cows in field

Forgues Family Farm, Alburgh, Vermont

Early Leaders in Organic

By Lisa McCrory

There are some people out there, and we all know a few, who have a gift of getting things moving; someone who is able inspire people to take initiative or follow a cause. These people tend to be born with certain leadership qualities and, when there is something they believe in, they do not take ‘no’ for an answer. These personality traits, mixed with perfect timing or what some would call serendipity bring us a story about Travis Forgues, the transition of his family farm to organic, his influence in facilitating the growth of organic dairy in Vermont, and his role in the birth of NODPA.

It all started in the early 1990’s when Henry Forgues, tired of the high labor and low return from his confinement dairy system, decided to learn more about management intensive grazing. With the help of Bill Murphy and the UVM Pasture Management Outreach Program (which existed from 1992 – 1995), Henry turned his operation into a pasture-based farm. The change in his farming practices made immediate improvements on profitability and the quality of life for the Forgues. Travis, who was not planning on coming back to the farm after college, saw the positive changes and returned to the farm with his wife Amy where they are now partners in the farm operation.

Forgues Family Farm, started in 1978, is a grass-based operation located less than one mile from the Canadian border and right along Lake Champlain in Alburgh, Vermont. Their farm consists of 220 acres of which 200 are tillable. All the acres are set up to be grazed, and/or hayed allowing them flexibility in where they graze and what they harvest for stored feed from one year to the next. They milk 80 cows, which supports two households; Henry and Sally Forgues (generation 1) and Travis and Amy and their children Emma, Gabe and Molly (generation 2).

Transition to Organic

The Forgues family transitioned to organic in1997, which required that the land be managed organically for 3 years, plus a 90-day whole herd transition where the feed, housing and health practices needed to meet the organic standards. Aside from feeding conventional grain, they felt they were already managing their farm and their livestock organically. Their grazing management system was well in place, and with the organic milk price, they would get a higher base price, , better quality premiums and a stable pay price.

At the time that Travis and Henry were interested in transitioning to organic, they did not have a market for their milk. The Organic Cow, the only milk buyer in the state, was not sourcing milk that far North. This is where ‘not taking no for an answer’ comes in. Travis called Peter Flint (Organic Cow) every day to the extent that Peter drove up to Travis’s farm to tell him personally that he was not going to pick up his milk. Peter explained that by telling him face to face Travis would finally understand and would stop calling him once and for all.

Travis ‘listened’ to Peter’s words and invited him to look around the farm – stretch his legs, if you will. By the end of the visit Peter agreed to start picking up milk in Northern Vermont.

Changes in the Industry and the birth of NODPA

The Organic Cow was sold in 1999 and with that came some unsettling times for Organic Cow producers in Maine, New York and Vermont. Horizon Organic, the new owner of the Organic Cow, was requesting that producers ‘voluntarily’ reduce their contracted pay price from $21 to $20, with the provision that if they did not willingly take $20, their next contract would be at $19. In response to that, Travis turned to Organic Valley, determined to make sure that producers had more than one processor to choose from. He made a deal with Organic Valley that he would find enough producers to fill a truck load of milk (40,000 lbs) and with that, Travis quickly took on a leadership role among Vermont organic dairy producers.

George Siemon (CEO of Organic Valley) was very interested in supporting a Northeast Summit meeting of producers and encouraged Travis to talk to producers in the surrounding states. With the help of the Vermont Organic Milk Producers Association (VOMPA) and NOFA-VT, the first regional summit of organic dairy producers took place on February 16, 2001 in Waterbury, Vermont. Twenty one farmers from the Northeast (Maine, New York, Vermont) were present, and it was at this meeting that NODPA was born.

So, now let’s talk about the Forgues Family Farm.

