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