Organic dairy farmer believes healthy crops and animals make for healthy people
BY ELAINE SCHWELLER-SNYDER
FORT LORAMIE — Growing up on a dairy farm, Leroy Meyer of Fort Loramie learned about milking cows through hands-on experience at a young age. Classes at Fort Loramie High School and the Joint Vocational School helped him with record keeping and other aspects of the dairy business, but the primary teacher who prepared him for his future was his dad.
Meyer and his wife Rose have their own farm now, just down the road from where he grew up with six brothers and four sisters. Three of his brothers have dairy farms too. “All my siblings live nearby,” said Meyer. “It is nice to be close to family and although we aren’t all in the dairy business, we all certainly understand what it is all about because we grew up on the farm.”
As Meyer began farming in the 1990’s, increasing health concerns about commercial dairy methods were pushing some farmers to explore organic. This enlightened consumer awareness was driven by several factors, including the 1994 development of genetically modified bovine growth hormone; corn, soybean, and other crops treated with synthetic pesticides being fed to livestock; and greater use of synthetic medications for animals including hormones, antibiotics, and steroids. (www.extension.org)
Today, organic dairy has joined organic fruits, vegetables, grains, and meat in a growing movement built on the fundamental belief that healthy soils lead to healthy crops, healthy animals, healthy people, and a healthy planet.
For Meyer, the decision to go organic was the right choice. “I did the commercial dairy thing for 12 years but I didn’t feel the need for chemicals so I stopped using them,” said Meyer. “My farming philosophy was totally aligned with going organic, so in 2007, I became certified.”
Before a product can be certified as organic, it must be produced on land that is free of chemicals for a minimum of three years, with paperwork to back up the claim. An organic farm faces an annual inspection by an independent third-party inspection team that reports to a local agency that enforces the National Organic Program of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The USDA book of rules and regulations includes the following standards: cows and calves are fed 100% organic feed; organic crops, hay, and pasture are grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that have not been carefully screened and approved; non-natural feed additives and supplements such as vitamins and minerals must also be approved; genetically modified organisms are strictly forbidden; calves must be fed organic milk; all animals must have access to outdoor grazing land, weather permitting; antibiotics are not allowed and only approved health care products can be used; and animals may not be fed any slaughter by-products, urea, or manure.
Meyer’s cows eat a variety of grasses and legumes, including alfalfa, orchard grasses, and sorghum, most of which Meyer grows on his 120-acre farm. For seven months of the year, the cows graze in the pasture, but in the colder months, they feed in the barn. Grasses make up three-fourths of their diet with the other fourth coming from grains like barley, ear corn, oats, and spelts, a species of wheat. Meyer grows about 30% of the grains and purchases the rest.
Organic farmers control pests and rodents the old fashioned way, with cats and mousetraps. As for weed control, Meyer said that it can be accomplished with consistent mowing and tilling of the land, along with natural grazing by the cows. Good crop rotations are important too because weeds that thrive in one crop may not thrive in another, so if crops are rotated often, young weeds do not have time to get established.
Meyer has 50 cows of assorted breeds that range in age from 2 to 11. He milks by machine twice a day, 12 cows at a time. Cows give milk ten months of the year, then spend two months “dry” while waiting to calf. Meyer calves in the spring and the fall, meaning that for six months of the year, only half of the herd is milking. Some of the calves will replace older cows in the herd, others are sold to neighboring farms, and still others are butchered.
Meyer sells his raw milk to the Organic Valley Cooperative, a Wisconsin-based company that markets organic milk and milk products throughout the United States, especially in larger cities and along the East Coast. “A semi truck picks up my milk every other day and most of it is processed by Smith Dairy in Richmond, Indiana, and then marketed through Organic Valley,” said Meyer.
Organic Valley handles a number of organics including meat, but milk is their main product. While commercial milk is often made into other products like cheese and cottage cheese, most organic milk stays fluid. “People who are into organic prefer to eat ‘raw’, that is they want products that have the least amount of processing,” said Meyer.
Not only are organic foods more healthy, but the idea of reducing the amount of chemicals that contaminate the soil and water supply is yet another effort to purify the environment or in popular lingo, “go green.”
On its website (www.organicvalley.coop), Organic Valley lists six reasons why consumers should choose organic. Organic is higher in vital nutrients. Organic does not use pesticides or synthetic fertilizers which can contaminate food and contribute to soil degradation. Organic reduces human exposure to dangerous chemicals like growth hormones. Organic does not use antibiotics which when overused can lead to antibiotic resistant infections in animals and people. Organic does not use genetically engineered crops that impact ecosystems and human health. Organic promotes quality care that ensures that animals are healthy and productive, naturally.
Despite the obvious health benefits, Meyer estimates that there are only a dozen organic dairy farms in Shelby, Mercer, and Darke Counties, a very small percentage of the total number of dairy farms.
Most organic farms are smaller than commercial ones because as Meyer said, “You can’t cultivate as many acres as you can with chemical spray. The output per acre may be less, but the lifespan for organic cows to produce milk is usually longer, resulting in cost savings over time.” He also indicated that the price he gets for his product is higher than commercial because of its quality, and the time and effort required to meet the strict organic standards.
This means that organic products may cost more at the supermarket, but Meyer says that is also because of supply and demand. Health conscious consumers and environmentalists are increasing the demand, but the supply has not caught up, so prices remain high.
“The prices will drop at some point,” said Meyer. “I’m convinced that the organic market will continue to grow as more and more people see it as a healthier choice.”
Elaine Schweller-Snyder writes for the
Sidney Daily News.