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
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
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
Aggressively marketed brand insures co-op farmers
a stable income
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
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