Grab a jug of milk is what most of us do, with little regard to how it got into the grocer’s case or how much effort goes into the carton. Milk: grab a teat and squeeze, right?
Milk is actually a traded commodity and milk prices are set by cheese futures on Wall Street. The fluctuating price of milk was one of the factors that made dairy farmer Jon Bansen of Double J Jerseys in Monmouth decide to go with an organic co-op over the mass milk market. Bansen cares for about 190 cows, with 165 of them milking. That’s twice a day, three hours in the morning and three hours in the evening … every day, milking 165 cows.
“Organic milk prices stay basically the same. Conventional production pays by what is going on with the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), basically cheese prices,” says Bansen, who has been a dairy farmer for twenty years. Eleven years ago he joined Organic Valley. Since then, the co-op has grown exponentially. “When I started we had 205 members; now it has grown by leaps and bounds, with 1,600 members today.”
Pricing and slim margins cause the Willamette Valley to lose family dairies like Mallorie’s in Silverton. The life of a big dairy farmer is a busy one with a lot of overhead. “The reasons why most farmers don’t operate like Mallorie’s did is because you have to be big to get all the jobs done. Running a dairy is work. You have to figure out the processing, hauling, have a sales team … rarely does a family have someone who is qualified and wants to fill all the unique positions,” says Bansen.
Instead of a large family operation, Bansen pursues his passion as a dairy farmer through a co-op. He sells his milk to Organic Valley Co-Op and they take on the marketing, processing and other worries. All Bansen has to do is what he does best: make sure cows are happy, healthy and making quality milk. “We keep our milk in the regions in which we produce it. Yes, we belong to a national co-op, but the milk is local,” says Bansen.
“We focus on just the farm. Being involved with the co-op allows us to let Organic Valley employees get these things done so we can concentrate on quality products. It’s a lot of balls in the air to keep going at once,” Bansen says. “My job is to master making high quality milk. We grow high quality grass and with organic farming, grazing is a specialty.”
Open the dairy case at LifeSource Natural Foods and it’s obvious that local dairies have hit the sweet spot. “We like to support our local farmers,” says Steve Winn, dairy manager at LifeSource. “I go out, I see how they handle the cows and how the milk is produced. That is the fun part of the job, field trips. When the product comes in, we feel confident that it is quality and our customers are going to be happy with it.”
Milk is expensive to move. “Local dairies are the way to go. It’s close to home and organic dairies are fairly easy on the environment. You don’t have the concentration of waste products and the dairies are all certified organic. Making smart environmental choices with what to put in the dairy cases makes a big difference on our environment, and we are helping our local farmer,” says Winn.
Farmers have two choices these days: they can get bigger, or smaller. “The co-op works for us. We don’t have to chase the bigger. We get a more even return than conventional milk and we can concentrate on what we do well. When Organic Valley started they said they were going to pay farmers a decent price and set the price for consumers,” says Bansen.
“Consumers did support us. It’s been a wonderful way to raise a family, on the dairy farm. It’s been a wonderful experience.”
Milk prices are up right now, but Bansen said just a few years ago milk cost more to produce than it was being traded for. Organic milk prices remain steady and allow farmers to hold on to their futures.
“There isn’t as much ugliness in the organic world. The prices stay stable, not near as much up and down,” says Bansen.
“Our milks are all RGBH-free, and bigger dairies cannot guarantee that. A lot of places just don’t say anything. But we believe that happy cows make better cereal,” says Winn.