WOOSTER, Ohio — To be organic or to be conventional. That is the question among many farmers today, with advantages and disadvantages on either side.
But for two Ohio dairymen who farm in Ashland, Wayne and Holmes counties, the answer is both.
Going both ways
Paul Weber, owner of Idyl Wild Farms near the Ashland County village of Loudonville, and Matt Steiner, of Pine Tree Dairy near Wayne County’s Rittman, each have two separate herds — one conventional and one certified organic.
“Separate” is the key word when talking about the herds on both dairies. Different planters are used for the organic and conventional farms and harvest equipment is thoroughly washed or air-cleaned before being used on the organic farm, Steiner said.
The goal is to meet organic certification standards, which prohibit most chemicals and pesticides.
Generations of experience
Both dairymen have extensive histories, and both began like most other farmers — using the conventional technologies available to them.
Weber traces his farming family back to Switzerland, in the mid-1500s. His father brought the family to America in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until 2000 that Weber located to Ashland County, moving to Ohio from his dairy in Portland, Ore.
Portland was buying land for a special park project, Weber said, and the family sold it to the cause.
Steiner and his family have been farming in Rittman since the late 1800s. He also owns a farm in Holmes County and his organic dairy is in Ashland County. With the help of his wife, Gail, and seven sons, the Steiners milk about 580 head conventionally and more than 150 organically.
Both farmers share an employee to help with milking and both also share help when it’s time to harvest.
Weber said he likes having both types of dairies because they complement each other — if an organic cow needs a noncertified treatment, he can give it to her, provided he returns her to the conventional herd.
The price incentives also are a plus. Although “organic is suffering just like anything else,” prices still haven’t “fallen out of the sky” as they did with conventional milk, Weber said.
Both farms get their organic certification through the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA). Paul Dutter, a certification specialist with OEFFA, said it’s not common in Ohio for one farmer to keep both kinds of herds, but he understands the incentive of being able to return cows to the conventional herd, as opposed to just slaughtering them.
“It gives them (producers) a place they can go with those cows (needing treatments),” Dutter said.
Having both types of farms provides more chances to be profitable, if one market does better than the other.
Weber said many of his neighbors near Portland were organic, so he was familiar with many of their practices.
Plus, the organic farm he purchased was only a mile away from his conventional farm, which made it a practical purchase when it came up for sale three years ago, he said.
“It made sense to me because it was a mile away and it came up for sale and I knew I could be labor efficient,” he said.
For most of 2009, Steiner said his organic milk has sold for about twice the price of his conventional milk.
Some organic cooperatives have recently capped the amount a producer can sell organically, he explained, due to a tightened economy and over-supply. But for those who stay within their limits and can sell their milk organically, prices are often better.
Let there be choices
Steiner said he supports freedom in the marketplace or whether a farmer uses organic or conventional practices, because the more farmers use conventional practices, the more organic farmers can create a niche market.
“You’ve got to let people do that (farm conventionally) and then there’s a separation,” Steiner explained.
Which one’s better? Neither farmer can choose one herd over the other, at least not exclusively.
“It depends on the year,” Weber said. “Last year, the conventional (herd) did better, but this year, the organic’s doing better.”
Weber said he likes organics because it’s a way into a niche market. He’s also weighing options for producing and marketing his own cheese.
“I think niche markets are important,” he said. “Whenever you have a niche market, you can command a better dollar for your product because not everybody makes it.”
Steiner said his organic herd actually has a lower calving interval than the conventional, although he must use natural means of inducing heat in the organic herd.
His two biggest problems are flies and other insects, because he can’t use chemical products to fog the barns.
Steiner said he’s still in the “infancy” of learning ways to care for the organic herd, but is making strides. Ultimately, he thinks both kinds of farming can succeed and plans to continue both.
“I think in the marketplace, there’s room for both and people that feel that they want food, milk or whatever, that’s organically grown, they can have that,” he said. “And the people that don’t value that as high, they can have the (conventional).”