Monday, July 31, 2006

I Believe in Organic Valley

Sunday I had the great pleasure of taking my family to the Organic Valley Kickapoo Country Fair. This is our second year attending the fair, and it was again a wonderful experience. I am a big-time Organic Valley advocate, because they are the future of Organic. They enable small family farms to be distributed on a national scale. Their system is so real that you can see the inner workings every year at the fair. In fact, I wouldn't doubt that if you called OV up, they'd arrange a tour for you at your convenience. The headquarters actually look a lot like the corporate logo, a large modern office structure but it looks like a barn. They have 20' swaths of native prairie planted on both sides of the long drive up to headquarters. Their aluminum roof channels rainfall into a system of giant holding tanks, which are tapped to water the vegetable gardens. They are as real as real can be. They are also located in one of the most beautiful parts of the country-the "driftless region" of the kickapoo valley, with rolling green hills, forests, streams, and rock outcroppings.

Each year the fair brings together many of the OV farmers, as well as other local organic farmers, artisans, coffee roasters, food co-ops, musicians, eco-organizations, and more. We passed booths with t-shirts with 'liberal' slogans on them, a fundraising booth for Habitat for Humanity that was selling organic ice cream, a hand woven rug stand, a booth for Chelsea Green publishing, a corn pellet stove manufacturer, an alternative energy cooperative, and the like. Good food and drink were in abundance. OV had a large crew of people separating recyclables from trash from compostables. (Even the paper plates, 'plastic' cups and spoons, and water bottles were compostable, thanks to OV.) The kids and I enjoyed making crafts and checking out the animals. (OK, the kids were a little wilted from the heat, a bit pouty, but it was still really neat. Meanwhile Beo took a course on Resources for Organic Gardeners and Farmers. He had to pass up a course on 70 mpg, 0 Emissions vehicles and Sustainable Building to attend that one.

After a lunch of a veggie burrito, pesto pasta salad, organic milk, and fruit, we headed on to a bus to tour one or OV's dairy farms. It is nestled in the hills about 20 miles from OV HQ, run by a really swell guy and his wife. The farmer told us a bit about how he and his wife got into organic dairy farming. They were drawn in by the appeal of seasonal milking. This means that they follow the cow's natural milk cycle, instead of forcing them to milk year round. The cows are allowed to "dry up" in November, and milking resumes in March. I love that system--it seems so much more--well, natural! The farmer took us out to the high pasture, and talked about the challenges of managing the balance between the natural grasses and clovers that grow there, along with what the cows like and need. He does semi-intensive rotational grazing (12 hours in one spot of field) but makes sure the cows are happy no matter what. He gets more milk out of them that way--but I'll take happy cows no matter what the motivation. So yesterday, with the heat, the cows not only had about 3 times the pasture space that they normally did, but he had opened up the lower "emergency" pasture to them. The lower pasture is in a valley and has lots of shade, so the cows can go down there to cool off if they feel like it.

This particular farmer has about 39 cows. We heard the OV represenative talking about how they breed for cows that like being out on pasture. He explained that if they stuck holsteins out on natural pasture, they'd hardly know what to do with themselves. So we heard about highly mixed cows--milking shorthorn, jersey, and more. The farm that we were at uses a bull as well as AI. The family built their own home on their land, as well as building the milking parlor. I was really impressed with how clean the milking parlor was. I realize they were prepped for a tour, but it was a working farm and I think it probably is kept that clean. The only ethical problem left that I can see is what happens when a bull calf is born. He had two there at the farm yesterday. I think I heard him say they were the only two born that year. Conversations overlapped and answers got hard to hear, but I thought he was saying that they keep them for a year and then they go into the OV meat production area. I have to say that I feel like that particular impact is a small one, ethically. Environmentally there is very little impact (one of the calves we saw was in a smaller penned area with pasture), and it fills a market demand in a very positive way. ( Even if I'm not going to eat it, I would much rather the cow be grazing pasture in the Kickapoo Valley than being raised in a stall fed on corn at an Aurora facility.)

It's hard for me to explain how powerful the experience really is. I feel incredibly un-eloquent and choppy--I could write for pages on why I feel so strongly about OV. It's too easy to get caught up in the details, and I want to be able to share everything about how amazing the farms are, and how much the farmer cared about his cows. He had names for each of the cows and would laugh as he shared about their personality. The cows were so docile, even friendly and sweet. They seemed to have the perfect life, having all of their natural needs met and with quite a view to boot. I know a lot of people have doubts about the humanity of milk, and the veracity of organic. I can honestly say that I feel even better about Organic Valley after having seen the workings of the farm than I did even before I went out there. If you are a milk drinker, and you believe in Organic, Organic Valley is the company to support. If you'd like to see more about the fair, you can visit OV's webpage.


e4 said...

I think what made me feel good about Organic Valley was that in my various internet wanderings, I saw a couple well-placed ads from OV saying they were looking for small family farms to produce things for them. I clicked, and read, and was amazed. ( We're not big enough to qualify for anything at this point, but it's very encouraging (especially when compared to an outfit like Horizon).

~Lori said...

Yep, I haven't done nearly as much research as y'all have, but I have warm fuzzies about OV, too.

And I think their milk is, hands down, the best I've ever tasted. It even beats our fresh-from-the-udder Betsy milk. It's the most compelling reason that I'm still secretly hoping we end up with a family cow - just to try to match that flavor.

Sounds like a wonderful time was had at the fair!!