. How can we increase that number? For me, once we understand the wins, the extra investment can become worth it.
It’s difficult when you’re in the grocery, comparing prices between organic yogurt cartons. But for me, that extra 1 dollar is something that’s worth it. It’s worth it for the win-win-win-win. It doesn’t have to be every time, and every product in your cart doesn’t have to be organic. Simply consider buying organic when possible. And maybe, buying organic when possible can be a small step in the direction of making the world a better place.