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Attendees start flocking in for the NODPA Field Days, at Beaver Meadow Campgrounds

2011 NODPA Field Days Summary

Organic Dairy: What does the Future Hold?

By Lisa McCrory, NODPA News and Web Editor

Added November 13, 2011. Another year, and another great NODPA Field Days has come and gone. Planning a gathering in late September has its advantages: most of the crop work is done and there is still a good chance that some warm weather will befall us. With all the rain and flooding that has been taking place this year, we were fortunate to find some sunny weather which was perfect for the farm tour and workshops at Siobhan Griffin's Raindance Farm, and assured us that we would be comfortable using a curtained tent for a couple meeting sessions at the Beaver Valley Campsites and Campground in Milford, NY.

One of the best parts of coming to the NODPA Field Days each year is to reunite with old friends - producers and resource individuals alike - who come back year after year. They are able to share some stories from the farm, talk about their children (and grandkids for many), and enjoy good food and lots of laughs. Every year people come interested in learning something new, giving NODPA constructive feedback, celebrating NODPA's successes, acknowledging the exceptional work of a few, and ready to hunker down and work harder in areas where progress is slow to nonexistent.

It is amazing to see how far NODPA has come as an organization. As part of the two day conference, we made sure to spend some time acknowledging many of those accomplishments. It was good to list the positives first, because when we started to look at our challenges, it was a bit deflating. Many times, however, I felt we, as a group, were able to look back at the accomplishments as a way to assure oneself that our challenges could be met and turned into success.

Siobhan Griffin showing off her pastures

Over the 10.5 years that NODPA has existed as an organization, it has managed to do many positive things including:

  • Playing a key role in the implementation of the Pasture Rule,
  • Invited by 'industry' to participate in discussions pertaining to organic dairy and the dairy industry as a whole,
  • Helped create a national voice for organic dairy producers (FOOD Farmers),
  • Developed a resource website that stays current on feed & milk prices, economics of production, has a library of organic production articles, offers an Odairy discussion list, and more (www.nodpa.com)
  • Has been publishing a bi-monthly print newsletter (NODPA News) since 2002, keeping producers informed and aware.

Challenges that are still hanging over the heads of organic dairy producers are many and include:

  • No Proposed Rule on Origin of Livestock (OOL),
  • Feed costs and input costs are climbing fast,
  • Drought and over-wet conditions this year has made it hard for some to comply with the new pasture rule, and has compromised feed quality and/or availability,
  • Not seeing a lot of young farmers getting into organic dairy – we need to start seeing the next generation stepping up – why aren't they interested?
  • Pay price for organic milk has not been keeping up with the costs of production; not by a long-shot.

Troy Bishopp, 'the Grass Whisperer'

There was a lot more happening at this two-day event, which included a Keynote Address by Francis Thicke, who talked about ecological versus industrial agriculture, highlighting the differences and acknowledging that 'change is happening'. Fossil Fuels are no longer cheap and 'limitless'; society is becoming more informed - demanding quality food and humane treatment of animals; fresh water is becoming scarce; and weather is becoming unstable. He shared some slides from his farm highlighting how he and his wife have been successfully farming in a way that supports biodiversity, conserves resources, recycles nutrients, allows for levels of self-sufficiency, and works with renewable energies. His presentation was inspirational but was also clear that the damage that industrial agriculture has done is huge.

At Siobhan Griffin's farm, participants were able to take a tour of her dairy farm, see her grazing system, visit her cheese making facility, and learn about the renewable energy systems that have been installed on the farm. In the pasture, Troy Bishopp was waiting to introduce people to a dart game in the pasture. There they would use the dart to be able to make objective assessments of plant species populations, plant density, biological life above and below the soil, plant condition, and more. In reading the landscape, one can assess the current conditions within a point in time and make management plans with a goal that one can assess later on down the road. At another spot on the farm Nate Leonard was waiting to talk to people about a program that is successfully recycling plastics from the farm.

Liana Hoodes, National Organic Coalition; Kelly Shea, Horizon Organic;
and Francis Thicke, Producer and Keynote Speaker -- talking about Advocacy Groups
in the Organic Dairy Marketplace.

