THE READER
June 2006

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Producer Profile

Wisconsin Organics
Maintaining a Sustainable Lifestyle for the Wisconsin Family Farmer

by Lynn Olson, Cooperative Services Manager

On a recent trip to the Hartford, Wisconsin hill the Gehl family has farmed on since 1847, hard work and integrity were obvious. Because of the Gehl’s method of dairy farming, the farm epitomizes the word “pastoral.” Cows grazing and lying on green pastures and hillsides. Moving slowly each dawn and dusk, following their lead sister, dairy cows make their way to the milking parlor.

About Wisconsin Organics

The Gehl farm is one of 15 organic farms across Wisconsin currently supplying milk for Wisconsin Organics and their parent company, Organic Farm Marketing, Inc. This relatively new company’s president, Chad Pawlak, founded the business in 2003 after earning a marketing degree and finding success at a Wisconsin brokerage firm. Ultimately, Chad and his wife were seeking the quality of rural living for themselves and their two young children, and it wasn’t hard for Chad to figure out what he wanted to do upon returning to his hometown. The small northern Wisconsin town of Thorp was once home to four world-class cheese plants and, while he was away, Chad was disheartened to learn that they had all shut down in that short time, putting hundreds of people, including his father, out of work. “I realized what was missing was the marketing side of it,” Chad said. “What these guys [dairy farmers] do by themselves with their families is special and unique and sometimes I think I have the easy job...it’s just undeniable that it’s worth the extra dollars to protect it.”

“Our goal at Wisconsin Organics,” Chad added, “is to maintain a sustainable lifestyle for the Wisconsin family farmer but also for the Wisconsin rural cheese plant. My father and grandfather were both cheese makers and, just thirty years ago, Wisconsin was home to over 2,000 family cheese plants. Today that number of cheese plants is hovering around 200. Just like we’ve lost too many great family farmers, we’ve lost too many great cheese makers,” Chad continued. “Wisconsin Organics prides itself in procuring organic milk from [only] Wisconsin family farms and taking that milk to Wisconsin family cheese plants. Combining great milk with great cheese makers results in a premium and, we think, superior product.”

Old-world style cheese

While our first introduction to Wisconsin Organics may have been their glass-bottled organic milk at the Willy Street Co-op, their original mission was to put those cheese makers back to work and to preserve the traditional methods of cheese making. “We are very proud of our cheeses,” Chad said, “and the focus on local economic sustainability.
Currently all of our [four] partner cheese plants make cheese old-world-style. This traditional cheese making technique includes using smaller amounts of milk, smaller vats and open vats. Once the milk is in the vat, the cheese maker steps up and over the vat and begins [the] magic of making cheese. Every day a cow produces milk of different components. The components change because of the time of the year, the diet the cow had the day before and even how the cow is feeling. As milk changes every day, the magic of the cheese maker is vital in great cheese-making. The ability to read the milk and make adjustments is critical in great cheese. Our cheese makers can make these adjustments. Wisconsin Organics follows the traditional approach and the result can be tasted. Each vat is unique like a bottle of wine,” Chad states. Willy Street Co-op currently carries five types of Wisconsin Organic cheeses—Sharp White Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Farmer, Colby and Pepper Jack.

Back to the farm

On the Gehl farm, Mike is the sixth generation to be farming on the homestead and is eagerly anticipating his 22-year-old son’s opportunity to take ownership of the milking operation with the boom of the organic milk market. In contrast to the discouraging outlook of dairy farming a few years ago when his son found employment off the farm, the demand for organic milk has made farming a viable option again for their seventh generation and, to his father’s delight, their son is ready to return.

In addition to a guaranteed price for their milk throughout the year, Chad was able to share more of the financial advantages they provide for their 15 farms. “We also bring back profit sharing to the producers as well, based on the success of the brand,” he said. “On top of the gate price and on top of their quality premiums, we take 5% of the pre-tax profit and pay that back to the producers as a bonus check.” With that, growth of the brand has been so rapid that Wisconsin Organics expects to double their producer farms to 30 by August 2006, after doubling in size last year as well.

