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by Don Crosby
The sale of organic milk and other dairy products by a farmer-run collective in southwestern Ontarios Grey County has given consumers more choice and rewarded an industry that for years has gone unrecognized. Demand tripled within a few weeks of the product's introduction in January, according to Ineke Booy, dairy pool manager for OntarBio Organic Farmers Cooperative.;
Since the first week in January, OntarBio has been supplying milk and cultured butter to health food stores in southern Ontario cities under the label Organic Meadow. Milk sells for about $2 a liter while butter is around $4.50 a pound.
A farmer-run collective based about 150 kilometers northwest of Toronto, OntarBio for years has sold organic grains, cereals and beans for human consumption. More recently the cooperative has begun coordinating the growth and distribution of organic feed grains. Members who are milk producers have seen a growing demand for their products and formed an organic dairy pool to meet that need.
"We see ourselves first and foremost as producers of food rather than a commodity. And we actively support the idea of sustainable agriculture and sustainable rural communities," says Martin DeGroot, a member of the dairy pool. Other members are Hans Osthaus, Joe von Frankenburg, Francis Hundt, Lawrence Andres, Martin Pronk, Anne and Ross Wilhelm, Ted Zettel and Rick Zettler. All live in south central Ontario, west of Guelph.
Only after they had carried out a market study that indicated consumer demand for their products did the nine producers get approval from Dairy Farmers of Ontario, the body that regulates the production and marketing of milk in the province. The two-year pilot project will give the collective time to satisfy the board that there is a market for their organic dairy products, while protecting the fledgling enterprise from unfair competition.
One condition of the license was that organic milk be marketed without making exaggerated claims or downgrading other producers, says Bob Bishop, general manager of Dairy Farmers of Ontario. He adds that there was a growing consensus among the board members that the recent growth in the organic fruit and vegetable market might be paralleled by a similar demand for organic dairy products. Also the increasing number of organic dairy products from Quebec coming into the province in recent years prompted the board to give enterprising Ontario producers a chance to build their own market.
Organic Meadow products start when milk from the organic pool is transported to Stenos Dairy in Erin, where its processed following OCIA standards. Fluid milk is distributed within 24 hours, while cream is shipped to a creamery in Alliston, north of Toronto, and made into butter. At present the demand for butter is outstripping production, says Booy, with about 1100 kilos of butter being produced every two weeks. Butter making is limited by the amount of milk sold since the cream is a by-product of the milk processing.
The cooperative pays the producers the going rate for milk plus a five-cent-a-liter cost allowance to offset the higher production costs involved in organic farming. Start-up costs are high, explains Booy, especially transportation costs, since a few producers are spread out over a wide area.
Members of the collective work closely together to improve their organic farming skills with monthly "barn meetings" where they share information and experiences. "We are farmers who want to bring back the culture in agriculture," says DeGroot, adding that they pride themselves on providing food grown in harmony with nature rather than fighting against it. The OCIA standards they use ensure that milk is produced by cattle on feed grown without the use of chemical pesticides and artificial fertilizers, and prohibit the use of genetically modified organisms, including rBGH. Several of these producers have developed farming practices that exceed OCIA standards, ranging from the treatment of their animals to the production and processing of their milk.
Because the taste of cows milk is affected by what the cows eat and the barn environment, these organic producers are vigilant in the care of their animals. Herd sizes are kept to about 50 to facilitate a caring relationship with the animals. "We try to address the needs of the cows, " says Hans Osthaus. Calves are raised without using store-bought milk replacer and calf starter. Preventive measures used in the care of the herd include homeopathic remedies and other natural techniques. In the event of a serious illness that requires the use of antibiotics, extra precautions are taken by observing double the withdrawal time usually recommended for each drug to guarantee the milk is drug-free before allowing it to cycle back into the pool for human use. As well, for cleaning the milking machines, lines and storage tank equipment, these producers use methods that require hydrogen peroxide and cider vinegar rather than chlorine-based products.
In mid-February the cooperative began selling 10% cream. Booy points out that the group continues to set up a distribution network but emphasizes the importance of going slowly and keeping control of the operation to ensure standards and orderly growth. The collective expects to begin distribution in Quebec soon. But before that can happen, the ceiling price on milk has to be removed or raised.
Future plans include expansion of the collective to producers in Eastern Ontario. Long-term plans would see the product line extended, says Booy, to include ice cream and possibly yogurt.
The co-op joins other entrepreneurs leading the way in providing organic dairy products in Ontario. Since the fall of 1994, Pine River organic cheese has been produced near Ripley, west of Guelph, and two Grey county farm families (Johannes Schneider and Ingo Heusing) near Durham have been making and selling organic yogurt. At St. Eugène in Eastern Ontario, Anton Heinzle has been producing organic yogurt at Pine Hedge Farms for several years.
Don Crosby is a freelance writer who lives in Durham, OntariO
Copyright © 1996.Don Crosby.
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
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