Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
COW BURPS and speed planting
Organic Valley leads its own battle against climate change
Call it climate change, global warming or a spate of extreme weather events.
Regardless, farmers across Wisconsin are having to adapt to a wide range of challenges from Mother Nature. Organic farming is one answer.
And La Farge-based Organic Valley, with its earth-friendly, climate-crisis-fighting ways, could offer a glimpse of the future.
Founded in 1988 by a handful of idealistic farmers, Organic Valley is now the largest farmer-owned organic cooperative in the nation — with nearly 2,000 member farms in 34 states plus Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom, and annual sales of over $1.1 billion.
Battling the effects of climate change here is done both by educating its 435 Wisconsin member farms and through working to reduce Organic Valley’s own carbon footprint.
The co-op’s lead veterinarian, Guy Jodarski, has been with Organic Valley for 12 years; before that, he worked a large-animal “dairy-type practice” in Wisconsin.
He says he’s gone from “going to farms and solving problems with sick animals to more of an educational role.”
The bad news about cows and climate change, he says, is that these ruminants give off methane, which is a strong greenhouse gas. In spite of what you might have heard, Jodarski will tell you that most of that methane comes from the cow’s burps, not from flatulence.
But when cows are grazed properly — with the animals being rotated from area to area — “they can be a net contributor to the positive for the climate.”
As he explains, in this grazing method, carbon dioxide is taken out of the air by plants and then sequestered in the soil in the form of organic matter — that is to say, cow manure. “This more than offsets any negative contribution from cow burps.”
This well-managed grazing approach also avoids overgrazing, promoting strong plant growth and deeper roots. It also improves the health of the cows because they’re eating plants at their nutritional peak.
“The hardest part is changing the mindset” of farmers, Jodarski said. “The actual techniques are not hard, but it’s hard to get people to change the way they do things. That’s one of the biggest challenges.”
Nicole Rakobitsch, sustainability manager for Organic Valley, said that not all of their farmers are doing the kind of intensive rotational grazing described by Jodarski, “but as part of the standards set forth by the USDA National Organic Program, cows need to get 30% of their diet directly from grazing in the grass — and we know that our farmers do almost double that, they more than meet the minimum standard.”. She highlighted Organic Valley’s Climate Smart Farming Initiative, which helps farmers in four areas: energy efficiency, the use of renewable energy, manure management and carbon sequestration. As part of the program, farmers receive educational materials, one-onone technical assistance, and help with grant writing.
“We are also helping farmers with farmland preservation — if we can prevent farmland from converting to urban or suburban areas, that’s good for climate change too,” she said.
Some of the work Organic Valley does to help farmers cope directly with weather challenges takes place at a 250acre trial and demonstration area near La Farge, where “we try to figure out how to continue farming in the face of climate change,” Rakobitsch said.
Wet springs are one problem they are learning to deal with: “In Wisconsin, we’ve seen more annual rainfall coming in extreme precipitation events, so generally that means that we are having wetter springs — and that makes it challenging to get fields planted in a timely manner.”
At the trial area, they are looking at things like switching to fall planting rather than spring planting. They are also doing trails of alternative grains like buckwheat and red clover “that maybe are a little less fussy or take less time to mature,” she said.
Another possible problem solver is a “speed disc,” which allows farmers to get their fields planted more quickly, something that’s important when spring planting is delayed.
The idea is that “it will allow us to get our tillage and our planting done in one pass through the field, instead of the two or three passes that it would usually take,” Rakobitsch explained. “It gets the job done with just one piece of equipment instead of two or three. It also reduces tillage because it’s not going as deep — it’s not inverting the soil like a rototiller would, it’s a vertical tiller.”
Beginning next year, Organic Valley will also have an area for grazing trials and demonstrations. “That one will be looking at the changes in soil carbon once we increase the intensity of grazing,” she said.
Meanwhile, Organic Valley is doing what it can to reduce its carbon footprint. Its La Farge headquarters, and its other facilities, have achieved 100% renewable electricity with a combination of wind and solar power.
As to plastic containers, Rakobitsch said Organic Valley’s product team is “always working on” finding alternatives. In the meantime, she noted that the Tetra Paks they use, as well as the No. 2 plastic containers, are “both highly recyclable.”
Organic Valley’s products include dairy foods such as milk, cheese, sour cream and yogurt, and a range of organic meats under the Organic Prairie label. All its products are certified organic, and some, such as “Grassmilk,” are from 100% grass-fed cows.
And, yes, many people balk at the high price demanded for organic, but she argues that those prices “are the true cost of food. Our conventional food system is highly subsidized, and the true cost of producing that food is not passed on to the consumer.”
Paying farmers a fair price “is one of our tenets of sustainability,” she adds. “So that a farmer can do all the things we want to do like send our kids to college — and buy that healthy food that they produce.”
A final question: “Can someone who is concerned about climate change eat a cheeseburger with a clear conscience?”
“I say yes,” she said with a laugh. “Go ahead and eat that pasture-raised, organic cheeseburger.”
But don’t forget to eat every last bite. As she reminds us: “The food we waste is responsible for roughly 8% of global emissions.”