Winterstein brothers hoping organic certification boosts dairy operation
SUDLERSVILLE, Md. — Wes Winterstein had been farming for years with his brother, Will, milking about 140 cows at their small Queen Anne’s County farm, and they’d been breaking even.
But two years ago, as the dairy industry around them continued to weaken under the weight of overproduction and sinking milk prices, they suspected that breaking even was about as good as it would ever get — unless they made changes.
They began the slow and costly work of transitioning into an organic dairy operation.
The brothers are in the second year of a three-year transition, and they hope a production contract with an organic co-op or brand lies at the end of the road.
“If you don’t find a niche for your product, you will basically drown in the ocean of milk that we’re making,” he said. “With the cost of production, a smaller farm has to find a way to market their product.”
To start the transition, he said he and his brother had to increase their grazing acreage from about 50 acres to 150, which immediately slashed their cropland income. They also invested in new equipment, including a seven-bottom switch plow, two 12-row cultivators, a rotary hoe and a poultry litter spreader. (They spent more repairing the old plow than they paid for it.) At least a $70,000 investment all told, he said.
“The good news is, because not a lot of people are farming that way anymore, if you go to an auction that has it, you can pick it up at a good price,” he said.
But the organic milk industry hasn’t been immune to the vicissitudes of the conventional dairy industry, and most organic companies aren’t onboarding new farmers. Winterstein said he’d contacted several organic co-ops and brands and didn’t receive positive responses, and many have sizeable waiting lists.
Danone, the French multinational corporation with brands including Horizon Organic, is one of them. It contracts with more than 600 organic dairy farmers across the country and maintains a waiting list of between 50 and 100 others, said Axel Lundstrom, senior director of producer relationships at Danone North America.
“I think it has a lot to do with demand,” he said. “The demand across the dairy category hasn’t been as strong as it has been in the past.”
Organic Valley, a Wisconsin-based co-op with farmers in the Mid-Atlantic, has also felt a slight slowdown in demand, said Ron Holter, a Jefferson, Md., dairy farmer who has been with the co-op since 2005. Though he said he expects the market to turn around.
“It’s not increasing as rapidly as it had, but it’s still increasing,” he said. “It’s still headed in the right direction.”
In the meantime, Winterstein has other concerns. Issues at the Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association — Winterstein’s current home — also trouble him. The co-op slashed advance milk checks to its farmers early last month, citing struggles with cash flow and costs related to a reorganization of its business.
Though it promised to reimburse farmers at the end of the month, a significant number of its farms that have shut down over the last year, which worries Winterstein.
He still has a year to go before he transitions fully into an organic operation and needs the conventional milk income to cover the interim.
“Now we’re worried that there’s a small chance our co-op won’t even make it that long,” he said. “They are actively having to put down bankruptcy rumors every other month, and we’ll get — me and my brother — we’ll get texts and calls from people saying, ‘Did you hear Maryland & Virginia just declared bankruptcy?’ Then we’ll call, and they’ll say, ‘No, that’s not true,’ and that seems to happen about every other month.”
The Wintersteins ideally could begin the final year of their organic transition in which they’d begin feeding their herd only organic feed by October.
The herd would need to feed for a year, according to USDA Organic guidelines, before the farm could begin producing organic milk, hopefully in October 2019, Winterstein said.
If they can’t find a contract, he said, there are other options. There’s a grass-fed milk brand with a plant in Delaware. They could go that route, he said. In a worst-case scenario, they could focus everything on organic crops, but giving up their cows would be devastating, he said.
“I hope I didn’t miss the boat. There’s an ocean of milk out there, and we felt like organic certification was the lifeboat that was going to save us from drowning in it,” he said. “I hope we get to it in time.”
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