TRANSCONTINENTAL FARM TOUR: Crossing Canada with Don Lotter

The good life of a small-scale Ontario dairy farmer depends on being part of a dynamic coop
Odelia Osthaus likes her herd at its current size. She likes the life she and her children lead. … and the savvy marketing and smart management of the OntarBio organic farmers’ coop make it all possible.

By Don Lotter

Welcome to Sunny Lane: Odelia and dog call the cows to milking




Farm at a Glance

Sunny Lane Farms
Durham, Ontario

Location: 2 1/2 hours northwest of Toronto

Operation: Certified organic dairy with 30-head of cattle.

Marketing: Member of OntarBio co-op. Co-op milk is marketed under the brand name Organic Meadow




Editor's NOTE:

After his travels through Central America and Cuba (see his wonderful articles on farming in Guatemala, Costa Rica and Cuba), Don Lotter stopped by The Rodale Institute here in eastern Pennsylvania to check in and chat. His plan—to return home to Vancouver by driving across Canada. And thus an idea was born …. Since he was driving across the continent, anyway, why not drop in on a few farms along the way?

His trip began in Quebec, with the story of a dynamic CSA, from there, he traveled to a dairy farm in Ontario, a hemp grower in Manitoba, an organic grain farmer in Saskatchewan, an organic beef rancher in Alberta, and finally an organic fruit grower in British Columbia. We’ll be featuring these stories every two weeks for the next three months. Sit down, adjust your headrest and enjoy the ride.

Chris Hill
Executive Editor


November 6, 2003: Odelia Osthaus knows each of her 30 Brown Swiss and Holstein dairy cows as if they were her pets. As the cows file in to their twice daily milking, each one goes to the stall with its name hand-written above it, except for one—a young, inexperienced cow who misses her stall by one and has to be backed out and put into her own. The cows munch on cracked grain while Odelia puts the automated milking apparatus on them. Basically these are hoses connected to suction cups known as teat cups, each time applying disinfectant to the cows’ teats.

The automated milkers pump the milk to a large refrigerated tank in another room. For the next half-hour Odelia rotates between several sets of milkers, putting them on and then taking them off the cows, until all are done. As each cow finishes her grain, she backs out of her stall and files out of the barn and back to pasture. Odelia then takes the milking equipment to the cleaning room, hooks them up to a tap, and pumps hot water and disinfectant through them. The whole process takes 45 minutes to an hour, twice a day.

Odelia owns the 200-acre Sunny Lane farm near Durham, Ontario, about 160 miles northwest of Toronto towards Lake Huron. Of the 200 acres, 90 are in pasture and the rest is forest. Odelia bought the farm in 1985, having just moved from Germany. Breaking into the Ontario dairy production circle was an additional hurdle for her, as it cost her $17,000 ($13,000 U.S.) per cow to buy a milk production quota from the Ontario Dairy Board. Sunny Lane is certified organic by the Organic Crop Production Program (OCPP) of Ontario. That cost has gone up to $20,000 ($15,400 U.S.) Odelia is a charter member of the 14-year old OntarBio organic farmers’ cooperative. Thirty other dairy farms in the region are members of OntarBio.

Odelia has raised four kids on the farm. Her oldest son, Jonas, is married, and her second oldest, Nico, works on a nearby organic farm. He may someday take over Sunny Lane. Two teenage girls, Anna and Marike, are still at home.

Living the heifer high life

This life ain't cheap: Odelia's 30 Brown Swiss and Holstein pay for their life of leisure with organic milk which carries a 20% premium over conventional.

Odelia’s cows live a good life. Their pastures are lush. She rotates them through the fields from May through September, then keeps them in the barn for the winter. About 20% of her hay is grown on the farm and all her feed is bought. The price premium for organic feed is 100%, and 10% for hay. When I asked if the recent shortage of organic feed and hay in the northeast U.S. was a problem, she said it wasn't. The cooperative newsletter is Odelia's main source of information on hay and feed, along with the monthly meeting of herd owners.

Odelia’s herd has a monthly somatic cell count consistently in the healthy range of 150-200. A cell count above 400 disqualifies milk from the market and indicates mastitis. Her main health maintenance strategies for the herd are to keep stresses to a minimum, plus close observation of each cow. If a cow’s behavior changes or she doesn’t eat, Odelia intervenes.

If the cow is sick enough to require antibiotics, it loses its organic certification and must be sold. Recently, one of the cows had a difficult pregnancy and had to have on-site surgery by a veterinarian. The necessary antibiotics caused that cow to lose its organic certification -- so off she went to what is likely an unhappier existence in a conventionally managed dairy herd.

During winter Odelia lets the cows out of the barn for an hour or two of fresh air and exercise every day, weather permitting. She also makes sure that the barn is well-ventilated when they are kept inside. Ammonia gas from manure and urine needs to be flushed by constant fresh air. This kind of practice helps to keep the herd in good health.

Odelia raises her own heifers for herd replacement. Cows rotate out of the herd at about 14 years. On the average, each cow has five calves during its life on the farm. She sells the calves she doesn't want on the conventional market. Even though the calves are certified organic, there is very little market for organic beef. When a cow is rotated out of the herd due to old age, Odelia prefers to take a loss and sell her to a local butcher who she knows will carry out the slaughtering process in a much more humane way than a slaughterhouse.