Talks at the Field Days on Thursday and Friday included Demystifying Private Label Milk, Natural Gas Exploration, Advocacy Groups in the Organic Dairy Market Place and, last but not least, Thinking Man's Grazing: Learning how to plan your grazing for profit, production and success.
Interesting points during the private label milk talk was that, in the opinion of the sales and marketing professionals, 10 percent of the population buys only organic milk, 10 percent will never buy organic milk and the remaining 80 percent is called a 'transitional' consumer. When the price gap between organic and non-organic milk is small, this 'transitional' group will buy organic milk and when the gap is wider, they may go back to conventional milk brands. It seems that the professional marketing folks have a magic number (breaking point/price gap) of $4.00 per ½ gallon over which sales will drop dramatically. Interesting USDA statistics show that one third of cities that come within their national survey have an average organic price of over $4:00 per ½ gallon. Currently, approximately 70-75% of organic milk produced is marketed as fluid milk. Both processors on the panel talked about introducing more branded products to reduce the need for selling surplus milk to private labels. While acknowledging that aproxiamtely 30% of sales are now within that category. Single serve products such as milk, drinkable yogurt, and other lunch box products are places where more milk could be sold with brand identity.

The panel on natural gas exploration started with a very informative introduction to the technology and the major concerns that exist, with hydro-fracking and horizontal fracking, (by Chip Northrup) followed by a panel which included organic dairy farm couple Paul and Arleen Allen from PA, and NOFA-NY Certifier, Lisa Engelbert. For a horizontally hydrofracked shale gas well, Mr. Northrup suggested that there should be a minimum setback of one half mile (2,640 feet) from a private water well, private lake or pond, or a stream used for livestock or potable water. There is no scientific data to indicate that anything less would keep groundwater used by people or livestock from being gassed with methane. Mr Northrup also stressed that there should be documentation of final disposal of frack waste flowback and produced water from a gas well, as no frack waste, either raw or treated may be dumped on rural roads and no frack waste may be put into rivers or streams, either raw or treated.

The panel 'Advocacy Groups in the Organic Marketplace' stimulated some great discussion about the importance for the producer voice being represented and heard on the local and federal level. The importance of having farmers come to DC and speak to representative was stressed many times; one producer voice is louder than a room of lobbyists (figuratively, of course). Developing communication skills through groups like Toast Masters or Rotary Clubs was suggested by a few individuals in the audience along with writing letters to the Editor for your local paper or agricultural publications (such as the NODPA News).

The final workshop of the day, 'Thinking-man's Grazing', gave the attendees some practical ways to quantify and qualify one's grazing system along with some reasons as to how this can benefit the farmer. Troy Bishopp explained the basics of using a Grazing Planning Chart (a resource of Holistic Management International ©). Following Troy's introduction to the grazing charts, a few organic dairy producer clients of Troy's took turns sharing how the grazing chart was used on their farm and how they intend to use it in the following grazing season as well.

Overall, the charts were very effective in documenting not only days grazing on each pasture/field, but also other practices such as total dry matter harvested per acre, clipping, rest periods in between grazing, amendments, weather, livestock production and more. This sheet is a nice way to be able to look at the whole grazing system (or even plan the next one) all on one page.

And finally, NODPA would like to sincerely thank all those who attended, and most especially all those who sponsored and supported the event: Horizon Organic, Lakeview Organic Grain, Organic Valley/ CROPP Cooperative, Organic Dairy Farmers Cooperative, Green Mountain Feeds, Fertrell, MOSA, NOFA-NY, PA Certified Organic, Acres USA, American Organic Seed, Agri-Dynamics, Dairy Marketing Services, E-Organic, King's Agri-Seed, Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District, New England Farmers Union, Neptune's Harvest, NOFA-VT, RAPP, Renaissance Nutrition, River Valley Fencing, Recycling Agricultural Plastics Project, Raindance Farm, SARE: Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education, Spalding Labs and the Upper Susquehanna Coalition.

Delicious organic pork was fed to all the attendees Thursday evening