by Elizabeth A. Tomlin
Dairy farmers from Maine to Pennsylvania opened their doors to share information and strengthen bonds with other dairy farmers in their Organic Valley Co-op through an 8-day, Regional Understanding Tour.
“This Regional Understanding Tour was our second one,” said Peter Miller CROPP (Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools) Co-op/Organic Valley East Division Pool Manager, explaining that the first tour had taken place August of 2012 on the West Coast, running from California to Oregon. “The cooperative felt that this would be a good vehicle for staff and member/owners to see the different regions first hand and meet other members and businesses we work with in those regions.”
This year’s tour began in Maine on Sept. 21 and attracted Organic Valley members from over 3,000 miles away; with 44 attendees coming from Washington, Oregon, California, Texas, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Virginia, Iowa, Ohio and New York.
“We feel like it is a good idea to see the operations of other farmers within our Co-Op so that we might understand the way they farm differently from us and the regional advantages and challenges,” said Dan Beard of Iowa. Beard milks 140 Jerseys and raises Red Devon beef cattle. He and his sons farm about 1,100 acres, growing all of their own feed and selling the surplus. “The farms we visited did vary a lot from Maine to Pennsylvania, but as compared to the Midwest they are generally smaller, more challenged by denser populations and with lots less farm infrastructure — implement dealers, vets, etc.”
New York Mohawk Valley dairy farmer Dan Casler also attended the tour. “Each farm was a little bit different, as you might suspect,” Casler commented. “But there was a feeling of camaraderie that was present at each one we stopped at.”
“I am always amazed at how easily farmers everywhere connect with each other,” added Bonnie Beard of Iowa, who had accompanied her husband on the farm tour. “Friendships were made on the bus as well as with some of the many farmers we visited in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York and Pennsylvania. Once again we were reminded that people are people and we are not all that different from one another.”
Altogether 14 farms were visited throughout the tour, including an extended visit at Rob and Shirley Hudyncia and family’s Hu-Hill Farm, a certified organic dairy located on Lighthall Road, Fort Plain, NY, where a catered picnic dinner was served following the tour.
“My parents and I were honored to have been asked to host this event,” said Julie Hudyncia. “I thought it was a great event it’s always nice to see people within the dairy industry and interact with them. I believe this tour is unique to Organic Valley and it’s such a nice way to be able to visit and understand different areas of the country.”
Dairy farmer John Kellett, of Mohawk Oaks, Fort Plain, NY, attended the picnic dinner along with other local members of the Co-Op. “The tour gives people in the organization a chance to see how others in the country farm differently- or if they have some of the same problems that others have,” said Kellett. “As a Co-op, we need to be together on policies no matter where we live.”
Kellett said that he was able to meet members of the Organic Valley staff at the picnic who were also traveling on the farm tour, including a director from Wisconsin and was able to put faces to names he was familiar with. “I think that this co-op’s leaders actually are interested in what the members have to say compared to other organizations,” Kellett remarked.
Touring organic farms was not the only activity enjoyed by the group. According to Bonnie Beard, a traditional Maine ocean front lobster bake in Belfast, hiking at New Hampshire’s Wells Reserve, dinner at the Lake View House in Burlington, visiting the historic Shelbourne Farms near Burlington, VT, touring the Stoneyfield Yogurt plant, hiking to the top of Whiteface Summit in New York and visiting shops in Lancaster, PA, where the tour ended, were also favorite highlights.
“It was an awesome experience!” stated Casler.
Miller said he is certain that all of the positive feedback from attendees will spur another tour for 2014. “I believe this will become an annual event,” he stated.
Organic Valley is an independent, farmer owned cooperative of organic farmers that was organized in 1988 and currently has nearly 2,000 farmers in 35 states and three Canadian provinces. The Co-op generated $860 million in sales in 2012.
“Organic Valley is such a tight knit group, I’m happy my family can be part of such a supportive cooperative that certainly keeps the farmer at the forefront of all of their decisions,” said Hudyncia.