Editor’s note: This commentary is by Jacques Couture, who milks a 70-cow herd in Westfield, about five miles from the Canadian border. When he’s not in the barn or out in the fields, he and his wife, Pauline, run Couture’s Maple Shop and a bed and breakfast at the farmhouse, which dates back to 1892.
When it comes to organic or conventional dairy farming, I’ve been on both sides of the fence – literally and figuratively – so the current demand by some vocal Vermonters that all dairy farmers convert to organic has got me a little perplexed.
I started dairy farming back in 1970, before organic regulations even existed, and then made the decision to transition to organic in 2006. I made a conscious choice to farm without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. It was a personal decision, one that I made for financial reasons as well, and I’ve never regretted it.
Does being an organic dairy farmer mean I think conventional or non-organic dairy farming is a terrible thing? Not at all. You’ll never hear me say anything bad about conventional dairy farmers in general. Like me, they get up before the sun, work long and hard, care for their animals and their land, as well as their families. They take pride in their product, are dedicated to their communities, and often struggle to make a good living.
Vermont’s conventional dairy farmers, like their organic neighbors, are responsible stewards of the land and produce healthy, nutritious milk.
Organic milk is produced without antibiotics, but “regular” milk is free from antibiotics as well. Cows sometimes get sick and require medicine, just like we do, and conventional dairy farmers are able to use antibiotics sparingly to help their cows get better. Their milk is separated from other cows’ milk on the farm, is disposed of immediately, and never enters the food supply. On organic farms, antibiotics are only used as a last resort, but that means that animal is no longer able to provide milk that meets organic requirements, or can’t be sold as certified organic beef.
Most conventional dairy farmers in Vermont no longer use bovine growth hormone (rBST, or rGBH) to increase production, a substance not allowed in organic dairying.
Many conventional dairy farms that have the available land pasture their cows, like organic operations. On organic dairy farms, the requirement for pasture time is 120 days. Many farms don’t have the pasture space to meet organic standards, for example, and that would mean driving some family farms out of business. And what would that serve?
When it comes to the land, you won’t find an organic or conventional dairy farmer who doesn’t focus on soil health and production. Both types of farms plant crops on their fields all year long even in the winter, like the cover crop winter rye, that helps increase soil health and minimize erosion of valuable topsoil. Yes, conventional farmers, like organic folks, use regenerative agricultural practices, like no-till and cover crops. The end goals, conventional or organic, are very similar: healthy, content animals to produce the best milk while safeguarding the land.
If conventional dairy farms use fertilizer and pesticides – and some don’t – they do it judiciously and work to avoid impacting local water sources and nearby lands. A word about pesticides: Organic farmers are prohibited from using man-made pesticides that are available to conventional farmers, but they are allowed to use certified organic pesticides and fungicides. All dairy farmers try to use the least amount of pesticides possible (for environmental and financial reasons), so no matter what’s used, using the safest ones in the least volume is every farmer’s goal.
The fact is, Vermont’s dairy community is a diverse one, and there’s room for everyone. Personally, I find the calls for “organic or nothing” dismaying and, in my view, a little impractical. While the demand for organic dairy, produce, meat and other foods is growing, conventional farming remains a necessary method that has the scale to meet our planet’s needs.
I find it unfair to pit conventional versus certified organic farming against each other. There are good and bad actors on both sides of the aisle! We shouldn’t paint either one with a broad brush or generalize. That would be unfair to those pouring their hearts and souls into producing food to feed the people of this world.
Again, I’ve farmed conventionally and organically. Is one better than the other? Did going organic mean I suddenly cared more for my cows or the planet? No. It was a decision that made the most sense for me and my dairy farm, just as conventional dairying is a personal choice for others.
I guess it comes down to a simple equation when considering the merits of organic or conventional farming: it’s the farmer, not the farming, that makes either the right choice — for the animals, the land, and the rest of the planet.