A Real Organic Dairy Farm
Interview with Chuck Blood by Elizabeth Henderson
Q. Tell us a little about your farming
Chuck: My partner Mary and I moved to Rocky Tops Acres over 40 years ago for the opportunity to work with the elderly owner. It grew into a good partnership. We worked for her for 5 years and then took over the farm. The farm is on Quaker Hill Road, in Hubbardsville, in Madison County, NY. From the beginning, our commitment was to leave the ground in better condition than we found it and not to use anything ending in -cide. Over the years, our management evolved. At first, I thought of myself as a dairyman, but now I see myself as a manager of soil health.
Q. Who does the work on your farm?
Chuck: Our farm labor force is Mary and me with our daughter Autum now on the farm full-time. We do hire some seasonal help and pay living wages, and we just hired a milker for evening help and at a fair wage for their experience. They are local high school students usually. For a teenager with no experience, we pay $10 to $15 an hour; a trained equipment operator gets $15 to $25 an hour. Autum came home 5 years ago and said she wanted to take over the farm. This was a blessing and a worry. We had not made a succession plan. She came home because we are organic and grass-fed. If our daughter were a stranger who wanted to buy the farm, you are looking at $2M: $ 1 million for real estate and the rest for equipment and the 72 cows and fifty-five head of youngstock. She now owns 30% of our LLC and eventually will take over our shares. She is making a living wage since she is a veteran on disability that provides a pension plus what the farm pays her. To smooth this along, we are selling the development rights that will give us a pool of cash to retire with or for transferring the farm to our daughter. Anyone not doing that is missing a great opportunity.
Q. How long has your farm been certified organic?
Chuck: We were using organic methods from the start but it wasn’t until 1997 that we certified. We didn’t certify until there was money there – a market for organic milk since previously there was no incentive.
Q. How do you market your milk?
Chuck: We have worked with every kind of milk processing company. Before we joined Organic Valley, there was no stable pricing. We sold to Juniper Valley then Butternut, then to Horizon, then Organic Cow which was a good operation until the owners sold 51% to Hood, which sold to Horizon and so we ended up back with Horizon which is owned by Danone. They are only out for the money. They have a 9800-cow dairy in Iowa on 9600 acres and Horizon is going to try to certify them. I have experience working with corporations. We have not tried Maple Hill which specializes in grass-fed, but it is still a corporation with 5 investors. I did not want to go with Maple Hill because sooner or later, they will be gobbled up.
After five years, HP Hood made a deal with Organic Valley (OV), as a reserve pool, and we were lucky enough to become members. At that time OV was asking members to reduce production by 7%, but since we were new, and without a record, we did not have to cut.
Q. Do you feel that OV represents the farmers and has genuine farmer input?
Chuck: Farmers have as much control as we can. There are constant meetings of a whole series of committees. I am not one to sit on the sidelines, so I get involved and OV has an excellent program. We just had our fall regional meeting. Anyone can come to either east or west NY section meetings. We always get staff and board members. There are 7 sections in OV – dairy, poultry, meat, produce, eggs, pork and grower pools. Each pool has its members and committee to help themselves. The dairy members elect the Dairy Executive Committee (DEC) at regional meetings. There are 80 - 100 DEC members. The OV board listens to the DEC. You have to want this job.
We have a two-layered system for setting policy: at a first meeting an issue is discussed and reviewed, then, after members have time to think it over, we vote the next month. My region is East – if members don’t call me, I call them. OV members are developing a program to sell carbon credits to provide an additional revenue stream for farms. Members also control care standards that cover issues like stanchions, calf tethering, and calf socialization. I am on the care standards committee. I check with members to find out what they think. Recently, I met with a group of Mennonite members. Stanchions sunset on January 21, 2023, and members decide on those sunsets. I do not want the West Coast to dictate standards to East Coast farmers or vice-versa. There are 1600 good farmers using 1600 methods that are site-specific.
Q. Is there an economic advantage to being an OV member?
Chuck: In the store, OV milk goes for $5.79 a half gallon and right next to it is $4.79 for Horizon. But there is a difference in what farmers get per 100 pounds of milk because of required fees and quality premiums. Maple Hill charges farmers a lot more than OV for hauling the milk, so an OV farmer can afford a lower milk price. Quality premiums are based on 5 assets. With OV, you can miss one of them once a month and you still get paid for the other quality premiums. For other companies – it is all or none. The difference between Horizon and OV is transparency. I can see OV financials and the coop can see mine. We can see what is going on with our business. When I was with Horizon, 25 of us asked Horizon to pay more because we were having a fuel bill crisis, but we had to prove it to them. OV has a quality improvement program for members. I serve on the WIP committee that provides support for other farmers, helping them reach target thresholds. Everybody on that committee has experience. WIP meets once a month to review farms. Level 1 – you made a mistake. Level 2 – we reach out with help.
We held a pasture day at our farm. Forty-nine people came. The conversations also helped me learn and get excited and recharged about what we are doing. In the organic dairy community, we share much more help than on the conventional side where it is cutthroat. The conventional mindset is part of the problem. If I don’t tell you, I can make more. That is not the way I was raised to farm.
Q. In her contribution to the Disparity to Parity campaign, researcher Anderson states that OV practices supply management as a way to ensure fair or parity prices to members. Can you tell us how that works?
Chuck: OV supply management creates a closer-to-sales pattern by requesting its members to have their prior production become active base, but there are two ways for the farmers to adjust this: one is to file an appeal and request a base increase; two is to do a shift in their monthly bases. OV wants to save family farms in an environmentally sustainable way. So their strategy is to start with prices that a family farm needs to be profitable. Organic Valley sets its retail prices based on what is a livable wage for farmers—after the cost of production. In other words, it establishes price parity.
Q. When OV raises prices to customers, do the farmers get a raise?
Chuck: OV has passed on pay increases to their customers three times this year. The intention is for the farmer to get half of that. Because of inflation, that has not happened as much as we hoped. OV is one of a kind – the model has farmers at the top and the coop at the bottom. We want the coop to stay in business. We are trying to make a 1.5% profit for OV because that allows them to show a positive financial sheet to keep the bankers happy. We have to make sure the business can survive. We have to balance keeping customers satisfied with keeping our member-owners satisfied. Since the beginning of the year, we have been discussing how to raise prices. Our goal – is 50 cents rise each year for the farmers. You have to understand that the other companies set higher profit rates. Dairylee was 7%. Horizon is a subsidiary of Danone which wants 15% profit. There is a lot of money in food – the question is - how do we get a fair share?
We may underpay the coop’s top employees, but there are other reasons why people come here; they are excited to work for OV to maintain sustainable prices for the farm owners. And we farmers get to learn about what the staff does. We have a Working Together group – 50 different farmers and staffers work together for a year and go through learning about one another’s work and then meet in person the day before the annual meeting. You get to really know them. When you go to an annual meeting, employees thank you for being one of the farmer members. I can pick up the phone and talk to any staff. I have been in other coops - this is the best one I have ever been in. The difference between Horizon and OV is transparency. I can see OV financials and the coop can see mine. We can see what is going on with our business. When I was with Horizon, 25 of us asked Horizon to pay more because we were having a fuel bill crisis, but we had to prove it to them. If we had the processing here, we could have a local brand.
With OV, we have some control over our own destiny.
Q. How has the climate emergency affected your farm?
Chuck: It was a very hard season – horribly dry, the driest summer I have ever seen. A lot of dairy farms are going out of business. This weather challenges you to make sure you have everything right. Pastures have to be right or you purchase good hay to make up for it. My brother wants to get out of farming, but there are veterans and others like the grazing apprentice program which brings in a person who spends 6 months. Of the 89 dairy farms dropped by Horizon last year, 51 accepted OV offers but others are leaving dairy or stopping farming altogether. I think we have to learn what a climate challenge is and understand that nature bats last. We don't know whether what we are experiencing is just a normal change or all man-made.
Q. Where do you stand on the National Organic Program (NOP)?
Chuck: The OV rules for grass-fed milk are way above NOP rules. I was in favor of NOP, but I would have liked to see better enforcement. My farm is also Real Organic Project (ROP) certified. There is a huge gap between what NOP says and what the NOP allows farmers to do. The Origin of Livestock rule is finally closing some of the gaps, but it should not have taken a decade. When I stood in DC, I think it was in 1999, to promote 30% dry matter, I wanted to push it to 50% in five years. The NOP of 30% is the minimum. For those of us who believe in organic, it’s in our blood, and we have gone way past what NOP stands for.
Chuck Blood grew up on a small family farm and when he married, he and his wife took over a dairy farm, converting it to organic. In cooperation with the NYS Soil and Water Conservation Districts and the forage council, their farm received the outstanding forage producer award and Conservation Farmer of the year. He is an active member of Organic Valley and served as a farmer reviewer for the NOFA-NY Certification program for sixteen years.