Can The Organic Label Save America's Small Family Dairy Farms?

The United States has lost 85,000 small dairy farms in the past 20 years. Transitioning to organic practices could save the ones that are left.

 

"I like to say that we live in the heart of God's country," says 49-year-old Tracy Dransfield, who for the past nine years has run Windspring Farms, a small organic dairy in Gap Mills, West Virginia, with her 60-year-old husband, Doug. "It's beautiful here. The people are good. They're hardworking and very supportive." The Dransfields' farm, situated in the mountains just across the border of Virginia, is set in a landscape so idyllic you would be forgiven for thinking that, in 2017 at least, it only exists as a romanticized illustration on the back of a milk carton: acres of gently rolling green pastures; blue-green mountains in the background. Their herd of 75 black and white cows dots the landscape; there's a maroon house in the distance. But four years ago, things weren't looking so pretty—the dairy was struggling financially, they were concerned about the future of the farm.

Tracy and Doug Dransfield at Windspring Farms in Gap Mills, West Virginia.

Making a go of it as a farmer on a small scale is becoming increasingly difficult in the United States. Farms that gross over a million dollars accounted for a third of farm production in the United States in 1991; by 2015, that figure had risen to half. Small farms, on the other hand—those than earn under $350,000 in gross cash farm income—fell from 46% of production in 1991 to less than 25% in 2015. And the midpoint acreage of farms has been steadily increasing—from 589 acres in 1982 to 1,234 in 2012. The pressure to scale up is intense: technological innovations mean it's gotten easier to manage ever larger land acreage and more animals, enabling farmers to lower costs and raise profit margins the bigger they go. Small farms can find it harder to compete.

Dairy farmers like the Dransfields face the additional hurdle of climbing production costs and stagnant milk pricing: The prices farmers get for milk are unpredictable and, on the whole, haven't risen much since the eighties. Most of the milk we consume today is being produced by ever-larger farms. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture census figures, between 1992 and 2012 (the last year the department gathered data), the United States lost 85,000 small dairy farms. Many farmers went out of business. Others scaled up, squeezing more profit out of milk by making a ton of it: During that same 20-year period, the number of dairy farms with at least 1,000 cows more than tripled. Those larger dairy farms (the largest of which have as many as 15,000 cows) are hard on cows, and on the environment—there are problems with manure run-off, which degrades water quality and pollutes the air. But it's hard for smaller dairy farms to compete with the volume of milk they produce.

Small dairies face enormous economic pressure everywhere, but in West Virginia, where the Dransfields live, farmers also must grapple with mountainous terrain that isn't as conducive to large-scale farming as many other regions. Dairy farms there often don't have the option to scale up, even if they want to. And the Dransfields didn't want to.

"We didn't want to go out of business and we didn't want to expand," Doug says simply. So instead of going big or going out of business, the Dransfields decided to go organic.

Why organic matters

Unlike with conventional milk, the pay price for organic milk had risen steadily since the late eighties. In 2013, when the Dransfields began to consider what it would take to transition Windspring Farms to an organic dairy, organic milk commanded a price that was 50% higher than conventional. (The pay price per hundredweight was about twice that of conventional in 2015.)

The Dransfields' farmhouse in Gap Mills, West Virginia.

But while organic certification commands higher prices, making the transition comes with a significant investment, of both time and finances for farmers. There were logistics such as shipping and supply to consider: Getting organic feed and coordinating milk pickup in their part of rural West Virginia was a major obstacle. "It's hard to get people in rural areas to come pick you up," Tracy says. "Unless you have a large quantity of milk, it's not economically feasible for organizations."

But the financial outlook was only part of the picture.

"Before we made the final decision, we spent a lot of time looking at finances—and we talked about the future of farming," Tracy says.

The Dransfields felt drawn towards a more sustainable lifestyle. They were already using alternative treatments whenever they could with their cows, and they had always been uneasy about the conventional practices they did employ, like spraying the crops they grew to feed the cows for weed and pest control.

"We just never felt great about putting pesticides down. In our garden, we wouldn't," Tracy says. "But a field away, we were spraying corn—we just never liked doing that. I'd go around and shut all the windows when they were spraying; it just wasn't attractive to us, we never felt good about it, and we never felt like we were being good to the environment."

More and more, going organic was looking like a good option—financially, environmentally, and generationally. "We needed to do something to make it attractive for the children to stay involved in the farm if they want to, and to support more than one family," Tracy says.

One of the cows at Windspring Farms takes a look inside the milking shed.

