ASK Jeff: The Rodale Institute’s farm manager, Jeff Moyer, answers your hardcore farming questions

Any advice for a long-time dairy farmer transitioning to organic?

Posted September 14, 2006

What Jeff brings to the table

Jeff Moyer, who’s been the farm manager here at the 333-acre Rodale Institute research farm for more than a quarter of a century, receives lots of mail from farmers just like you asking for advice. Jeff’s hands-in-the-dirt experience over the past 26 years has run the gamut from refining the farm's cover cropping and crop rotation systems (including managing 270 acres in a rotation of corn, small grains, hay, and edible soy beans for a Japanese market) to overseeing The Rodale Institue Farming Systems Trial®, the world’s longest running side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional agriculture. We thought it would be fun and informative to share some of these farmer-to-farmer exchanges, and Jeff’s practical wisdom, with our readers … and we’ll be doing it on a regular basis.

Got a question of your own? Click here to send it to Jeff.

Dear Jeff and all at New Farm,

I have been farming the farm I am on for 30 years as a tenant—14 years on a 50-50 basis, the past 16 years cash rent. This past year my landlady died and the farm was put up for sale. My parents purchased it and took possession on March 1 this year. I have watched the farming business change dramatically in this 30 years and don't feel I can farm in the future the way I have in the past.

I have been watching the organic dairying industry boom in the last three to four years, and am trying to make the transition to it. I want to start slowly by small acres at a time. At this point I have 24 acres that are two years into transition, with the rest of the 160 acres rotating in as I try to get the ground into balance and transition the dairy herd in some time in the future.

My problem is that my dad has old-fashioned ideas of what organic farming was 20 years ago compared to what it has evolved into today. I get told to "cool my jets" when making choices on the fields that I am working toward organic. In some ways he sees what I'm doing and goes along with the idea, but doesn't want to see weeds of any kind. The conventional farming has been good to him so why not me? But the margins in conventional farming are getting so tight that with a small farm income it's getting harder to make a decent living for the family. I can't say the margins would be any better with organic at this point, but looking at current milk prices it sure can't be any worse.

Any thoughts on your part would sure be appreciated.

Thank you,
Loren Peterson

Dear Loren,

The situation you discuss in your e-mail is not unusual, and you are certainly not alone. The idea of transitioning is often misconstrued by others as you saying that what was done in the past wasn't right or isn't good enough for you. Of course that's not always the case. The world is changing, and what worked before may not be feasible today. I think as you look at the dairy industry as a whole, you will see overall stagnant production. The organic side is completely different. Here you can see tremendous growth potential.

I think you are approaching things in a very prudent manner by phasing the farm in over time. As you begin to feel more comfortable with the process and the practices, you can expand your acreage. This will also give you time to select a hauler and begin to get ready to transition the herd. I suggest to also begin forming relationships with existing organic dairies. They will be able to help in the areas of knowledge transfer and even inspiration during this part of the transition process. Once you choose your certifier and your buyer, like Organic Valley, they can help put you in touch with others that have already successfully transitioned their herd. This will help short cycle the process and aid you in avoiding many problems. If you need help finding someone in your area to help let me know and I help you dig up some help.

I'm sure as you continue down this road your father will begin to see the wisdom of this decision. There’s nothing like a little success to smooth out the road. As far as weeds go, this is a difficult subject to address because some folks just expect to see totally weed-free fields and in most organic situations this isn't always possible. I don't like weeds any more than the next farmer, and organic isn't an excuse to let things fall apart. But the premium prices the marketplace puts on organic products can justify the hard work you'll be putting into managing the weeds on your farm.

Good luck, and I hope you don't get discouraged and stop the process. The alternative of going out of farming won't benefit anyone.