Organic Dairying Is on Upswing, But No Panacea

This is part two of a two-part series on the economics of dairy farming. Part I: “Cow Power,” is available at Cow Power.

MOSEYING ALONG. At Dancing Cow Farm, cows saunter to and from barns and pasture as they please. © 2006 J. Raloff
NOT JUST BLACK AND WHITE. The farm’s herd includes a few spotted Holsteins, but the Getzes have increasingly turned to cream- and gold-colored Jerseys and Guernseys because, says Steve Getz, they don’t get sick, have good dispositions, and produce “a wonderful milk.” © 2006 J. Raloff
SAY CHEESE. Karen Getz shows touring reporters some of the artisanal cheese she makes. She names each type for a dance (inset: label for “Menuet”). © 2006 J. Raloff

For 20 years, Steve Getz worked in the computer industry. Because he traveled a lot, “I came to hate airports and sitting on planes,” he says. To ground himself on days off, Steve and his wife, Karen Getz, began dabbling in farming.

That all changed shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The British software firm that Steve worked for lost significant business and promptly began laying off its U.S. staff. When Steve’s turn came, he and Karen reevaluated their priorities—and decided to chuck the urban rat race for a full-time bucolic livelihood.

Acknowledging that they were a bit naïve about what becoming full-time farmers might entail, Steve recalls that there was one thing they intended to try to avoid: the 24-7 responsibility of caring for livestock. That’s why they still marvel that 3 years ago they bought a small dairy spread in upstate Vermont. The Getzes say that the farm won their hearts and seduced them to cash in all of their savings to buy it. Since then, they’ve revamped the fields and facilities into a small, thriving dairy.

It’s been hard, unrelenting work. Physically, Steve runs the dairying operations single-handedly. He milks the cows once a day, tends to the farm’s facilities, and grows and mows hay for feed.

Karen has taught herself cheese making and is experimenting with various methods. Indeed, most of the farm’s milk is pumped from the milking barn into a vat where it becomes the basis of Karen’s creations. Her artisan cheeses are now available in shops throughout New England, where they sell for $16 to $22 a pound. Of that amount, the Getzes typically garner half.

The couple has named their spread Dancing Cow Farm and expect to turn a profit next year for the first time since they started full-time dairy farming.

None of this would have been possible, Steve says, if he and Karen hadn’t committed early on to becoming an organic dairy farm. If they were producing “commodity milk”—the type sold in most supermarkets—they would have no hope of being profitable in the foreseeable future. Commodity milk “is selling at below the cost of production,” says Steve (see Cow Power).

The Dancing Cow Farm is currently awaiting certification from the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont that its products are “organic.” Karen Getz notes that the livestock will be eligible for certification in March. The family has already fulfilled prescriptions for fenced-in fields set apart from neighboring tracts that might have received chemical treatment. The farm’s pastures have been pesticide-free for at least 3 years.

Robert Parsons, an agricultural economist at the University of Vermont, has studied the burgeoning organic-dairy industry. Over the past 13 years, the number of certified organic dairy farms in Vermont has grown from two to 105. Organic dairying has become “the fastest growing agricultural sector in New England,” Parson’s team reports in a new analysis of the financial state of these ventures.

Driving this growth has been recognition that consumers are willing to pay more for organic milk and cheese. Wholesale organic milk can command as much as twice the price of commodity milk. That premium is among factors enabling small start-up operations, such as Dancing Cow Farm, to enter commercial dairying.

Earthy product

Steve Getz could increase the productivity of his cows by milking them more frequently or investing in breeds—such as Holsteins—that yield more per milking than his Jerseys and Guernseys do. “But I don’t really care about pounds of milk produced,” he says, “I care about pounds of cheese.” And the higher fat content of his herd’s milk contributes to more-flavorful cheese. This year the farm expects to produce 4,500 pounds of such cheese, and next year, the Getzes aim to double that amount.

All of the farm’s animals are pasture fed. Because the taste of milk reflects an animal’s diet, the Dancing Cow Farm’s particular mix of pasture plants gives the farm’s milk a unique flavor and helps shape the personality of its cheeses.

In October, I and a few dozen other reporters attending the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual meeting in Burlington, Vt., took a field trip to the Dancing Cow Farm. We got a chance to taste a cheese that Karen Getz has named Menuet. Our consensus was that the cheese indeed had an unusual earthy flavor with nut-and-mushroom overtones and, as one agricultural reporter put it, a “subtle herbal character.”

Steve Getz explained that the combination of soil minerals, species of forage plants, and milk fat typical to the breed of cows on his farm all work together to make milk and cheese with flavors that “nobody can duplicate.”

Parsons says that a young enterprise such as Dancing Cow Farm is fortunate to have a distinctive product that’s becoming well-enough known for customers to seek out and buy. “Most dairy farmers tend to be introverts,” he notes. “They’re good at producing and working with their cows in the barn,” but they’re not good marketers of their milk or other products.

The reason Karen Getz was able to get her cheeses into stores as far south as New York City, Parsons maintains, is that she and her husband have done cheese demonstrations at every opportunity. These demos let people see the family behind the products, view photos of grazing cows, and sample the cheeses. Marketing these products takes showmanship, Parsons says, and the Getzes have the knack.

The Getzes’ Bridport, Vt., farm is one of eight in Addison County that produce cheese. Steve Getz says that if a few more spring up, the farmers might be able to offer weekend cheese tours to the area. Tourists might stay at local inns and then take home something from Vermont other than maple syrup.

Parsons says that even such aggressive marketing doesn’t typically earn organic dairy farmers much income. His team’s new analysis finds that in the last half of 2005, milk buyers in New England agreed to increase their payments to producers to $26 per 100 pounds of milk. That’s no more than “roughly the level needed to break even,” the researchers said. They found that organic dairy farmers keep going with support from nondairy farming, income made off the farm, loans, and proceeds from selling land and equipment.

But Steve Getz says, “It’s worth working like a dog every day if you enjoy it. And I do. I like watching the sun rise over the mountains every morning. I like working outside setting fences. I love the exercise. I’m one of those farmers that doesn’t even mind walking out in the fields in the muck or snow. This is hard work—but I love it.”

This is part two of a two-part series on the economics of dairy farming. Part I: “Cow Power,” is available at Cow Power.

If you would like to comment on this article, go to the Food for Thought blog.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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