Moo-ving into
the Land of Organics
Vol. 9, No. 16
April 19-25, 2001
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At the Old Naval Academy Dairy Farm, the Cows Have a New Attitude

photo by Sharon Brewer
Mary Brewer meets Novalee, owned and cared for by 4-H’er Tara McMullen at Horizon Organic Dairy farm.

By Sharon Brewer

"Honey, could you pick up some milk on your way home?"

Honey does, and lifted from the cart onto the conveyer belt, a red and white carton travels to the checker.

"Two dollars and ninety-nine cents for a half-gallon of milk? What's the deal here?" complains the budgeting buyer.

This isn't just any milk. It's organic.

Does the status that seven-letter word conveys make a half-gallon of milk worth 75 percent more than a conventional half-gallon's price of about $1.69? To a lot of buyers, it does.

Organic products of all kinds greet us at every turn these days. "Over the last 10 years, retail sales of organic products has risen by 20 percent each year, making us a $7 billion industry," explains Katherine DiMatteo, director of the Organic Trade Association.

After fruits and vegetables, milk is the next product that new organic consumers will try. So organic dairies have easily paced the industry. Sales of one of the big two or three national organic dairies, Horizon, grew 50 percent to $127.2 million last year.

What's powering the rise?

Organic buyers might be looking for an alternative to conventional agricultural production methods and materials. They might be concerned about environmental impacts such as polluting air and earth or about the health risks of the use of pesticides and chemicals. Still others might be making a lifestyle choice for sustainable growth, just like buying energy-efficient appliances.

"The reasons," DiMatteo says, "are personal, and with each person, particular ones are more important than others."

But will the higher price that organic buyers pay make a positive, perceptible difference in their lives?

To get that answer, the kids and I piled into the car and headed up to the Horizon Organic Dairy Farm and Educational Center in Gambrills for a day at the farm.

Milk with a Difference

photo courtesy of Horizon Organic Dairy farm

Cruising Maryland Route 175, I catch sight of a happy cow sign, which points the way to the 875-acre dairy farm that's recently become Horizon Organic Dairy. In this pastoral setting, it's hard to believe that we are only 10 minutes from Annapolis. With tour guide Tayrn Wilson-Wheatley, we set off on foot to learn how the property resisted development and what it promises Chesapeake Country.

From 1911 until 1996, this picturesque dairy was the property of the United States Navy. As a typhoid epidemic swept through Chesapeake Country a century ago, Naval Academy officials suspected poor quality milk as a source of the illness felling its midshipmen. They combated the problem by opening their own dairy, ensuring the midshipmen were getting fresh, healthy milk every day. With easy railroad access, the 875-acre stretch in Gambrills meant fresh milk for Annapolis midshipmen.

The original milking barn stands as it did 80 years ago. The now-silent processing area once processed 1,200 gallons of milk every day, the work managed by one man from holding tank to sealed carton. Each morning the fresh milk was transported to the thirsty midshipmen just in time for 5am breakfast.

The shiny stainless steel holding tank is open so we can stick our heads inside. Next to it is the original pasteurizer and homogenizing machine.

The Naval Academy dairy became the standard for the dairy industry and, with 250 cows, the largest dairy farm in the world. Its success was due in large part to the now-taken-for-granted practice of cleanliness. Washing hands between cows during the milking and working in a clean environment made the life-saving difference.

New Horizons

Come 1996, fresh milk was no problem. The Navy decided to close its dairy and sell the land. Wanting to conserve the farmland, neighbors were concerned about who the new buyers might be. For its part, the Navy hoped to keep the dairy's history alive. Horizon Organic Milk, which already operated the Kennedyville farm in Chestertown, stepped in. The Colorado-based company would run an organic farm and education center to teach all comers about organic farming methods while preserving the dairy's history. Horizon opened for business last October.

A stop in the dairy's Marketplace gives us a glimpse of every product that Horizon sells and more. Everything from books to quilts, clothes to sheets, seeds to candles. If it's organic, it's here. With a promise to the kids to come back and sample the food, our tour continued.

We walk past the small, white buildings into an expansive view. Six hundred acres of cropland spread before our eyes as different shades of greens and browns blend into a pattern that looks like a log-cabin quilt.

The black-and-white Holstein cows that dot the fields look the same as any other Holsteins, but these cows are different. These cows produce premium organic milk.

To have organic milk, you must first have organic food for the cows to eat. Organic farming is the first step.

