Organic dairying a way to keep small farms in business

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman (right) talks to Ken Blatz (left) and his son, Greg Blatz, during a tour of their organic dairy farm east of Fond du Lac.

DOTYVILLE - Greg Blatz doesn't believe there would be a future in farming for him had his father remained in conventional dairy farming.

Blatz is the fourth generation of his family to operate the small dairy farm located in the rolling hills east of Fond du Lac.

"Without him switching over to organic farming, I don't think I would be in the position I'm in right now; at the age of 26 ready to take over the farm. At least not milking 50 cows," he said. "We'd be either looking at expanding or moving to a different type of production of some sort because there wouldn't be enough income here for me to be able to buy the farm from my dad and also be able to support my own family."

His mother, Joanne Blatz said making the decision to switch to organic dairy farming in 1994 has been a good one for their family.

"My husband, Ken, enjoyed farming again once he got into organics. It wasn't the day-to-day struggle with milk prices," she said. "With Organic Valley, we know what we're getting at the beginning and at end of the year. Financially it made it more easier for us."

Wishing to preserve that marketplace and opportunity for future generations, the Blatz family and their processor, Organic Valley, hosted a farm tour and discussion with U.S. Representative Glenn Grothman. Joined by local organic farmers, Grothmann fielded questions on the farm bill, immigration, work visas, tariffs, dairy exports and issues impacting organic farmers and the organic marketplace.

Area organic farmers talk to U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman (center) during lunch at the Ken Blatz farm.

"We're always interested in educating policymakers about what organic is and what it means to the landscape and family farmers," said Adam Warthesen, government relations coordinator for Organic Valley. 

Warthesen says that Grothman recognizes new challenges facing the organic industry, which has experienced tremendous growth over the years. Grothman is a bipartisan co-sponsor of the Organic Farmer and Consumer Protection Act that provides stricter oversight on organic products entering the US in an attempt to crackdown on fraudulent products that subsequently drive down prices for local organic producers and hurt the integrity of the organic brand.

Warthesen says the bipartisan bill would create a level playing field for organic farmers and ensure continued consumer trust.

"Being able to secure that in the final farm bill would be very important to us as our cooperative really believes in organic integrity which is key to the relationship we have with consumers," Warthesen said.

Heifers at the Blatz dairy farm meander up the lane to get a closer look at visitors touring the small organic dairy.

Versions of the bill have already passed through the United States Senate and the House of Representatives. But Grothman fears that Democrats will delay approving the bill until after the midterm election.

"The Senate Democrats are unlikely to vote on any bill that puts restrictions on food stamps including a work requirement," Grothman said. "I'd be surprised if they took up the bill before Sept. 30. They're feeling optimistic about the elections and believe they will have a stronger negotiation position on Dec. 1."

Farmers attending the tour asked for Grothman's insight on President Trump's tactics regarding imposing tariffs on two of U.S. farmers' biggest trading partners: Canada and Mexico.

"The whole trade thing was about the China's theft of intellectual property. Since then it's become more than that. I talked to a couple of Trump's people who said they were optimistic and that it was giving us more leverage," Grothman said. "Trump is the first one to address this, but obviously it's a little nerve-wracking."

Based in LaFarge, WI, Organic Valley has grown from just seven producers to over 2000 nationwide. Five hundred of those farms are based in Wisconsin including the Blatz Dairy Farm that was founded in 1919 by Ken Blatz' grandfather. Today Ken and Greg farm in a partnership that they established in 2014. Greg is on track to buy the farm in January 2014.

Ken says he was never a fan of spraying crops and began moving away from using chemicals on crops years before becoming certified organic.

"I began doing experiments in the fields in 1988 to see if I could get by without the chemicals," Ken said. "By 1994 when I was ready to come aboard as organic, there was a debate on whether our milk could get on the Organic Valley truck or not. That was the same year that Monsanto introduced BGH. Soon after Organic Valley said we need your milk, so I'll always be grateful for BGH in a way."

The Blatz family (from left) Ken and Joanne, and Nikki and Greg, hosted a visit by U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman at their organic farm earlier this month.

The Blatz' milk 50 cows twice a day in a tie stall barn with individual drinking cups and white-washed walls. In order to meet organic standards, the family's dairy herd must be on pasture for 120 days and have 30 percent of their dry matter intake from pasture during the grazing season.

Of the family's 200 acres, 35 are designated as permanent pasture with the rest being used to grow feed for winter. Ken believes his cows' forage-based diet creates healthier milk for consumers.

Like their conventional counterparts, organic dairy farmers are also faced with waning consumer demand for milk.

"Fluid milk consumption has been on the downward trend for 30 years," said Warthesen. "Organic milk had been able to hold steady and grow a bit, but even then, we're starting to see that flatten out a bit."

Greg says that he has talked to farmer friends about transitioning their farms to organic.

"I've talked to a few of my farm friends and some have kicked the tires on the idea, but with the conventional market being as bad as it is, it's hard for them to make the switch now because you'll not only take a production hit going to organic but you won't receive (organic premiums for your milk) for three years, so it's a big commitment," he said.

The youngest of five children, Greg says he plans to continue on the path his father set for the farm. 

"It's enough work for one person and I figure we can make a good living with the number of cows we have," he said.

And being an organic dairy allows him to do just that.