SALEM, Ohio — Organic dairy is still a very small corner of the dairy market in Ohio, but it is a niche that is feeling its way into the mainstream.
It is already miles ahead of where it was a year ago when a group of organic producers approached Bunker Hill Cheese Co. (www.heinis.com) about creating a local market.
Nationally, the sale of organic dairy products is way up, and still growing by 20 to 30 percent a year. Organic milk and cheese have moved out of the natural foods markets, and are now being stocked in major supermarkets.
And in northeastern Ohio, the group that went in search of a market is now an official organic dairy cooperative with 15 members and six more scheduled to complete the certification requirements and become organic producers in the fall.
Bunker Hill is producing about 8,000 pounds of organic cheese a week, and is selling it in new markets it had never penetrated before.
And Goshen Dairy is exploring the possibility of bottling fluid organic milk, with a decision expected by the end of the summer.
So far, those who are involved haven’t found much of a downside. Even the added burden of meeting the requirements of organic production is accepted as worth the added value in market price.
According to Robert Troyer, plant manager at Bunker Hill Cheese, production of its new line of Pure Pastures Organic Cheese has gone smoothly.
There have been no problems with the certification process, and the cheese house’s sale of the organic cheeses has increased steadily.
Moving into new markets has been a challenge, Troyer said, but the cheese is now selling on the West Coast and in the Southwest, markets where Bunker Hill had never marketed its traditional line.
“I think it would be conservative to say that our production will double in the next two years,” Troyer said.
Goshen Dairy in New Philadelphia is exploring bottling organic milk as a way of increasing current production.
Goshen, which produces a full line of dairy products, now handles about 30 million pounds of milk a year. It also maintains a chain of nine retail Goshen Dairy convenience stores.
According to Hans Bishel, plant manager, the key factor in making a decision about organic production will be whether or not they are able to find a sufficient supply of raw milk. They have already been in conversation with a group of producers who say they would be interested, Bishel said.
According to Doug Daniels of Knox County, president of the newly formed cooperative, Organic Family Farms, it takes about four years for a producer to become certified if he starts from scratch.
The land on which organic feed is grown, Daniels said, has to be chemical free for three years. Then the cattle have to be fed 100 percent organic feed for nine months before the milk can be certified as organic.
However, he said, there are ways to get started faster than that.
There is already a certain amount of chemical-free pasture out there that can be used, he said, and Ohio is an old established organic crop market, so there is a lot of feed available.That means it is possible for a producer to get started without waiting for all of the ground he uses to be organically certified.
In addition, he said, there are now also a couple of suppliers of organic dairy heifers.
Most of the producers who are interested in organic production, he said, are small, looking for an alternative to the traditional milk market.
Since most dairy producers are spreading manure on their crop land now,” he said, “there’s really not that much of a change in the way you farm.”
There has been a lot of interest among producers, he said. A recent meeting called on short notice drew 75 producers.
Those who have formed Organic Family Farms range in herd size from milking 20 cows, to an average herd of about 45 to 50.
“We have to meet this Bunker Hill contract now,” Daniels said, “but when we have more supply, we intend to expand out into other products and other markets.
“I got into it for the money. I liked the 17-cent base as opposed to 9-1/2 cents. But let’s say the organic concepts are beginning to grow on me.”
He said he wished he had known before about some of the natural alternatives he is now using, such as treating infection with a combination of corn oil and aloe rather than with antibiotics.
“The science is sound,” he said. “We just didn’t know about these things before now.”
So far, Daniels said, there hasn’t been a down side. If the organic producers involved in the cooperative can continue to increase their production and can eventually retain ownership of the milk into the processing, he said, “we’ll see how far we can go with this.”