McMINNVILLE, Ore. — Sitting face-to-face with organic dairy farmers from around the Willamette Valley, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley pledged their support for organic agriculture, an industry that Merkley called “an exciting opportunity for our food and our economy.”
Brown and Merkley, both Democrats, visited the Organic Valley creamery in McMinnville on Friday, one year to the month after the plant opened with $350,000 in funding from the state’s Strategic Reserve Fund.
The creamery now has 42 full-time employees and brings in 500,000 pounds of organic milk every day to process into butter and powdered milk. Organic Valley is the nation’s largest organic farming cooperative, with more than 2,000 members in 35 states — including 75 organic dairy farms in Oregon and Washington.
One of those members is Sar-Ben Farms in Saint Paul. Steve Pierson, a fourth-generation family farmer, also serves on the Organic Valley board of directors. He talked about the process of going organic, shifting from a confined feeding operation to a grass-based operation, which helped to improve the health of his cows.
“We felt that herd should have been healthier,” Pierson said, and though it was intimidating to change their production model, “We found that working with Mother Nature, instead of against it, was really better for us.”
Pierson’s daughter, 22-year-old Sara, will become the fifth generation, along with her brothers, to work at Sar-Ben Farms. While Sara Pierson said she originally thought she might be interested in a more traditional 9-to-5 job, she ultimately missed the fast-paced work.
“I really love the way I grew up on the farm,” Pierson said. “I don’t think I could have an office job.”
Organic Valley has been a key partner in helping those dairy farms remain in business, cutting $59 million in milk checks for Oregon members in 2017. The McMinnville creamery is the co-op’s only brick-and-mortar facility outside of Wisconsin.
Brown said she was pleased to see the creamery has created new jobs in the community, and will be talking with Department of Agriculture Director Alexis Taylor on programs to support further growth in organic farming.
Getting into the organic business is no easy task. For dairy farmers, cows can only eat organic feed, cannot be given any additional hormones or antibiotics, and must have at least 120 days to graze on open pasture. For farmers growing their own feed, it takes three years without spraying chemicals before the land can be certified organic.
At the end of the day, Pierson said organic farmers must maintain consumer trust and credibility, which is why they are willing to work with lawmakers on new guidelines and regulations.
“It’s all about integrity, really,” he said. “We need to meet that (customer) expectation.”
Adam Warthesen, who heads government relations for Organic Valley, said the co-op feels “pretty good” about where organics stand in the 2018 Farm Bill, which is scheduled to go to conference committee Sept. 5.
Merkley, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, pointed to several provisions in the Senate’s version of the Farm Bill intended to invest in organics — such as creating permanent mandatory funding for organic research, providing mandatory funding for cost-share programs to help farmers transition to organic practices, and strengthening enforcement tools under the USDA National Organic Program to protect against fraudulent imports.
Last year, the USDA Office of Inspector General issued an audit claiming that the agency could not provide reasonable assurance that the National Organic Program required documents at U.S. ports to verify that labeled organic products, in fact, came from organic sources.
Chris Schreiner, executive director of Oregon Tilth, a nonprofit organization accredited to certify organic farms, said that report served as a call to action.
“The organic label rests on consumer credibility and trust,” Schreiner said. “It’s really our job as certifiers to make sure that integrity is there.”