cows in field

The NODPA Listening Project

Collecting the Voices of Organic Dairy

Annie Murray and Nora Owens interviewing Vaughn Sherman

During the 17th Annual NODPA Field Days in Truxton, NY in September 2017, there was much discussion about the frustration and anxiety being experienced by organic dairy farm families as they attempted to cope with record low milk prices, an ineffective NOP, cheap ‘organic’ milk from mega-farms, and increased competition from plant based beverages sold like real milk. During the Producer-Only meeting, members agreed that consumers needed to know their farmers and to understand what was happening with the Organic Milk market. The best way to reach the most consumers with our messages would be by using very popular tools, such as these social media platforms: NODPA’s Organic Dairy Farmers Facebook page, Twitter, YouTube, and the NODPA website, to name a few. A small committee was formed and almost weekly meetings were held since then. Liz Pickard, Twin Oaks Dairy, Truxton, NY, Annie Murray, Hidden Meadow Dairy, Cincinnatus, NY, and Sonja Heyck-Merlin, Clovercrest Farm, Charleston, ME, make up the committee and receive support from NODPA News Editor and Events Coordinator, Nora Owens. The committee’s main goals have been to raise consumers’ awareness of organic dairy and its multiple benefits beyond healthy, delicious organic milk; to create and promote relationships between consumers and organic dairy farm families that will translate into greater customer loyalty and awareness of the issues facing organic dairy producers.

Originally called the Social Media Committee, the group decided that name might not have a lot of meaning for those who aren’t deeply involved with social media. Instead, the committee chose The Community Connection Committee as its name in order to represent the goals it has set. There is much work to be done in order for the committee’s work to have a widespread impact but it’s beginning to take shape.

The Community Connection Committee launched their first initiative, The NODPA Listening Project: Collecting the Voices of Organic Dairy on March 6th at the NOFA-NY Organic Dairy and Crop Conference in Liverpool, NY. Throughout the day, organic dairy farmers, their families, and those associated with organic dairy were invited to record their voices; to tell their stories. It was designed to be a short recording, with the tag line, 3 Questions in 3 Minutes. Happily, most interviews were under 3 minutes and everyone that participated left with a smile and a homemade chocolate chip cookie for their willingness to participate. Over twenty five participants took advantage of this opportunity and shared their thoughts and concerns about the state of organic dairy today, and why they remain committed to farming with organic and sustainable practices.
Here are the three questions we asked most of our participants. For those who weren’t farmers, we adjusted the wording to reflect their involvement and/or interaction with organic dairy producers.

  1. Where do you farm? Please introduce yourself and tell us about your farm and with whom you farm.
  2. What are the benefits of organic dairy to you, your family, and your community?
  3. What are the most important things that consumers need to know about organic dairy farming, today?

“Since we are just beginning to organize all of these recordings, we will share some of the faces of the participants and a variety of quotes that we’ve taken from the interviews in this article. As we have time to organize this information, we will have more specific details and access to the interviews, but for now, it is still a learning process for all,” said Nora Owens, support staff to the Listening Project.

A Sampling of Quotes from The NODPA Listening Project:
3 Questions in 3 Minutes

For the most part, organic dairy farms are small farms that are really invested in their communities. Every dollar earned is re-invested in our communities, supporting the economies of rural communities across the state, and keeping them alive.

When an organic dairy farm is having difficulty-as we are with low pay price, the whole community suffers. The money is not being spent to support local businesses, those who supply us with products, provide parts for our equipment, and those that sell us groceries. It has a huge impact on our whole communities, not just us.

We have a diverse farming operation and currently are raising organic dairy heifers because there’s no market for organic milk until the Spring of 2019.

We have remained a somewhat self-regulated industry and I hope we don’t become as commercialized and marginalized as the conventional dairy industry. If we can’t continue as we are, then it is sad to see it all end at the hands of someone trying to make more money.

The first day of college, I was told that it takes 2 years to pay off a cow, and the life expectancy of a cow was 1.6 lactations. If we confine cows and pour tons of corn into them, they aren’t going to live good lives, and I sure wouldn’t want to live like that.

If you want to see cows and calves on pasture, organic milk is a good choice; if you want animals to live in a natural environment without chemicals, organic milk is a good choice; if you want land that hasn’t had pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and chemical fertilizers put on it, organic milk is the right choice. And, remember that ‘milks’ like soy and nut beverages require a lot of human intervention and unnatural ingredients to produce them, but organic milk is the way nature intended it to be.

We have a creek on our farm that flows into a river that is the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay. When I realized that anything I put on the soil on my farm will impact hundreds of thousands of people, adversely affecting those downstream, then I have a responsibility to farm in a way that protects the wellbeing of them.

Organic dairy has provided a niche market for our farm; adding value and ensuring that the next generation can be there. The conventional market is a commodity market and a race to the bottom. Without organics, we wouldn’t be alive. Organic makes us sustain able, and it’s a perfect fit for our value system.

We sell directly to the consumer and our base buys organic but they aren’t really familiar with what makes organic “organic”. My advice to consumers is continue to educate yourselves; know specific differences and why organic is advantageous to you and why. It’s worth more and the value behind it really comes back to your own health, and a lot of diseases that are increasing are related to what we put in our stomach—compromising our health. Choosing an organic, local diet is really important to your health.

We aren’t getting rich off it [organic farming] but that’s okay because it’s a good life.

It’s important that cows can go out on pasture and express their ‘cow-ness’.

Vaughn Sherman, Jerry Dell Farm

Nathaniel Stephens, Stephens Farm, Sussex, New Jersey

Nathan Bawden, Bawden Farms, Hammond, NY

Audrey Lappin, Hayberg, NY

Paul and Maureen Knapp, Cobblestone Farm, Preble, NY

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