Production Practices at Forgues Family Farm

Cows are housed in a large quanset hut building that is a mix between a greenhouse barn and a freestall. There aren’t any stalls in the shelter, which faces South, and the barn is scraped clean every day. They have a closed herd and average 12,000 lbs per cow. The cows are cross breds with a heavy influence of Dutch Belted genetics. They breed with a bull.
A summer feed ration on this farm consists of 5-6 # of a 10% protein grain and the rest is pasture. If they run short on pasture, they supplement with baleage. In the wintertime, the cows are fed 5-6 # of a 14% grain plus baleage. They may go to an all corn and barley grain ration this winter; it all depends upon how high grain prices go up this fall. After February they try to feed the baleage on the pasture, which saves the labor of handling and spreading manure and saves money on bedding which is very expensive and sometimes hard to find.

The cows are moved to new pasture twice a day and they often plant a BMR sorghum sudan or a brassica variety of forage for the summer slump, to extend the grazing season, and to put
up high quality forage for winter feeding. This season has been a bit of a challenge getting in good forage; they got their first cut in the end of May and then it rained most of June, July and early August. They managed to get 2nd and 3rd cut in between the rains, and Travis thinks that they will have enough feed this year.

Grazing and growing high quality forages is the focus on this farm and they have been fortunate to have a close relationship with Bill Murphy (Author of ‘Greener Pastures on Your Side of the Fence’) as a mentor and a friend. The Forgues were generous enough to let Bill design and implement a few on-farm research trials as well, which included organic parasite management for calves, organic fertilization and irrigation of pastures and looking at calf weight gain and its relationship to pounds of grain fed.

Livestock health issues are few and far between; Henry and Travis call the vet to the farm maybe once a year to help with emergencies. Preventative measures employed on the farm include: clean, low-stress environment, not pushing the cows for production, a high forage diet, a good grazing system and a vaccination program. ‘A healthy grazing herd makes becoming organic almost seam-less in my experience’, says Travis. They vaccinate the herd with Triangle 7 in the spring, vaccinate for rabies, and give all their heifer calves an oral ecoli vaccine shortly after birth.

For drying off cows, they usually wait until a cow’s milk production goes down to about 15 lbs, then switch to once a day milking and then stop milking them all together. This system tends to work well for the Forgues. If a cow comes down with mastitis they rub Udder Comfort or Dynamint on the affected quarter and use a quarter-milker to divert the milk. On occasion, the quarter will get dried off and it comes back the following lactation. They rarely have cases of milk fever, but make sure to have dextrose and calcium on hand just in case.

Calves are fed milk and free choice hay and are weaned at about 2 months of age. The biggest challenge that they have with caves is scours, which they treat successfully with electrolytes and Bright Start capsules from Crystal Creek. Since most of their calves are born in the spring and summer months, they are 6 months of age about the time that the pastures are done for the year. Most of the calves start grazing the following spring at 9 months – 1 year of age, which Travis likes, because he feels they are less susceptible to parasites and not as vulnerable to coyotes.

Resources and Future Outlook

Travis was an instrumental player in getting NODPA off the ground and from that 2001 meeting, he continued for a couple years as an Organic Valley DEC rep, and helped procure more milk in the state. As the producer pool grew, more DEC positions have been created and other farmers have stepped up to the plate to fill those spots. There are now two full time positions (John Cleary and Peter Miller) who do the milk procurement and outreach in the Northeast. Travis managed to step back a little and enjoy his young family and his farm for the past few years – until recently, that is. Earlier this year, Travis was voted onto the Organic Valley/CROPP Board – the first Board member from the Northeast. The Organic Valley Board of Directors consists of 7 elected farmers. This is a governance board rather than a management board, and their duty is to see the mission of the cooperative is carried out by the management team. The length of term is 3 years.

Like many producers, Travis feels that farmers are his biggest resource whether in person, by phone, or gleaning ideas from the Odairy Listserv. When asked what he thinks needs to be addressed in order for organic dairy producers to be better served, Travis says “The country’s economy has to be the biggest challenge right now. How do we move forward and get a livable wage to deal with the perfect storm that has occurred across the country within the last year, while not killing the organic marketplace at the same time? It’s a vital time to continue to work together to find a way to navigate through these rough waters, and cooperation is the key.”