James and Ida Burkholder run a dairy farm located in Berks County, Pennsylvania. In a unique example of neighbors helping neighbors, the Rodale Institute helped the Burkholders obtain organic certification in April 2012.
For more than 200 years, the Burkholder family has been farming. James and his eight siblings were raised on a small 50-acre beef farm, and Ida grew up on a beef and dairy farm. Soon after the two married, Ida’s father gifted the newlyweds with a 40-acre home farm. James expected some challenges because as he explains, “Family farms are in danger of extinction. It’s tough to compete against bigger corporate farms.”
To James, the ideal family farm is similar to the one he grew up on, where his family worked as a unit, with even the smallest job contributing to the success of the farm. Now parents of four young children, the Burkholders are proud to have little helpers on the farm. “They have their daily chores: feeding calves, chickens and pigs. They pretty much know everything that is happening on the farm. They have a good concept of what we’re trying to accomplish, even at a young age.”
Despite help from their children, James and Ida had a tough time keeping their conventional dairy farm afloat. Low prices for milk in 2009’s dairy market combined with high production costs left the Burkholders in near financial ruin. James realized that it was most definitely time for a change. The family decided to try their luck in the organic industry, but the Burkholders were held back by their limited resources.
The opportunity for change arrived through a partnership with the Rodale Institute, a nonprofit research facility. In 1972, the institute transformed its land into an organic farm. Since then, Rodale has geared its research efforts towards providing information about organic farming to farmers, scientists, policy-makers, gardeners and consumers. For several years, the Rodale Institute has collected data on how an organic environment affects crops. To advance their comparison efforts, Rodale researchers desired to incorporate livestock into their analyses.
Jeff Moyer, farm director of the Institute, saw in his longtime friend, James Burkholder, a great opportunity to fulfill Rodale’s research needs. Jeff submitted a proposal to the Rodale Board of Directors and in August of 2010, Rodale began its partnership with the Burkholders. In his proposal to the board, Jeff clearly states that the relationship between Rodale and the Burkholders is to be treated as a “marriage,” with work and successes divided equally. So far, the marriage has been advantageous for both parties.
Usually, when a conventional dairy farm undergoes an organic transition, the process takes a total of three years. By USDA standards, soil must be kept chemical free for two years and then animals have to feed on organic pastures for an additional year. “Rodale’s land was already certified organic, so James’ cows were able to move onto our land immediately, begin eating organic grass and within 12 months, James could ship organic milk as opposed to waiting three years,” explains Jeff. While the Burkholders enjoy the benefits of access to Rodale’s pastures, the organization is able to incorporate animals into their research for the first time ever.
James Burkholder has already noticed some findings; he says, “The cows are quite a bit healthier than they have been and we’ve had very good milk quality.” Productivity for the Burkholder cows remains stable and physical health has increased. Before the move to pasture lands, 20 percent of the cows had foot problems. Now, only two of the James’ cows are experiencing trouble with their hooves. James and Ida can see benefits to organic farming and see a need for more information published about why certain environments and methods are better for livestock and consumers.
When the Burholders decided to transition their dairy farm, they were met with skepticism. The couple was surprised at the number of friends, neighbors, fellow farmers and veterinarians who referred to organic farming as a fad. The Burkholders are often asked, “Why pay six dollars [for] a gallon for milk when you can get it for three?” For them it’s not just about money. “This is definitely the way we want to live and raise our kids and this is the way we want to farm,” states James. For the most part, James has chalked the negativity up to misunderstanding of the organic farming industry. The Burkholders would like to change their neighbors’ perspective on organic farming through example. “Hopefully, people can learn from [our] farm, see what we’re trying to accomplish and realize that [organic farming] is not just a hoax.”
As for the controversy surrounding milk prices, the Rodale Institute is hoping to provide new insight on the topic thanks to help from the Burkholder cows. The institute is conveniently located between James’ farm and his father-in-law’s conventional farm. Both farmers run a 60-cow dairy operation and use much of the same equipment. The main difference between the farms is that “one is a grain-based confinement dairy and the other is a pasture-based organic dairy.” Every week, Rodale collects milk samples from the two farms and sends it off to a USDA research lab in Philadelphia. The lab is tracking the samples’ nutritional value by noting omega-3, omega-6 and conjugated linoleic acid levels.
Transitioning into an organic operation has not been an easy process, but the Burkholders feel that their hard work will pay off. When their journey first began, James and Ida oversaw 40-acres of land. Now, the couple is in charge of nearly 200-acres. The move to organic has changed how the Burkholders view their farming practices. James is convinced that raising his animals in an organic environment is the healthier option, not only for the livestock, but also for his family and the people who eat what he produces.
- Can organic farming feed the world? Our Ask Farm Aid column has the answer.
- Farmers interested in transitioning to organic or other sustainable means of production should check out our Sustainable Options guide, part of the Farmer Resource Network.
- For more information about the dairy crisis that has caused so many dairy farms to go under, read our fact sheets, “Dairy: Family Farmers in Crisis” and “Dairy: Family Farms Squeezed by Corporate Greed“