I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t really understand what “organic dairy” meant until this trip. I knew for produce it meant no pesticides or weird stuff, and for organic dairy I sort of assumed the cows got organic feed instead of conventional feed, and maybe a bit of a stroll in the pasture every now and then. Oh boy, there is so much more to it than that. For me, organic dairy is an solution to so many of environmental problems we see today. Yes, I’ve fully drank the koolaid, or in this case, organic whole milk. I was simply blown away.
I should probably back up a bit. When Stonyfield reached out to me about joining their trip to organic dairy farms in Vermont, I envisioned leaves changing and maybe something like a blogger petting zoo. We’d see a cow, eat some yogurt – but the trip was so much more immersive than that. We saw the inner workings of two organic dairy farms, spoke with the farmers about the reality of organic versus conventional farming, learned about the effects of dairy farming on Vermont, and even trudged through the pastures in the rain. It was a literal field trip.
In conventional farming, you have cows that live inside for their entire lives, while corn is grown on the farmland to feed the cows. The corn strips away nutrients from the soil, and GMOs are used that can survive the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Large industrial equipment comes in to plant, harvest, and process the corn, emitting CO2. The cows, eating this feed, can often get sick so they’re given antibiotics and hormones to heal. Within a few years of farming corn on hilly Vermont land, the topsoil has run off, taking the fertilizers to nearby lakes and rivers, causing algae blooms. It’s a bit of a mess.
On an organic dairy farm, things are much more intuitive, but equally interconnected. Vermont is excellent at growing grass, which is handy on a dairy farm. The rocky and hilly landscape that is a challenge for machines is an afterthought for grazing cows. On this farm system, cows graze outdoors every day (even in winter for shorter periods), rotating between fields. As they graze, they fertilize, restoring nutrients to the soil. To prevent over grazing, the farmer needs to move cows to different paddocks regularly. Because the cows are eating the nutrient-rich grass, and even wild herbs for medicinal purposes, they get sick less often – much less often.
When dairy or beef is brought up, the concern is usually about the treatment of the animals or the methane created by the cows (it’s from their burping, by the way, not the other end!). And, while these concerns are important, I was most struck by the environmental factors of organic versus conventional. The grass restores nutrients to the soil and naturally holds it in, meaning less runoff and damage to rivers and streams. Keeping it organic means using intuitive farming methods, like crop rotation, to keep the crop and soil healthy. The grass also holds in CO2 and grass-fed cows produce about 30% less methane than corn fed cows. The entire system works to create a sustainable environment, with everything in balance. The grass needs the cows, and the cows need the grass.
And here’s the great part – organic is better for the farmers too! The conventional milk market is erratic, with prices dipping below production costs constantly. This means the farmers can lose money producing their product. But with organic, the price point is higher and more consistent, allowing farmer’s to budget, plan, and actually invest back into their farm. Stonyfield has been helping small farmers convert to organic, providing them with information and resources to make the transition.
Meeting Gary Hirshberg, the founder of Stonyfield, was so inspiring as well. He’s incredibly warm and friendly, and fabulous when it comes to the environmental impact of modern food systems. He believes that organic food can save the world, and he’s extremely compelling when he gives his reasons why. If you haven’t listened to it, check out his interview on NPR’s How I Built This. He discusses how Stonyfield started as a little hippy yogurt operation and grew to one of the top yogurt brands in the country, as well as the company’s environmental activism. It’s more than just organic farming being better for the planet, organic products need to become accessible to every income level, and the needs to be exciting investment opportunities.
If you find yourself in Vermont, please check out Philo Ridge Farm. This converted 19th century farm is now fully organic, and is launching a community center, tours, and a permanent farm stand. It’s absolutely beautiful, and the owners, Diana and Peter, are immensely knowledgeable on the history of the area and the impact of conventional farming.