Going Organic Helps A Small Dairy Stay Afloat Up before dawn seven days week, Tim Maikshilo and Kristen Dellert still couldn't turn a profit off their conventional northern Vermont dairy farm. But after a couple of years with an empty barn, they gave it another go — this time, as part of an organic co-op.
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Going Organic Helps A Small Dairy Stay Afloat

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Going Organic Helps A Small Dairy Stay Afloat

Going Organic Helps A Small Dairy Stay Afloat

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The nation's economic woes have been particularly hard on the dairy industry. Milk prices are at historic lows and many dairy farmers are going bankrupt. Still, some farmers have found a way to survive: They've gone organic.

NPR's Kathleen Masterson visited an organic family farm in northern Vermont.

(Soundbite of machinery)

KATHLEEN MASTERSON: At this hour, well before dawn, the only light around is coming from the barn. Tim Maikshilo and his teenage son, Max, are milking the herd; hooking each cow up to a pump, which sends the milk to a central stainless steel tank. The barn smells like cow breath and hay. Tim's wife, Kristen Dellert, is bottle-feeding the nine baby calves, including the one born in the pasture a few hours ago.

Mr. TIM MAIKSHILO (Dairy Farmer): We're milking about 42 right now. Takes me about an hour and a half to milk.

MASTERSON: For three years now, Tim and Kristen have been running an organic farm. That means the cows have to get feed grown without pesticides. They can't have antibiotics or growth hormones either. And for at least three months a year, the cows have to be out on pasture.

Mr. MAIKSHILOL: I drive out there and I'll sit and have my coffee...

(Soundbite of a cow)

Mr. MAIKSHILOL: ...and call them. I'll call them and they'll totally get up. I'll have to get out and roust a few up and then they slowly make their way to the barn.

Hello, Jackie. Hello, Sassy.

(Soundbite of house)

Mr. MAIKSHILOL: The ginger, red cylinder out on the back.

MASTERSON: A family home is tucked amid the low, green hills of Coventry, Vermont. From the breakfast table they can see the cows grazing out back. This farm is making it now, but it wasn't always. A few years ago, Tim and Kristen tried running a conventional dairy.

Ms. KRISTEN DELLERT (Dairy Farmer): Well, actually we moved up her from Connecticut because Tim wanted to be a dairy farmer, and as a speech pathologist I could work just about anywhere.

MASTERSON: That was in 2000. Right away, Kristen says, they realized it was going to be a lot of work � hands-on work.

Ms. DELLERT: The first time I went into barn and Tim says to me, that cow's in labor over there, you need to check her. No. Put a glove on and make sure the nose and feet are coming out. And I'm, like, I have a master's degree.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MASTERSON: Kristen learned how to birth a baby cow and many other dairy chores. Through it all, she kept her full-time day job. But, still, they weren't making enough to live on.

Ms. DELLERT: Tim said, you know, we're working 18 hours a day, seven days a week and we don't get to set the price for our product. He said, this is crazy. So we sold the cows. And Tim did his own construction business for a while, excavating business. I kept working.

MASTERSON: But after a couple of years with an empty barn, they decided to try again. This time they would go organic. One reason was the money. These days, conventional farmers are actually getting paid less for their milk than it cost them to produce it.

Ms. DELLERT: They're losing their shirts, basically, just to stay in the business.

MASTERSON: Meanwhile, organic farmers are selling their milk for a slim profit. They're getting about a dollar more per gallon than conventional. So, you might think all conventional farms would be going organic right now. But Kristen and Tim say it's not for everybody. For one thing, you have to know your cows pretty well. Their son, Max, can name every cow, even from across the pasture.

Mr. MAX MAIKSHILO: And then we have Bean, who was Coffee's baby. And then Glazed, who was Donut's baby.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DELLERT: And Lisa Marie, who's Presley's baby.

MASTERSON: If a cow is getting sick, they know right away. That's important because organic farmers can't give their animals antibiotics. It's a lot of work and it's expensive. The organic feed costs more and so do the organic remedies for sick cows. But Kristen says it's worth.

Ms. DELLERT: We actually think they're healthier, because we find they're under less stress because they get to go out. Cows love being out on pasture. They're meant to eat grass. So, anything else that you give them puts them under stress.

MASTERSON: Tim and Kristen have had a lot of help learning how to run an organic farm. They're part of a co-op called Organic Valley. It helps by marketing and distributing the milk. Kristen says being part of a co-op allows each farm to be more than just a milk factory.

Ms. DELLERT: Because it truly does give farmers an alternative in terms of how they're treated and what's being done with our milk.

MASTERSON: Still, in today's economy, even organic farmers are feeling the pinch. Tim and Kristen's dairy is making just enough for both of them to be full-time farmers. But they've had to make some cutbacks.

Ms. DELLERT: We've let our hired help go because we have to reduce our costs. So now it's just the three of us.

MASTERSON: They've had to postpone plans to expand, but, still, Tim and Kristen feel lucky their dairy is in the black. And they trust the organic movement will weather the economic downturn.

Kathleen Masterson, NPR News.

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