What Saved This Conventional Farm?

by guest blogger Alberto Gonzalez, founder and CEO of GustOrganics

One of the beauties of organic agriculture rarely seen in other business sectors is true cooperation. I am a firm believer that sustainable development is all about smart and well-intended long-term collaboration.

I recently attended the Organic Pioneer Awards at the Rodale Institute—an amazing event that recognizes people who make a difference in sustainable agriculture.

Earlier that day, I visited an organic family farm in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, adjacent to the Rodale Institute, owned by James Burkholder. When I met James, his wife Ida, and his lovely family, I realized that I was in presence of a new organic leader.

The Burkholder family has been farming forever. James’s family moved from Switzerland to the U.S. in the 1700s and, like most people back then, dedicated themselves to cultivating the land. The family farmed conventionally until very recently.

James mentioned to me that he did not have any prior knowledge about organic agriculture, but in recent years he watched in horror as conventional farming practices threatened to wipe out the family’s farm, particularly when, in 2009, milk prices dropped unbelievably low. He was at risk of selling the herd and losing his family’s livelihood.  He needed to find a way to save their farm because farming was all they knew how to do. James decided to look into organic farming practices.

As he researched, he realized that organic was not only a viable solution, but also the right way to go, not just for his farm, but also for his family. Although the transition was certainly challenging and definitely required help, he describes the process as going back to basics through organic agriculture.

A transition from conventional to organic generally takes a farm about three years, and that time lapse is often an obstacle for farmers to take the leap. However, James was determined to find a way to reduce the time and make it happen.

Since the Burkholder farm is next to the Rodale Institute, the family had a wealth of information in the pioneers in organic agriculture right next door.

So when James asked Coach Mark Smallwood, the institute’s executive director, for help, Smallwood’s immediate reaction was “If we can’t help our neighbor, we are in serious trouble; we will find a way to make it work.”

Together, here’s what they did:

• Reduced the transition time. James’s challenges were two: First, he needed to get access to certified-organic pasture and second, he’d need space to store his certified-organic milk.

He and the institute came to a creative solution: Rodale would provide access to pasture for Burkholder’s 55 dairy cows (soon to be more) and, in exchange, Burkholder would provide samples of the soil and the milk on an ongoing basis, so scientists at Rodale Institute could analyze the quality of the soil, including levels of mineralization and organic matter, and the quality of the milk, including its nutritional value. As a part of the study, they would also constantly monitor the health of the cows. This extremely valuable research has been going on during the whole transition and will continue on a permanent basis.

The Rodale Institute has been conducting The Farming Systems Trial, a rigorous study providing scientific data of a comparison between conventional and organic farming, for more than 30 years. So this information just adds to its already growing body of research on organic farming.

• Found the market. The second part of Burkholder’s challenge was to be able to sell the farm’s certified-organic milk and a stable price. That’s where CROPP Cooperative, the farmer-owned cooperative of the Organic Valley brand, came into play. Organic Valley is a national cooperative with a regional model, essentially a big bunch of little guys banded together to support local farmers and economies.

When I asked James why he decided to join Organic Valley, he said the decision was made for several reasons, including a fair and stable pay price that allows him to support his family through farming and enables him to project his income into the future, a luxury for dairy farmers. James also likes the transparency involved in the pricing, and in all its other procedures and operations.

James said he enjoys being an owner of the cooperative and having a say in the co-op’s farming practices. And he likes that he is now making products that are better for his family and the communities he serves.

One of the big differences that James has observed in his new operation is the significant improvement in the health of his animals. He used to spend around $350 a month in veterinary bills and antibiotics, hormones, and such; now his average invoice is only $50.

Plus, he mentioned that plants that on his previously conventional farm he considered weeds to be fought with chemicals he now sees as part of a beautiful biodiversity on which his cows now feed and grow healthy.

The Burkholder farm became certified organic on May 9, 2012, and James feels lucky that he was able to receive the help he did. He believes it would be tough for conventional farmers to make the switch without the proper help.

Conventional farming, a world in which he belonged for his entire life, is, he says, more about competition, and the organic world is absolutely about cooperation.

Industrial agriculture has been pushing small family farms out of business in a consistent way for the past 50 years. According to Farm Aid, every week 330 American farmers leave their land. U.S. consumers have been awakening to the fact that industrial food systems are a big part of our collective health problems and, ironically, more people want food grown with love by small family farmers in their communities, and not by factories. Regardless of how much money the frightened agrochemical companies can pour into fast-tracking research and media amplification to prove conventional agricultural virtues, I think we are very close to a tipping point at which conventional agriculture will face severe transformative change or a slow death.

I truly believe that the Burkholders’ story of a conventional family farm facing extinction and being saved by the organic movement is one of many to come. This story brings hope to all who believe in collective health, social responsibility, and sustainable development, and who trust that when organic farmers, advocates, and educators work together, we can feed the world.

Photos courtesy of Russell French, for Organic Valley

Alberto Gonzalez is the founder and CEO of GustOrganics, the world’s first certified-organic restaurant using 100 percent organic ingredients, and one of the greenest and most progressive restaurants on the planet, gustorganics.com.



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2 Responses to What Saved This Conventional Farm?

  1. Donna in Delaware October 16, 2012 at 1:52 pm #

    A beautiful, heartwarming story. Let’s hope that more small farmers will come to this realisation, and institutes such as Rodale, will be there to help in every way that they can, for the good of us all and the planet. Bravo Rodale Institute, bravo Burkholders!

  2. James Early October 16, 2012 at 2:06 pm #

    This is so inspiring. It’s so encouraging to hear that these kinds of things are going on. Hats off to the Burkholders and to Rodale for being real neighbors.

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