A closed herd, the Gehls raise all of their own replacement stock. Mike says he prefers to let nature take its course with breeding and employs “natural service” with their bulls. Calves are left with their mothers for 24 hours after birth and are then cared for by the Gehl family until they are strong enough to be on pasture.

At present, Mike and wife, Gale, are milking only 30 of the 90 cows (year-round freshening), but all remain on pasture during the growing season. The Gehls herd produces 3,000 pounds of milk every two days, which is then picked up and brought to either one of the cheese plants or to their fluid milk bottler in Appleton, a fifth generation, family-owned bottler.

The grass is greener

Certified organic through Global Organics, the Gehl Farm is beginning to grow more of their own feed grain and hay for the herd on 74 additional acres of certified organic land that they rent nearby. But through his own experience in consultation with his certifier, Mike has learned that cows require different types of feed at different times of the year and on a daily basis.

“When the cows are all out on pasture, they won’t touch a single bit of grain,” Mike explained. “You’ve gotta kind of use the pasture as a basis, but we got to get a little hay into them, then let them out onto pasture. That’s when they produce—when they’re lying down on pasture. That’s when they make milk, not when they’re running around or eating. [When] you take a 1300-1400 pound frame Holstein and you put her on her feet for 17 hours a day, she falls apart. They do need exercise; they do need to be outside; but they need time to relax out here, too. That’s where the supplemental feeding comes in.”

The lay of the land

The Gehl farm does sit on a hill, so Mike has chosen a grazing system that works for his farm, loosely called “strip grazing.” Using an electric “lead wire,” Mike structures 2.8-acre paddocks in strips running diagonally across the hill where their cows spend days grazing before being moved to the next strip. After moving them to the next paddock, the grazed strips are either left to regenerate with winter rye or are replanted with other choice grasses or cover crops for the herd.

Chad added, “Grass is very, very important. [Wisconsin Organics] like[s] to see our organic producers be at least 30 to 40 percent grass-based, which is 20 percent more than anybody else and 30 to 40 percent more than what the national [organic] standards are, but then at the same time, we like to see a balanced diet. I think the healthiest farms and the healthiest cows are the ones with that balanced diet.”

A stitch in time

In 1980, at age 25 and after spending his whole life raising and nursing cows, and committing to taking over the herd from his father, Mike made a very unpopular decision to stop using all synthetic insecticides. And, since he says he could never afford them, he decided to never use synthetic hormones either. Told it would never work, his perseverance met with success, and later that choice made for an easier transition to become certified organic.

Previously, there was a fair amount of pressure from his neighbors to convert to a new way of farming. Far away, but visible from the open field at the apex of the Gehl Farm’s ideal grazing acres, Mike pointed out five confined dairy “operations” that could be seen in the distance, in all directions. With not an animal in site, the buildings looked conspicuously more like warehouses than barns, housing herds 24 hours a day, all the while atop enormous waste holding tanks. Mike was clear in stating his appreciation for never succumbing to the temptation to farm like his neighbors as he stood among his herd of 90 Jerseys, Holsteins and Normandys mixes.

Make the choice

To that end, Chad commented, “You have a choice when you purchase organic dairy products and we encourage you to know the differences and learn who is behind each brand, where they come from and what they stand for. Sustainable agriculture begins at the farm and the circle is completed when the product arrives home in refrigerators across our great dairy state. We thank everyone for supporting Wisconsin Organics cheese, milk and butter. Our farms are here; we are here; and together we ensure sustainable rural communities and family farms.”

For more information

For more information on Wisconsin Organics log onto www.wigorganics.com or call (715) 669-7546. Make sure to try some of their delicious products in the Co-ops dairy and cheese cases.