Recently, Emily – who writes the Humane Food Finder blog – called and scheduled a tour of Reedy Fork Farm. We had an awesome time! Emily blogged about her visit, and was kind enough to allow us to share it on our site.
I have been writing about humane food for over a year now. I have eaten at restaurants and sourced their foods, and I have spoken to farmers about their animal treatment — both of which have informed this blog. I even sourced a local and humane wedding.
But I have never actually gone and seen a working dairy farm.
That changed this weekend when Alex and I went to visit our friends, Susan and Andrew, who –like so many others before them in DC — moved away for better things. In their case, it was to Durham, NC, which is a town partly defined by a thriving local food movement.
I had just written about what makes Organic Valley stand out among, what Michael Pollan labels, the supermarket pastoral (which is what we, the consumers, envision a farm should look like, idyllically displayed on a carton of eggs, a package of chicken, or a rack of lamb).
I had been wanting to expand the humane food finding expedition to include farm tours, and this trip presented itself as a great opportunity. I asked Alex, Susan and Andrew if they would mind going on a farm tour, and they were all excited.
After doing a quick search on the “Who’s your farmer” section of Organic Valley’s website, I called an OV farmer to see if we could come by this weekend.
George, the owner and operator of Reedy Fork Farm, was more than happy to accommodate guests, although after seeing how busy he is, I could only come to one conclusion as to why he was happy to add two extra hours onto his 15+ hour day: because, like many small farmers, you love your work so much that you are willing to give the land your sweat and tears so that you can keep it in your family.
We arrived at Reedy Fork Farm on Saturday at 2 pm. On the drive there I was nervous and giddy at the same time. Nervous because I did not know what I would find- would I see something that would make me turn my back on animal farming altogether? Giddy because I was entering a new phase of HumaneFoodFinder and seeing a working farm for the first time.
We were greeted by a large barn with “Reedy Fork Farm” on the side and an Organic Valley placard on the front lawn. A tall man with a bouncy step approached us and told us to park under the tree. George was welcoming, and it was clear that he was eager to show us around.
I want to point out that Reedy Fork Farm is unique because it wasn’t always organic. George was a conventional farmer before his wife and daughter encouraged him to go organic, and was then approached by Organic Valley to join their co-op. Now the improvements to his farm, his animals, and his wallet are apparent.
George first took us over to the hutches where the calves are kept until they are old enough to go to pasture. They were curious and timid. When I first saw them in their individual stalls I did not know what to think. Is this normal to have them separated from their mothers and each other? I was so overwhelmed with George’s generosity, pride in his farm and honesty that I didn’t want to come out of the gate, so to speak, questioning him on the calves, when really… I did not know if this would be considered the best way to treat them.
And I am relieved I didn’t ask. After visiting the farm, I did some research on my go-to guru for farm treatment: Humane Farm Animal Care. It is one of the leading organizations in the U.S. solely devoted to humane treatment of animals on farms, and they have created a standards of care for young cows.
Reedy Fork Farm was doing everything right: the animals are kept in big, clean stalls, able to see and interact with each other, go to pasture, and drink milk. George told us that as they got older they would go out to pasture all the time; ladies to produce dairy, gentlemen for beef.
George explained how the calves used to be when raised conventionally. They were fed a heavy grain diet and attracted more flies. Thus George had to pay for pest removal services. Today, the calves eat an organic diet and there are hardly any flies.
After the calves thoroughly nuzzled and licked our hands, we headed to the actual dairy. George explained that the dairy cows got milked twice a day; that’s instead of three times a day on conventional farms. George gets paid per-pound for milk, and before he went organic, the price was determined by…. well, read for yourself from USDA’s 24-page explanation of the “…complex pricing system that has evolved in the United States to deal with milk production, its assembly (collection), and its distribution…” (A post on this is surely in order!)
Now George’s milk price (and that of other OV farmers) is determined every December, and because they know how much money they will get every month, they don’t need to over-milk their cows in slow seasons. This has allowed George to open an organic feed mill to supplement his dairy income.
Today, George does not over-milk his cows. Organic Valley recommends that OV cows only produce 50 pounds a day (not the 70+ that you get from a factory farm), and due to the heat, George’s cows sometimes produce less. Or should I say, they get milked less.
The cows also produce milk for almost twice as long! A conventional cow at Reedy Fork Farm was productive for 4-5 years (from age 2 until it reached age 6 or 7). But now that they are organic, they produce milk for 8-10 years, (from age 2 until they are 10-12 years old). George also does not need to have a vet on-hand as often; perhaps once every month or two to check for pregnancies, which means much less of a need for veterinary care than when he was conventional. Organic Valley gives their farmers recommendations on how to care for their animals in an organic, holistic way and it is clearly working.
After our tour of the dairy, we all piled into George’s truck (Winston included, of course) and went to see his pastures. The farm has about 500 acres, and the cows cut the grass for him by grazing. This was perhaps my favorite part of the trip: We got to play Crossing Guard for the cows as they were herded to be milked.
I’ve said it once, and I will say it again: Winston is a ladies man. As the cows crossed the street, they all stopped to check out their exciting new dog visitor. One even went so far as to kiss him. But then we started hearing a low, bellowing sound; it was the bull who was clearly not happy that his ladies were paying attention to someone other than him. Sound familiar, male fans of HumaneFoodFinder? As the bull made his way toward the crossing, George advised that we stay behind the car and he ushered him across without incident. I am pretty sure Winston is still glowing from his brief and public bovine relationship.
We didn’t have a chance to see the beef cows up close as they were set back shading themselves under trees, but we did talk about them. George uses a small slaughterhouse in Siler City to slaughter his cows when ready. He does not send them to the (sadly) normal industrial slaughterhouse where tens of thousands of animals are “processed” every day.
We spent an entire two hours with George, and he hurried back to the entrance to milk the cows. Susan and Andrew bought some meat from George’s wife, Cherry, and we watched the milking. The cows did not seem stressed, although they were curious about our presence. Their tails were not docked, and they were swishing them. A monitor ensured that they were not over-milked.
When we left the farm, we never had a chance to say goodbye to George. He was milking the cows, and had a long day ahead of him yet. It was four o’clock. On our ride home we were all tired from the sun, the immense amount of information we had taken in and the long drive. In the end, we knew it was nothing compared to George’s or other small farmers’ days.
While this was an incredible way to first experience a dairy farm, I know that most farms are not like Reedy Fork Farm. Big companies, like Dean Foods, which owns Horizon Organic, is one of largest milk conglomerates in the U.S. According to the USDA, farms that have under 100 dairy cows only produce 20 percent the U.S. That means that the majority of U.S. dairy farms stand in stark contrast to George’s.
And while Organic Valley is a needed market reinforcement for small, humane farmers, it is not a necessity. On our tour George told us that he had a hard time convincing his father to go organic. But when George explained the methods involved and the positive changes that would occur from switching from present-day conventional farming to organic, his father said that was a lot like how he did things when he worked the farm in 1950.
It’s incredible to imagine a world where every farm is humane and manageable. It used to be like that. What happened?
Thank you for sharing with us, Emily. And thanks again for your visit. Come back soon!