Old-fashioned becomes the cutting edge Organic milk process growing alternative to conventional dairying

Intelligencer Journal
Daina Savage
June 9, 1997

Driving into the lane at Spring Wood Farm is like entering a storybook.

A pair of graceful swans circle a small pond. Rows of vegetables emerge from a newly planted garden. Children are busy with their chores, stopping to pick flowers or pedal a tricycle. And dozens of black and white dairy cows spend their days contentedly grazing in lush, grassy fields.

It's the pastoral scene that brings tourists to the county, hoping to snap pictures of what farm life is like.

But for most of Lancaster's 95,000 dairy cows, it's not typical. Unlike in past generations, most cows don't spend much time outdoors grazing. Many dairy farmers instead keep their cows in high-tech barns with constant temperatures, feeding them specially mixed rations proven to give them maximum efficiency.

This eye toward the highest possible production has made for some astounding results in the county. Each year, the county's cows produce enough milk for 7 million people. And each year, a smaller number of cows is able to produce a greater amount of milk.

Those results come from tight management, better breeding, optimal rations and, for some farmers, the addition of a synthetic growth hormone that boosts a cow's natural production.

More milk from less cows means a bigger profit for county dairy farmers, who are struggling to weather the increased volatility of milk prices as the government withdraws from price supports.

But for Roman and Lucy Stoltzfoos, getting the most milk possible from a cow is not the objective.

They are part of a rare but growing breed of dairy farmers looking for an alternative to conventional dairying.

On their farm, nestled between Gap and Kinzer, their mix of Holstein and Dutch Belted cows get most of their nourishment from the fields, moving from pasture to pasture through the seasons.

When their cows get sick, herbal remedies and homeopathic treatments are the norm rather than an injection of antibiotics.

And their herd is bred for its ability to graze and weather fluctuating temperatures rather than produce huge amounts of milk.

The 150-acre farm on Gap Road may seem like a throwback to an earlier generation, but the organic principles it embraces are cutting-edge, relying on the latest research and innovative experimentation – which has resulted in national recognition of the farm.

“People like Roman are not a throwback,” said Tim Bowser of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. “They are applying management information in ways that no one has done before. That's modern, as opposed to erecting industrial dairy barns.”

And Bowser said many of the techniques used by organic farmers are good common sense, like intensive grazing for instance: “Cows like to walk around and grass likes to stand still.”

But that doesn't mean other farmers are rushing to change.

“Intensive grazing is looked at as suspect, like some wild, new idea,” said Stoltzfoos, who works hard to find the best solutions for his dairy, including traveling to New Zealand recently to see progressive grazing techniques first-hand.

That trip, plenty of reading and his own common sense has resulted in a custom grazing and low-imput farming program that is now realizing a profit.

“Marketing is my interest,” said Stoltzfoos, who also raises and sells organic turkeys and chickens. “We wouldn't be what we're in without marketing.”

Switching to a niche market like producing organic milk is a risky venture.

“Producers have to be sure that the market price compensates them because it takes a lot of extra effort to produce for that market and the yields suffer,” said Glenn Shirk, county dairy extension agent.

To turn a dairy organic, it can take three years of practicing organic farming techniques before the dairy can qualify to sell its milk as organic, according to Organic Crop Improvement Association certification rules.

Stoltzfoos said the first year he went organic there wasn't a market for the product. And because his pasture-fed cows produced about 20 percent less than those on high-protein diets, Stoltzfoos said he was losing money by making the switch. But he stuck it out and by his third year as an organic dairy farm, Stoltzfoos said he is making nearly four times what he was before.

Those profits come by not spending money on pesticides and chemical fertilizers, less reliance on purchased feeds and lower veterinarian bills because his cows are healthier and produce longer.

And he said he's realizing milk prices of 30 percent more over market price compared to conventional dairies.

“My accountant said organic farmers aren't supposed to do this well,” he said.

Stoltzfoos remains convinced his decision was the right one for his family, and his land.

“I felt like the answer is not in chemicals,” he said.

Stoltzfoos switched to an organic way of farming over time. After deciding that conventional techniques were not controlling weed and pest problems, he stopped using chemical fertilizers and pesticides on his fields in 1987 and starting using crop rotation, cultivation and composted manure to enrich his soils. What resulted was richer soils producing nutrient-laden grasses to feed his cattle from April through December.

“I believe grazing is a trend that's going to grow steadily as people find out how they've been hoodwinked into using chemicals – spending more than they need to spend and polluting more than they need to,” he said. “My yields don't suffer, but I have to manage it much closer.”

After turning his acreage organic, he then turned to his animals.

He started feeding his turkeys organic feed, and began raising chickens organically. Finally, he took his cows off antibiotics, increased his pasture program and began producing organic milk.

He uses natural methods to treat problems and refuses to use synthetic growth hormones to boost production.

“I think drugs are a crutch for poor management,” he said.

And by not using antibiotics on his cows, he doesn't have to worry about making a mistake and contaminating a tanker full of milk, which he would be liable for at a cost of $3,000 to $5,000.

But he said the primary benefit is a safer environment to raise his eight children.

“We were interested in a simpler approach,” he said. “It's been a 10-year progression and I absolutely love it. I wouldn't change a thing.”

The Stoltzfoos family has found that customers are willing to pay for the changes.

Despite the risk, the niche market is beginning to grow in southeastern Pennsylvania. Presently, there are at least eight dairies in the county producing organic milk.

Part of the reason for this growth is a result of Natural Dairy Products Corp. in Kennett Square, Chester County, which sells the Natural by Nature brand of milk in Pennsylvania.

The small, family business works in cooperation with Sunnyland Dairy in New York, and both work in Longacre's Modern Dairy in Berks County (which has been processing about 10,000 gallons of organic milk per week since last June).

Stoltzfoos was one of the first of four county farmers to sign up with the dairy three years ago. Now he has one of 10 farms supplying the dairy with milk.

One of the farm owners, Ned MacArthur, said the dairy is paying organic farmers $19 per 100 pounds of milk, compared to conventional farmers receiving $13 per 100 pounds.

MacArthur said he believes the recently approved use of synthetic growth hormone to make cows produce more milk is what has created a market for organic milk.

“It's a classic example of a big chemical company spending millions to develop a product and deciding to shove it down consumers' throats,” said MacArthur. “It's no doubt this is what spurred the organic milk market. People are sick of this. There's already a glut of milk.”

In addition to selling organic milk, the company makes puddings, yogurt, cream cheese, whipped butter, yogurt shakes and has just added ice cream to its product line.

“Right now we're a niche market, but with the kind of growth we're showing at this time, who is to know we won't have a lot of these products in main-line supermarkets,” he said.

Although the company does brisk business in markets like New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., it has yet to see a strong demand locally.

Currently, Shady Maple Farm Market is the only place in Lancaster County for consumers to buy Natural by Nature Products. But MacArthur hopes that will change soon as local customers demand organic products as well.

Stoltzfoos expects that once people try organic milk, they will switch simply for the taste.

“When the cows are on grass, the milk just tastes better,” he said.