Sunday, January 23, 2011

I went on a field trip!

Yes, I got to go on a field trip. No, I wasn't chaperoning children - it was for ME!

I am currently taking an Agroecology and Sustainable Agriculture course at Western Washington University. We are learning about organic and bio-dynamic farming methods, as well as thinking about farm resilience. You can learn about about the project by clicking on the link, but resilience in the farming sense is essentially a farm's ability to bounce back from natural (or other types) of disasters or economic stresses.

So - to the field trip - we first went to Eldridge Farm, a small family dairy farm in Nooksack, WA. Eldridge Farm is a part of the Organic Valley Coop.

So, this is Matt Eldridge:

We asked Matt why he decided to go organic - and he said that he truly wanted to know what he was eating, and that it became even more important when he and his wife had children. He posed the question as to whether or not you can really trust the government's decisions about what may or may not be safe to eat, or to apply to crops, or to give to animals. How many stories are there about people getting sick from contaminated foods? Too many. I whole heartedly agree with him. And - well, Matt is a businessman - and you do get quite the premium for organic milk.

So, he built the dairy from the ground up, and now, these are his pride and joy:

Eldridge Farm has 145 spoiled rotten jersey cows (in a healthy, happy cow way). They are staying in a free-stall barn (which means they can walk all around within the barn) for the winter since much of the pasture available to them is currently flooded.

They do love all the fresh air! I have read about large dairy/feedlot operations and heard horror stories about cows living in 2 feet of their own manure... but their barn is cleaned out twice a day. More on manure management soon...

Notice what they are eating - it is a mixture of alfalfa, local hay, corn silage, grains and vitamins/minerals. At first I was upset - cows aren't supposed to eat corn - but it only accounts for a small percentage of their feed mix, and does offer valuable protein. Matt equated it to a weight lifter drinking a protein shake, and as long as it is in moderation the cows stay very healthy and do put on a little extra weight. Plus, the corn comes from Matt's neighbor across the road. The hay comes from Whatcom County and the alfalfa from eastern Washington. I guess the cows have read Michael Pollan as well and are opting for local foods. ;-)

This is where their feed is stored in the winter. It is essentially an enormous can - the cement walls bound it on both side and there is a tarp on top to prevent it from getting wet and molding.

This is the "maternity ward." I was fascinated to learn that all the cows are artificially inseminated - prior to owning his own dairy Matt worked as a breeder. He says that these cows have some of the best genes in the world, you can tell he is proud.

And this is where the young heifers live:

The cows are milked twice daily, once at 4am and once at 4pm.

Another very interesting aspect of the farm operating was manure management. As I mentioned, the barn is cleaned out twice a day, but where does the manure go?

In here:

The pit is completely sealed so as to not contaminate ground water, and when it reaches a certain level the pump turns on and take the watery manure into the digester. 

It can be dumped into a vehicle to transport to other farms who use the manure as a valuable source of fertility for organic farms.

Matt has to comply with many USDA Organic standards and well as standards from the Organic Valley Coop, and both inspect him at least twice a year. He says the biggest challenge is the "Big O" Organic, or industrial organic. Matt goes above some of the organic standards, whereas some 2,500 head dairy operations can market their milk with the organic label yet are missing many of the values of the organic movement, such as sustainable practices and supporting the small, family farmer.

Aurora Organic (when I Google-searched the first thing that came up in the suggested searches was "lawsuit") has only two locations - one in Colorado with 4,200 cows and one in Texas with 2,800 cows, and they account for 80% of the organic milk market and sell their products throughout the US. They are a "market killer," because they flood the market with the desirable product - organic milk - at a commodity price.

Additionally, part of their website touts their commitment to "organic stewardship" and "sustainability." While they present it well, I have a hard time believing such a large operation whose main buyers are Cost-co, Wal-Mart and Safeway truly align with sustainable agriculture and truly organic ideals.

Really - this makes it even tougher for consumers! We may think we are doing a great thing for our bodies and for the planet by buying organic, but this makes one wonder. Clearly, it is not only important to support organic, but to also know exactly where your organic product is coming from.

And, well, there was nothing questionable about what I saw from these happy dairy cows.

Coming tomorrow, our second stop: Alm Hill Gardens.