Groups want to create organic, grassfed dairy supply chain in southeast Pa.

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cows standing in a field of grass

Creating a robust grassfed, organic dairy supply chain could be the way forward for small dairy farms in Pennsylvania. That’s the guiding principle behind a new collaborative program led by Pasa Sustainable Agriculture.

The group was awarded a nearly $1 million grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to build a regenerative organic dairy supply chain in southeast Pennsylvania.

In addition to helping more than 50 farmers, the project aims to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The goal is to reduce agricultural nitrogen runoff by more than 400,000 pounds per year, reduce phosphorus runoff by more than 9,000 pounds per year and reduce sediment erosion by more than 23 million pounds per year.

“Grass based dairy production is a huge boon for water quality and soil health in our region, and it has some significant economic opportunities for a really struggling dairy industry,” said Pasa Education Director Franklin Egan.

Partnering for success

Pasa is working with six partners to make the supply chain happen: ORIGIN Milk, TeamAg, Center for Dairy Excellence, Ephrata National Bank, Mad Agriculture and Rodale Institute.

The first step is to find farmers interested in taking the next step.

“This is for farmers who really want to go down the path to re-envision their dairy with a deeper commitment to grazing,” Egan said. “It might be a smaller conventional farm or organic farm that does more organic row cropping, or a grazing farm that needs to rethink how it happens from a business perspective.”

That’s where all the partners come in: to bring farmers in, meet them where they’re at and help them with whatever they need to become both grassfed and organic.

Lancaster-County based TeamAg can help farmers with environmental and economic planning, and the Center for Dairy Excellence can provide business consulting and other resources. Ephrata National Bank is ready to help farmers finance projects or improvements.

Rodale Institute can help farms with the technical and regulatory elements of getting an organic or regenerative organic certification. Mad Agriculture, a consulting company based in Colorado, will provide a third-party assessment of the project.

Egan acknowledged that for some farms, this change is going to be enormous and difficult. But it could be a way for farmers to stay in dairy for the long term.

“For some farms, it will be a big transition,” Egan said. “But that’s why we’ve brought together these education and planning services, so a farm goes through this carefully.”

Paradigm shift

Origin Milk, a regenerative dairy brand, is there to provide a market for the milk. According to Pasa’s press release about the project, “at least 40 eligible dairy farmers participating in the project will be able to secure a five-year contract with Origin Milk Company.”

Origin pays its farmers more than $40 per hundredweight. The average price farmers get for conventional milk is around $18 per hundredweight.

The company, based in Cleveland, Ohio, works with six partner farms in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Colorado, and they’re in the process of bringing on more farms. In addition to being organic and pasture-based, Origin only buys milk from Guernsey cows that have the A2/A2 gene.

Adrian Bota, one of the founders of Origin Milk, sees Lancaster, Pennsylvania as the future worldwide hub of regenerative dairy production.

There are lots of smaller dairy farms that would do well in a transition to a grass-based, organic management system. One of the problems they’re running into is convincing farmers who traditionally raised Holsteins and focused on high milk production to switch to lower-producing Guernseys or other heritage breeds that have the A2/A2 gene.

“I’m not trying to convince you to sell your cows and plant almond trees,” Bota said. “I’m just trying to convince you to buy different cows. The switchover from quality to quantity is what led us to where we are today.”

That quality element is what allows Bota to sell his dairy products for a premium, although Bota knows $40 per hundredweight isn’t going to make any dairy farmer rich, especially those running a more costly organic, pasture-based production system.

“Trying to convince anyone to do anything differently is really hard, especially in the agricultural world,” Bota said. “We don’t blame dairy farmers for being risk averse. We let them lead the way. We create the paradigm in which they can be successful.”

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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