First the Soil

"The distinctive thing about organics," says DiMatteo, "is the production system. Organics' benefits have to do with environmental factors: impact on the environment, biodiversity, habitat and, with any product derived from livestock, the health and well-being of the animals."

It all starts with the soil, as we learn in the Horizon Discovery Barn. The Discovery Barn is full of colorful displays and hands-on learning tools for kids and adults alike. A big circle lights up to show how the life cycle of farming works.

Healthy soil nourishes plants, and the healthiest soils are rich in organic matter. Organic matter has basically three parts: the living - recently dead plants and animals; the dead - recently decomposed living matter; and the very dead - also called humus. Humus is a thoroughly decomposed, dark, sweet-smelling component of fertile soil.

Micro-organisms in the soil do the work of decomposing organic matter into usable nutrients. But toxic chemicals kill these organisms, which in turn kills the soil. Dead soil can become hard and cause water and applied chemicals to run off, to be carried to creeks, rivers and eventually the Bay. Rich, healthy soil, without applied chemicals and pesticides, absorbs rainwater and puts it to work for complex root systems, which take in all they can. Runoff from these fields is safe; clean water flows to the Bay.

Next, the Seeds

How crops are planted is as important as what is planted. On this farm, corn, soybeans, barley, rye and clover grow in strips. Strip farming prevents erosion and makes crop rotation easy. Crop rotation is nothing new; farmers rotated their crops for millennia - until the middle of the 20th century. Now it's become conventional to plant a single crop over a large area. But toxins can build up in the soil when the same crop is planted in the same spot year after year.

The soil grows healthier each year when crops are rotated. Every crop takes certain nutrients from the soil. With rotation, no single nutrient is used up. Another benefit is pest management. When single crops aren't planted in large blocks, pests can't get a foothold. Beneficial insects and natural predators help keep the pests away.

Clover is planted as a "nurse crop." It's a good nurse because it takes nitrogen from the air and holds it in the soil as fertilizer. Its ability to "fix" nitrogen makes clover a "helping crop" for "heavy feeders" like corn.

The harvest these crops yield is just what happy cows need. Straw from rye and barley make comfortable, clean bedding. Barley grain, soybeans and corn make the feed, which is free of meat by-products. So the Mad Cow Disease you've been hearing so much about is not a concern at the Horizon farm. Mad Cow (bovine spongiform emcephalopathy or B.S.E.) began in Britain in the 1980s apparently with the practice of feeding conventional herds a diet beefed up with slaughterhouse by-products. In other words, cattle were being turned into cannibals under the production methods of the day. But organically grown feed, free of animal by-products, carries no risk of transmitting the virus to the animals it feeds.

Each plant has its own valuable role to play. But milk comes from animals.

Contented Cows

photo by Sharon Brewer
Horizons tour guide Tayrn Wilson-Wheatley explains a 3D model of the cow’s four stomachs.

Without cows, we'd have no milk. When a young cow reaches the age of two years, she can become pregnant. Once a calf is born, the mother is ready to give milk. Horizon cows are milked two to three times a day. As with all modern dairies, gone are the days of the milking stool and bucket. These cows are milked mechanically. Groups of 30 to 40 cows are milked together throughout the day. Because pressure builds up inside the udder when a calf is not nursing, milking is a pleasant relief for the cows. "They actually look forward to it," says Bart Rapkin, general manager of the Gambrills farm. Milking takes about 15 minutes. One contented cow gives eight gallons of fresh organic milk a day.

To give organic milk, cows must be kept happy and healthy. These lucky cows are free to move around outdoors in fresh air and sunlight.

That's not the way dairy herds have been raised over the past 40 years. Providing food for our growing population has become big business, and small animal farms have given way to factory farms for cattle and hogs known as confined animal feeding operations. Organic dairies prefer to learn from the farmers of years past.

Organic barns are spacious, and, at Horizon, each cow has its own mattress filled with cut up recycled tires. Fresh straw is placed on the top of each of these mattresses to make a cozy bed.

Every day, Horizon dairy cows enjoy a meal consisting of 30 pounds of feed, 30 pounds of hay and 40 gallons of water. The healthy, well-fed organic milk cow can live 15 years. The average life-span of a typical cow after injection with Bovine Growth Hormone is only a couple of years.

If one of the Horizon dairy cows gets sick, it is treated with holistic medicine. No hormones or antibiotics of any kind are given to these animals, unlike the typical practice of regular antibiotic treatments, often administered in food. A giant-size aspirin or yeast pill and sometimes a good massage by a trained vet usually does the trick.