Odelia’s cows provide her a living by producing 27-30 liters of organically certified milk per day each. With 23 out of 30 cows always milking, 600-700 liters per day are produced. The price for organic milk is about 54-58 cents Canadian per liter (40-45 cents U.S.), which is about 20% higher than the going price for conventional milk.

Aggressively marketed brand insures co-op farmers a stable income

Mind your marketers: Sunny Lane benefits from its participation in the OntarBar co-op. This includes an established brand name and a full-time marketing staff.

Odelia has as good a life as any farmer I’ve met. Yet this life depends on her having a market for her milk that is stable and profitable. As any farmer knows, a stable and profitable market for one’s products necessitates extra work, preferably by an organization beyond the farm. This work is done by the OntarBio Organic Farmers' Cooperative. OntarBio was formed in 1989, limiting itself to grains, dairy, and eggs, and is represented in stores by the Organic Meadow brand.

One of the driving forces behind OntarBio’s marketing success is its marketing director, Terry Ackerman, a man with a vision of how to market organic products. Terry sees himself as an integral part of the equation for having a sustainable agriculture system that supports healthy family farms.

Via the efforts of the OntarBio marketing staff, the Organic Meadow brand, with its eye-catching label of primary colors, has made it into the biggest grocery chain in Canada, Loblaws.

In order to survive in the mainstream grocery industry, it was necessary to develop a production, processing, and marketing system that ensured consistency of production, product quality, and delivery. It also meant developing state-of-the-art packaging and labeling, and cultivating a brand image that has given them a niche in the modern day competition for supermarket shelving space. These areas are Terry’s turf, and he exudes mastery of it.

After milk is picked up from Odelia’s and other OntarBio dairy farms, there is a processing infrastructure it goes into. Milk from different farms is mixed as part of the pick-up process, thus avoiding what are called “flavor profile spikes”. When the cows of one farm eat a lot of one type of plant, their milk can sometimes take on a different, an “off” flavor, called a “spike.” Mixing the milk from different farms dilutes these flavors and gives a more consistent flavor.

OntarBio uses existing processors … avoiding debt while supporting the local economy

Waiting room: The milk is stored in coolers between pick-up. The co-op comes for the milk every two days. Small frequent deliveries are the best way for the processors to handle the milk.

The use of existing small, local plants for processing of OntarBio’s raw products such as cheese, milk products like chocolate milk, cottage cheese, and yogurt is one of the hallmarks of the OntarBio strategy. “Investing a lot of money in building processing plants and other types of infrastructure is a common mistake with cooperatives” says Terry. “In the past, farmer groups have come to me asking for financing to build a processing plant, often costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. I do my best to talk them out of it. That kind of debt can ruin a coop.”

“It’s better to contract out to existing local processors, who are often struggling to make ends meet anyway,” says Terry. “They are better at what they do than we are, so why not utilize them? Sometimes we have to work with them to incorporate the protocols for organic certification into their existing processing operation. This way we maintain existing small businesses throughout the province, while at the same time avoiding the debt it would entail to build new infrastructure. We don’t want to vertically integrate.”

“A problem nowadays is that many of the small plants have closed down because of the movement toward large-scale processing plants. These giant processing plants cost too much to temporarily convert for doing batches of organics,” says Terry. “With the growth of organics, many mainstream food companies would like to develop organic product lines, which they need to process in small facilities. However, they were the very ones who advocated closing down the small plants and consolidating the processing into large plants, so now they’re strapped. Currently there aren’t enough small plants to supply the demand for organics.”

Branding and image are the other parts of the post-farm marketing equation. “We want to close the gate-to-plate gap,” Terry says, referring to the lack of connection between mainstream food consumers and the farm. “We want our customers to feel like they have a connection with the people who are producing their food, so we label our products as produced by members of a cooperative.” When possible, OntarBio marketers set up displays showing pictures of the OntarBio farmers, their farms, and families.

This kind of savvy marketing has given Organic Meadow products a solid 20% per year growth throughout much of Canada for over 10 years. Interestingly, and contrary to popular belief, consumers of organics span the economic and ethnic spectrum in Ontario. “Organic Meadow and other organic products are bought nearly equally by low-, mid-, and high-income people,” says Terry. In Toronto, the most ethnically diverse city in the world, organics sell well in heavily ethnic, immigrant neighborhoods as well as non-immigrant areas. Terry is also quite proud to state that per capita purchasing of organics in Ontario is nearly three times that of British Columbia, a fact that goes against the popular belief that the West coast is traditionally more organic.

Terry cites market research projecting continued 10-15% per annum growth of organics. This is good for farmers like Odelia Osthaus. It pretty much guarantees future sales of her milk. Odelia likes her current farm and herd size and has no plans to expand in step with the growth of the organic markets. The continued growth of organics bodes well for aspiring organic farmers like her son, and will allow new farms and families to join the organic good life.

Don Lotter has a Ph.D. in agroecology and has worked in sustainable agricultural development in North America, Latin America, and Africa over the past 25 years. He can be contacted via his website