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A Look Inside Organic Valley’s Commitment to Farmers

Farmers play an integral role in making sure consumers have food and dairy products on their table, though their job isn’t always recognized. With more than two million farms in the United States, 85% of fruit and vegetables are still handpicked. Farmers are responsible for harvesting crops, tending to animals, and producing products to sell to market on a day-to-day basis.

While farmers’ work should be celebrated every day, it’s especially important during National Farmworker Awareness Week (NFAW) to shed light on the many contributions farmers make to our daily lives. It’s also a time to bring attention to some of the farmworker issues in our communities.

One organization that has shown continued appreciation for their farmers is Organic Valley. The independent cooperative of organic farmers strives to produce dairy products in a way that’s healthy for the consumers, animals, and environment. Additionally, Organic Valley promises a stable pay price for their farmers, meaning their workers get a fair price for their products. The farmers aren’t nearly as affected by fluctuating dairy prices.

“Organic Valley is totally committed to holding the price up for the farmers, which has definitely benefited us,” Ron Holter, a fifth-generation farmer located in central Maryland, said. “The amount of resources Organic Valley gives to their farmers and their cooperative structure is just mindboggling. It’s a farmer-run organization. It’s run from the bottom up, rather than the top down. Our CEO answers to the Board of Directors, which is made up of a group of farmers. Every farmer has access to the board. It’s incredible.”

Organic Valley’s history is deeply rooted in family values and organic practices

Seven Midwest family farmers set out to change the state of American agriculture and founded Organic Valley in 1988. The organization has grown to be one of the largest producers of organic dairy in the nation with more than 1,800 family farms across 34 states.

The small group of farmers had a desire to change the way people thought about food. They also wanted to raise food the right way, treat farmworkers fairly, and save family farms. The farmers established high organic standards, which eventually served as the framework for the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) organic rules. Now 30 years later, Organic Valley continues to fulfill their mission by creating a healthier future.

“We’ve been with a different cooperative in the past, but they honestly didn’t care about their producers. They only cared about the cooperative structure and the business side of it, not the farmer side of it,” Holter explained. “So it was really amazing to see how much Organic Valley cares for their farmers.”

Organic Valley’s family-owned farms never use GMOs, synthetic hormones, antibiotics or toxic synthetic pesticides. Instead, the farmers rely on sun, grass, soil and rain as well as the wisdom that comes with many generations of farming. As a result, they’ve kept over 380 million pounds of toxic synthetic pesticides and fertilizers out of the environment. Their farmers also use innovative techniques like stocking natural predators of pests, and old-school methods like pulling ragweed by hand. Additionally, their average herd size on farms is just 76 cows to ensure the animals have space to roam in green pastures.

A day in the life of Organic Valley’s family farmers who are committed to raising quality food

Behind Organic Valley’s name are farmers across the country producing dairy products. Holter has been a part of the cooperative for the past 15 years, running Holterholm Farms in a valley on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains about 35 miles North West of Washington D.C. His great-great grandfather purchased the farm in 1889 during a bankruptcy sale and it has stayed in the family ever since. His grandfather focused on soil conservation, which has been a significant driver for their success and the foundation of their farm principles. Holter joined a partnership with his parents in 1984, eventually taking over the farm and finding new ways to innovate.

“I’ve been farming all my life and it’s an honor to be a part of Organic Valley,” Holter said. “We get up at three in the morning to milk and take care of any cows that have calves overnight. Every day is different. We move cows around, clean some stables, nurse cows, feed our calves, and just continue the process. I’ll do maintenance from any damage – branches that fall or fence repairs. I also do soil management, and there’s paperwork for the organic certification. I’ll go to bed and do it all over again.”

“I love working hand-in-hand with nature and I love producing high-quality products for consumers,” Holter added. “If someone’s drinking a product I produced, I want it to be the best.”

Transitioning from conventional to organic farming presents challenges, but adds benefits

Holterholm Farms was conventional for more than a century when Holter decided to transition to a pasture-grazing system in 1995 after taking a class on sustainable agriculture. In 2000, he fully committed to organic.

“To me, organic is a system of agriculture that is healing to the land that leads to a better product,” Holter said. “We didn’t decide to go organic to get extra dollars on our milk check. We decided to go organic because of healing — healing of the land, healing of the product, healing of the cows.”

But what does it take to be certified as an organic farmer? All certified organic foods must be grown and handled without using genetically modified organisms, USDA states. Farmers have to grow and process their foods according to federal guidelines for soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives.

Organic produce must be grown on soil that hasn’t had any prohibited substances, such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticide, for at least three years before harvest. Meats become organic when the animals have living conditions that accommodate their natural behaviors (like grazing on pastures), and are fed 100% organic feed and forage. Animals also cannot receive any antibiotics or hormones. It takes three years to fully transition from a conventional farm to organic.

“The transition to organic was simple for us, but it’s a struggle to start with. You can’t just flip a switch and say you’re going to become organic. The land and soil have to heal. It takes time to get the biological functions working again,” Holter said. “On July 1st 2005 the first organic milk truck came in and picked up our milk. There are many challenges, but it’s exciting in the end.”

Organic farming has positive impacts on sustainability and animal care

Beyond health reasons, farming organically has proven to be beneficial for sustainability and animal care. Cows graze and eat natural green plants (such as legumes, forbs, clover, brome, ryegrass, and fescue) instead of grains. Grazing is not only favorable for the cows’ health, but the plant life helps the environment as well. Forbs, for example, are higher in nutrition for the cows and have much deeper roots than regular grasses. They go far into the ground and pull nutrients up that grasses can’t reach, which helps stop carbon pollution and water runoff.

“We’re sequestering carbon. Our soils have now become a carbon sink. We had orchard grass roots going down 62 inches of the soil. If our root system is going down that deep, we’re sending carbon down that deep,” Holter said. “It also opens up panels for water to go down that deep and water doesn’t runoff. It all infiltrates into the soil so we’re helping to mitigate floods and build a healthier ecosystem.”

“There’s also non-domesticated livestock that has come back to our farm, which is just incredible,” he added. “That helps everybody. That doesn’t just help us. That’s the key to it all. It’s not about me, it’s about us and we’re all in it together.”

Farmers have an undeniable passion for their work that doesn’t go unnoticed in the food service industry. They work long hours to deliver quality products, which is why it’s imperative to recognize farmworkers for their hard work and dedication, especially during National Farmworker Awareness Week.

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