The End Product

A tidy barn keeps the cows clean, and the design of these barns makes cleaning a snap. The inside floor of the barn has a slight V shape. Jets of water are sprayed in from the side to wash away manure - each cow produces 120 pounds of manure a day - and old straw. This messy mixture runs down the incline to the center of the barn and is swept into holding tanks where it is safely kept, worth its weight in gold.

Cow manure may not look valuable, but looks can be deceiving. Even with four stomachs, cows extract only 60 percent of the nutrients available to them. The remaining 40 percent come out with the manure. These leftover nutrients will help make super-rich compost.

Inside the waste holding tanks, the large solids are drawn off and separated from the mucky liquid, which is then channeled to a waste-management pond. Once it enters the pond, the remaining sediments settle to the bottom.

Irrigation for the crops is easy. Surface water from the pond is drawn off when needed. The solid material that collects on the pond bottom is periodically removed and added to windrows to make huge composting piles. These steaming mountains of compost are solid gold to organic farmers.

When added to the soil, the precious compost returns the nutrients and beneficial micro-organisms, ready to be used by the hungry plants, and the cycle begins again.

As the sun sets, the cows are settling down for the night. Their milk, however, is on its way to be processed, packaged and delivered. Two days later, fresh organic milk arrives on store shelves, ready for breakfast.

I never thought much about the milk I pour on my cereal in the morning, but now I'm curious.

Prowling the Aisle

You're having a glass of organic milk and some cookies. Does it taste different? Do you feel better knowing what you're getting - and what you're not - with each gulp?

DiMatteo traces organic milk's popularity to a growing desire to avoid growth hormones and antibiotics. "I suspect it's due more to avoidance than taste," she says. "Taste is a very individual thing, and I don't think you can get a consistent opinion."

To test her theory, I head to Fresh Fields in Annapolis.

The parking lot is packed as I squeeze into the last available space. Touring aisles just as packed, I come upon the dairy section. Such a colorful display of products is a feast for the eyes. Organic milk, yogurt, butter and eggs. Cheddar and mozzarella, cottage cheese and cream cheese. The chocolate milk looks particularly tempting.

Lurking behind the cereal display, I watch for innocent consumers who pick up a carton of organic milk. Once the carton is safely in their cart, I approach and ask their reasons for choosing organic milk.

Seven shoppers gave me similar answers. For all, the motivation was good taste and the positive environmental impact.

Five said that the first reason they chose organic is the fact that it contains no hormones or pesticides. The remaining two shoppers said that better taste was what mattered most to them.

"My son is autistic," said Grace McCloskey of Pasadena, who had her cart full of organic products, including Horizon milk. "I want to buy food that has no hormones, pesticides or other additives," she said. "I feel it's healthier for both of my children."

Each shopper was paying $1.50 more per half-gallon, but not for one in my small sample was price a consideration. Quality was most important.

Certainly, no price can be put on good health. But why is the price of organic milk so high?

"Organic producers have much the same production costs as conventional farmers do, but strict adherence to organic regulations require added labor and management costs," according to the Organic Valley website. Organic Valley and Horizons are the two big organic milk brands distributed across the country.

"If the indirect costs of conventional farming, such as environmental cleanup and health-care costs for farm workers were added into the cost of non-organic milk," the Organic Valley website continues, "its cost would probably be the same as organic if not more."

How Good Does It Taste?

My curiosity piqued, I plan a taste test.

Undaunted by the $2.99 price tag, I choose a half-gallon of fresh Horizon 2 percent milk and - unable to resist - a quart of Horizon low-fat chocolate milk. My daughters are eager to be taste testers.

Side by side, the glass of organic milk and the glass of regular milk look the same and smell the same. But do they taste the same? Blindfolded for the challenge, my daughters ready their taste buds.

Sarah, 13, tests Horizon organic 2 percent reduced-fat milk against Harrisburg Dairy 2 percent. Mary, 11, tries the chocolate milk. She's testing Horizon 1 percent low-fat chocolate milk and Chrome Dairy whole chocolate milk. Together they tip their glasses.

Sarah's verdict: "They taste exactly the same."

Mary chose the Chrome Dairy chocolate milk over Horizon. "It tasted more like cocoa and not so sweet," she said.

In all fairness, I discovered afterward that the Chrome Dairy milk was made with whole milk instead of 1 percent, which did make it taste richer.

I certainly couldn't sit by and let them have all the fun; I had to give it a try. Closing my eyes I took a sip, then another. It was too close to call, but forcing my taste buds to make a choice, Horizon came out the winner.

