MT. ULLA, NC — In 2006, Mary L Farm, operated by Rick and Dorcas Parker, was the first North Carolina dairy to be certified organic. Recently, two of the Parkers’ children, Taylor and Maurice, shared their perspective on what the past nine years have brought.
“Being organic is different, not easier, than conventional production,” said Taylor, who is a student at Catawba College and helps on the farm when not in school. “The transition brought a whole new set of struggles.”
Maurice, who today works full-time on the farm with his father and is in charge of the field work, remembers switching to organic production as being “pretty rough.”
“You’ve got to be on top of your soils to start out with. Conventional guys do that too, but we can’t get behind because we can’t come in with some of the applications conventional producers have.”
One of the biggest changes at the dairy is the shape of the herd. The size of the herd has become smaller.
“You have to tailor your herd to meet your grazing capacity,” Taylor said. This is done to meet the requirement that animals be able to graze at least six months per year. The herd at Mary L grazes longer than that, with plantings of warm- and cool-season forages as well as permanent MaxQ®-clover sod ground.
Herd size is also limited by how much forage the farm can produce, as the Parkers typically prefer not to buy in organic feed.
The size of the animals has also diminished, as the dairy has switched from Holsteins to a mixed-breed herd. The herd today includes many cross-breds — largely Jersey-Holsteins crosses, but there are Swedish red crosses as well.
“My dad thought, ‘Let’s incorporate the grazing characteristics of Jerseys with the production of Holsteins,’” Taylor said.
“It works,” Maurice said. “The cross-breds have the best of both worlds.”
The Parkers made the switch to organic production in the first place because of the premium they would get for their milk. At the time, conventional production was pushing their ability to survive financially. “We needed to do something,” Taylor recalled.
Over time, though, Taylor has seen another benefit to switching to organic production. “The practices seem to suit our family,” she said.
At first, Taylor was against becoming organic. “All I could think of when I heard that word was the negative connotations,” she said. “I was thinking of banjo-playing hippies. I was not happy.”
Maurice recalls the challenges of adapting to organic crop production. “It’s still a learning curve,” he said.
At first, they tried row cropping, cultivating weeds between the rows. One year, that kept the rows clean as a whistle, but all of the weeds had moved into the rows and were choking out the crops.
Since then, the Parkers have come to practice multicropping in many cases. For example, they have mixed Austrian winter peas with barley, forage soybeans with dwarf sorghum. When they plant ryegrass for early spring grazing, they also plant crimson clover.
Using a companion legume not only helps control weed pressure, but also increases the nitrogen in the soil.
The Parkers have also raised spring oats and wheat and are planning on experimenting with spelt this upcoming year.
“We have to be real versatile,” Maurice said, using varieties that could be either grazed or taken off as stored forage.
Inspecting a field of newly planted ryegrass and clover that will be used for spring grazing, he added, “One thing to consider with organics, if cows eat it, it’s not a weed.”
Sudex, which is planted as a monocrop, serves as the dairy’s primary warm-season grazing forage and a main source for silage.
When it comes to working cropland, the Parkers use a chisel plow and heavy disk, not using a turn plow.
Reflecting on the family’s decision to switch to organic production, Taylor, who hopes to become a veterinarian, said, “When what you’re doing is no longer working, you have to get progressive. In farming, a lot of what goes on is trial and error anyway. But when you’re raised on a farm, you don’t necessarily see that.”
He continued, “Now that we’ve switched, my dad is happier and the family is closer. It’s not that there’s less stress, but the stress is in different areas. It’s been a test of faith but I like it.
“I’m not going to say organic is better than conventional — I don’t believe that. I believe both are just fine. But organic has been better for our family.”