The Dransfields' children grew up on the farm, and many want to stay involved. Laura Jane, 19, was the 2015 West Virginia Dairy Princess, and spoke to others around the state about the importance of dairy farms. She's now in nursing school, but plans to return to farm after graduation. Another son, Joshua, 20, has been helping out on the farm as long as he can remember—the first time he drove a tractor with his dad in one of the farm's back fields, he was so young he could barely reach the brakes. He's currently studying Animal Science at West Virginia University, taking classes in milk production, nutrition, agronomy and more; when he graduates, he plans to return to work on the farm full-time. Running a farm is all he's ever wanted to do, he says. "I wanted to be a dairy farmer because my dad was a dairy farmer, I just can't imagine doing anything else."

Going organic was necessary, he says, "so that there would be a farm when I got out of college."

 
Advertisement

The Organic Community

The years of transition weren't easy for the Dransfields. Cows have to be on organic pasture and grain—and free of prohibited supplements and treatments like antibiotics and anything with artificial preservatives—for at least a year before the milk can be certified organic and command the corresponding higher prices. The land itself must be cultivated organically for at least three years before it can be certified— during that last year of transition and once they're certified, any feed purchased off the farm must be organically grown. "We weren't in real good shape when we started," Doug says. "Prices [on milk] went down that [first] year. We're not in an area where there's a lot of organic feed being grown—it was a bit of a problem."

The Dransfields are in good company: as demand for organic food continues to grow, more farms are making the transition than ever. From 2002 to 2015, organic operations in the United States increased by nearly 300%; in 2016, the USDA reports there were 24,650 certified organic operations across the country, up from 7,323 in 2002, and a record 13% increase over the previous year's total.

The existing network of organic farms can make transitioning a bit easier for those new to the system. A few of the Dransfields' neighbors who had already obtained organic certification were members of Organic Valley, a farmer-owned cooperative (the organization is controlled by a board of active farmers, all chosen by members) made up of more than 2,000 member farms. The Dransfields reached out to the coop's local representative, Gerry Cohn, who helped them get the process of organic certification started.

Tracy (at left) and her daughter Laura Jane with pails of milk for the farm's calves.

As Organic Valley's Southeast Region Pool Manager, Cohn oversees the 30 members spread over Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Tennessee, including five (counting Windspring Farms) in eastern West Virginia. He does annual pasture and animal care audits, checks the farms against national organic and Organic Valley standards, and in general makes himself available to farmers like the Dransfields for help and advice as they learn to farm organically. Doug and Tracy now consider him indispensable.

"There was a learning curve," Tracy admits. "What's acceptable, what's not acceptable. We called or emailed our certifying agency no less than five times a month when we were doing the transition. I know they got tired of hearing from us, just because we wanted to make sure we were doing everything properly. There's a lot to learn. You want to make sure that you're doing things that follow national organic practices. But I think one of the greatest assets is that we learn from each other as well."

Much of that new learning was treatments for cows that have been largely forgotten in recent years but are being resurrected by organic dairies. "Organic farmers know a lot of tricks," Tracy says. "And there's a vet that Organic Valley has on staff that you can just call with any question. We've learned a lot just from using that resource. I'll give you an example: so if a cow calves and she's got retained placenta, instead of doing what commercial dairy farms might do—which would be to give her an injection of oxytocin—we give the cows organic molasses and sea salt. We mix that in a 5-gallon bucket, and when they drink that, the high levels of sodium and potassium will have the same effect. We've had great success with doing that; it works every single time."

The Dransfields keep 75 dairy cows, 30 of which are milked.

They've picked up other tips for treating their cows in the same fashion: instead of giving antibiotics for an injured foot, for example, they catch cows early and apply an iodine and sugar wrap to the injury. In general, the rules are prevention, clean milking routines, and a careful watch. "A person needs to know cows before they go into the business. You need to be a good farmer. If you can tell when a cow is not feeling well, you can prevent things from happening. You need to be a good cow person," Tracy says. The couple has noticed that their vet bills have shrunk to almost nothing. "People will ask, 'what do you do for this, what do you do for that,'" Doug says. "And when you tell them, they'll say: 'that's what my granddad used to do!'"

A future for small family farms

The coop has been crucial to help the Dransfields' small family farm participate in the national organic market. Organic Valley pays farmers a 10% price premium during that last year of transition to help offset the cost of purchasing organic feed. Another part of Organic Valley's role is to push for more stable milk prices for its farmers, and handle the milk hauling fees—both big selling points for the couple. Before getting certified, the Dransfields were paying around $1,000 a month to get their milk picked up, plus a fuel and stop surcharge, because they tend to ship fairly small quantities. Now, they pay around $180 per month for hauling, no matter how much milk they ship. And Organic Valley considers the composition of the milk when setting prices, which has been a nice bonus for the farm. "We're getting paid more for butterfat and protein than we did on conventional," Doug says.