Throughout the day, I tested three more friends, who came up with three different answers. One liked the organic milk, another the regular milk and the last said they tasted the same.

My conclusion agrees with DiMatteo's. People choose to drink organic milk mainly for reasons other than taste.

For whatever reason shoppers choose to buy organic products, one thing is certain, they want to be able to trust that they are getting what they pay for. What exactly does "certified organic" mean?

Organic by Definition

The organic philosophy rises from the interdependence of all living things. Key goals include replenishing the health of the soil and eliminating the use of toxic chemicals. It used to be that the definition of organic varied depending with whom you talked. Each certification agent could have a different standard.

Last year, the federal government finally published the new organic rules that will govern a burgeoning new industry for years to come. Congress had passed the national Organic Foods Production Act in 1990, but it took the Agriculture Department a decade to get around to carrying out the orders of Congress. As unbelievable as it may sound, the Agriculture Department considered allowing the new certified organic label to be applied to food that was genetically engineered, irradiated or treated with municipal sewage sludge. But the biggest outcry in the history of government rulemaking - 275,000 complaints - forced the Big Farming disciples of government into retreat.

Now, organic growers have criteria and guidelines in which to operate. The 554-page rule book may be tedious, but just a few requirements are key.

  • Land must be free of chemicals and prohibited substances for three years prior to certification.

  • Farmers and processors must keep detailed records of methods and materials used. Farmers must maintain written organic plans of management practices.

  • All methods and materials must be inspected annually by third-party certifiers.

  • Animals must not be given hormones or antibiotics, and feed and pasture must be certified organic.

With everyone now starting on the same page, "certified organic" is easy to understand. These new rules enable us to make informed choices we can trust.

Organic and the Bay

I am no stranger to organic gardening, having made organic gardens for more than a decade. But I am impressed by this operation. Undertaken on such a large scale, organic farming methods can play a role in cleaning up our waterways and environment. From the poultry industry of the Eastern Shore to the animal-grazing operations in the Western United States, animal manure is a major contributor to nitrogen pollution of rivers and streams. Together, manure and chemical fertilizers destroy aquatic life by creating algal blooms that use up the oxygen needed by living things in water, just like on land.

Manure is the oldest fertilizer, and its benefits to the soil are undeniable. But caution in applying it and buffer strips of greenery to prevent water pollution are necessary to stem the nutrient fouling of water. Organic farmers understand the dangers and have adopted practices that could go a long way toward cleaning up water if factory farms followed their lead.

It might seem a long way from cows to Chesapeake Bay's oysters and crabs, but water runs downhill. Everything that drains, leaches, runs or falls into our water eventually reaches our Bay. Nutrients like nitrogen, which comes from farm fertilizers and untended manure, and toxic chemicals like the ones that come from pesticides and herbicides are linked to diminishing populations of both those Bay species plus many more.

Population growth and over-development are sources of those troubles. Forests and other buffers that once absorbed excess nutrients from the 64,000-square-mile Chesapeake watershed are gone from many areas, replaced by conventional farms and coastal urbanization. Wetlands, which act as a natural filter for the Chesapeake Bay, are fast disappearing.

Organic farms use methods that reduce or eliminate nutrients, sediments and toxic chemicals that pour into the Bay. Supporting these efforts can help reverse some of the damage caused to this fragile ecosystem. With the growing number of organic products available on our grocery shelves, we as Bay Country consumers have yet another way to lend a hand in helping out the Bay.

Back at the Farm

Back at the Horizon Organic Dairy Farm, 12-year-old Tara McMullen is busy toweling off her three-and-a-half-month-old calf, Novalee. Fresh from her morning bath, Novalee seems to like all the attention she is getting from the small crowd that has gathered at the fence. Several hands stretch through the white rails to stroke her curly black-and-white hair.

Tara has been a member of the local 4-H Club for two years. Novalee, a Holstein, is the second cow she has reared. "I love animals. My friend told me about the 4-H Club. It's a great way to learn about animals and how to take care of them," she says.

Kids like Tara come here to the barn every day to care for their cows that live at Horizon and to take turns feeding all of the animals. The lessons they are learning here will help us all grow sustainably into a new century.

As happy cow and cow-girl make their way back to the grooming area, my daughters and I head back to the marketplace.

We each pick out our lunch, chocolate milk, yogurt and string cheese. We make our way through the maze of organic T-shirts and stuffed animals to the cashier. Twelve dollars and fifty-three cents later, as I gaze over 600 organic acres, I plunge my spoon into a cup of "Peach Passion Organic Yogurt."

Yes, I think it's worth it.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly