A Maple Lake family transitions to organic dairy farming in hope of a steady income

Minneapolis Star Tribune
By Emma L. Carew

The sprawling 412-acre Goelz farm of Maple Lake, Minn., has been largely unchanged over the past century. Every morning, Adam Goelz’s daughters help him hook up their 48 cows to milking machines, which chug softly as they pump the milk. The cows chew their cud quietly and cast their large dark eyes around the dimly lit barn.

But life for these cows, and the fifth generation of Goelzes to work this farm, is changing as radically as the American diet.

Many of Minnesota’s small dairy producers have disappeared over the past few decades, succumbing either to the pressures of urbanization or the volatile economics of the industry. Goelz and his wife, Sarah, have responded to those same forces by taking their farm organic.

They are in the final year of a multi-year process that required changes big and small. The fields where the cattle graze no longer can be sprayed with pesticides and fertilizer. The cows that once were coated with a parasiticide to keep flies at bay now are allowed to keep their tails long to swat flies. And when the cows get sick, they get aspirin, not antibiotics.

In the past few years, organic food has gone from serving a small sect of co-op shopping, green-minded enthusiasts to filling the shopping carts of the suburban family. Even mass merchants Wal-Mart and Target devote an increasing amount of shelf space to organic food.

American consumers spent $2.7 billion on organic milk in 2007, up from $382 million a decade earlier. Organic milk accounted for 16 percent of dairy sales in 2007, according to the Organic Trade Association.

Goelz hopes that going organic will bring consistently higher and more predictable prices for producers like him. In years such as 2006, when milk sold for 12 cents a pound, his farm barely broke even. Last year was a record high for milk prices, with prices at around 20 cents a pound.

Organic milk, on the other hand, will fetch about 30 cents a pound, and “you’re getting it year round. It’s not going to be ‘one month is good, one month is bad,'” he said. Goelz declined to disclose the farm’s income but said he sells a little over 1 million pounds of milk each year.

With lots of land and a relatively small herd, Goelz said his farm was perfectly positioned to become organic, “which makes me feel like a fool that we didn’t do it quicker.”

Milk money

As demand for organic food has surged, so too has the number of organic farms. The state Agriculture Department estimates that Minnesota has about 560 certified organic farms, a 47 percent increase since 2000. The department doesn’t break dairy farms out of those numbers.

Mark Kastel, co-director of the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based organic industry watchdog group, estimated that there are about 1,900 organic dairy farms nationwide.

Organic dairy conversions could slow, Kastel said, because of recent price declines and changes in organic rules. New regulations require the cows’ diet to be 100 percent organic feed, instead of the previous 80 percent. The rising cost of that feed is also dissuading some farmers, Kastel said.

Rick Kment, a dairy analyst at DTN, an Omaha-based agriculture information service, said the rising production costs of dairy farming have hit farmers hard. “The dairy producer continues to lose ground,” he said. “The cost of doing business is increasing faster than the cost of the product they’re selling.”

Added Kastel: “You can go broke milking conventional cows or you can go broke milking organic cows, but it takes an investment upfront to get into the organic business.”

Earthworms return

Back on the Goelz farm, the heavy scent of the barn mixes with the clean country air as the cows shuffle, single-file, through the barnyard. The Goelzes’ cows spend most of their day grazing in a 51-acre pasture that runs up to a lake, where they can drink and swim during the hottest days of summer.

The farm includes more than 300 acres of lush fields, filled with forage such as alfalfa and grasses that must make up from 50 to 70 percent of the cows’ diet. Neat rows of short corn — feed, eventually — wave breezily to Adam as he passes through on his tractor, checking the field for weeds.

Because he can no longer coat the fields with herbicides and pesticides, Goelz spends spends more time in his fields on his tractor — the biggest change for him in the organic process. He takes a weed tiner, which connects to the back of a tractor and looks like a giant black rake, through the fields about every four days to remove the weeds.

The Goelzes originally decided to switch to organic farming because of health concerns.

“There’s no male in my family who lived past 60,” said Sarah, who also comes from a family of dairy farmers in Maple Lake.

More than the better prices they’ll get for organic milk, Sarah said that allowing her children to run through their fields — something they couldn’t do before because of the chemicals — are what really make the conversion to organic worthwhile.

Earlier this spring, the children were playing with the wheat seed, and “it was the first time I remember thinking, ‘I can let them do that.’ I don’t have to worry about them having the chemical on their hands.”

The Goelzes have noticed subtle changes in their land. They’ve seen wild turkeys and a deer nursing its fawn in the woods. The earthworms have come back, helping to enrich the soil and keep it full of nitrogen.

The cows — particularly the nine cheerful and wildly energetic calves — are healthier, too, they said. Before, the calves drank powdered milk, but now they get a gallon of fresh whole milk a day. Adam, who arrives with it for a morning feeding, is greeted with moos and excited jumps. And, while five or six calves used to die each year, they haven’t lost any since they started the organic diets.

“You just don’t see the vet much anymore,” he said. “It’s about a healthy product. Healthy animals are profitable.”

Emma L. Carew — 612-673-7405

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