The tight-knit group of organic dairy farmers that the Dransfields have found themselves a part of has been essential to them, like Rem Perkins, the first dairy farmer to go organic in West Virginia, in 2009, and Brian and Leslie Wickline of Belle Vue Farm, all of whom have been supportive resources to the Dransfields. "Organic people are some of the best I've met," she says.

"We rely on each other for information. And also to borrow things," she laughs. "We work sort of hand in hand with each other. Likewise we learn from each other. And I think that's important. We're not too proud to learn." Cultivating a sort of beginner's mind about something you've done a certain way for decades can be a hard mindset to embrace: Tracy emphasizes that because there's no formula for what they do, a willingness to learn and change has been key to the continued success of the farm. "You have to be smart enough to know you're not all that smart," she says.

 

The community rallied when the couple's son Josh fell and suffered a traumatic head injury earlier this year, and was unable to work on the farm for months. Tracy and Doug spent an entire month at the hospital with Josh, while one of their older sons, Ike (pictured, above), quit his job to milk the cows and keep the farm going. The community's response "was humbling," she says. "They brought food to Ike when he was milking—they pretty much kept him fed for months. Our neighbors offered to plant Doug's corn." Josh has since recovered—he returned home to the farm in June, and was able to return to school this fall.

A sustainable future

But possibly the most significant change for the Dransfields has been in the way they manage the land. Windspring Farms cows get two thirds of their diet from grazing—the Organic Valley minimum is one third—and the pasture and crops must be managed more intensively. "That was the biggest change—the crops, the fields," says Tracy. "The cows were always on pasture, but we didn't manage it. Now it's divided up," Doug says. The herd gets a 5-acre fresh patch of pasture once a week, and then they're moved to another section. Each section is allowed to rest for a month before the herd is rotated back on it, protecting it from overgrazing and increasing grazing efficiency. In the winter, that 2/3 pasture is replaced with corn silage and hay; the remaining third, year-round, is organic grain. Instead of spraying to kill weeds, they focus more heavily on crop rotation and soil management to discourage their growth.

 

And the herd has never been better. "We were surprised by just how well they did when we switched over," Doug says. There was a brief dip in milk production while the cows adjusted to less grain and more grazing, but "right now we're probably getting close to shipping as much [milk] per cow as we were before." The levels of butterfat in the milk have increased. "And we really have very little trouble with health problems."

"I think that Doug worked really hard his entire career building up a herd that had good genetics," Tracy says. "We want our cows to be healthy. We want the good genetics, so they actually stay in the herd for a long time. We have some cows that are 12 years old." (The average lifespan for dairy cows in the U.S. is about 5 years on a conventional farm.) "Some of the kids show cows that they started out with in the 3rd and 4th grade; they're still in the herd."

A calf and kitten nap in the barn.

They still grow corn to feed their cows, now using organic farming methods. "[Doug] has said to me that it has been so nice now; he doesn't even mind the extra time that it takes to cultivate the corn, because he's not putting Roundup on the ground," Tracy says. "And you know, our corn looks great. It actually looks better than it did before."

"You'll notice that our yard is the size of a football field," says Doug. "She wanted a fence way, way behind the house and she didn't want any corn anywhere near it—"

"I didn't want anything sprayed near my house!" Tracy says.

"—and now she has to mow it," he says, laughing.

These days, about two and a half years into their organic experiment—the first year everything is certified—the farm is flourishing. The herd is 75 cows strong, 30 of which are currently being milked, a number that they hope to double by next year. They're already producing almost as much corn and milk as they were getting before. They hope to see other farms in West Virginia follow suit.

Having one or two farms go organic in a given area can have a domino effect: once the problems of supply and shipping are figured out—like obtaining organic feed and getting milk picked up—it makes it easier for other farms to jump on the wagon. "From an insider's perspective, it is hard to get people in rural areas to come pick you up unless you have a large quantity of milk," Tracy says. "So we're thankful for Organic Valley and their commitment to getting more land certified and supporting organic principles; we're just indebted to them because it's not something that is easy to do. We're hoping not to lose any farmers," she adds, "and hopefully gain more into that pod."

"We're both really invested in helping make agriculture sustainable for this part of the country. We're convinced that organic production and smaller herds in West Virginia is a viable option. You can still be a farmer and make a decent wage. You don't have to be a 5,000-cow dairy to make it, nor do you want to be. I would love for all dairies in West Virginia to eventually convert to organic practices."

But best of all is that the certainty that the farm will now be around for the younger Dransfields, if they want to take up the mantle. Once again, Josh sums it up best: "There's a future for the farm now."

This article is part of the Why Organic Matters series, sponsored by Organic Valley, a cooperative of over 2,000 small family farmers who produce dairy, eggs and produce in a way that's good for animals, people and the planet. We're highlighting stories about the people, communities, and companies who are making the world a better place, literally from the ground up.

▩ ▩ ▩