In 2001, Phil and Terry Witmer established their grass-based dairy farm, Grazeland, as the first of its kind in their area. Then, they took the next step and became a certified organic dairy – and have never looked back.
As members of a tight-knit Plain community (Amish and Mennonite), Phil and Terry milk cows as part of Organic Valley’s cooperative. Transitioning from a grass-based dairy to an organic one was challenging, yet friendly for Grazeland, Phil says, noting the production systems are similar.
“The biggest advantage for us is that being organic provides us a market for our grass-based dairy model,” Phil says.
He acknowledges that some aspects of running an organic dairy drive up operational costs and impact milk production.
“One reality is that our production is a little less than before the transition,” he says. “So we’re not producing as much milk, but we’re getting paid better for what we do produce.”
Phil is a third-generation dairy farmer. He and Terry have two sons, ages 16 and 12, who help on the farm. He says he wants his children to have the option to continue in the family business.
“One thing I’ve seen is that an organic dairy provides an avenue for farms to continue into the next generation,” Phil says. “The price stability that comes with organic production means that farmers can make it on a scale that’s more farm-family friendly. It’s difficult to be competitive in the dairy industry without being huge, but the economic stability of organic farming makes that possible.”
Grazeland is a certified organic farm, which means the farm meets USDA organic standards regarding how crops are grown and livestock is raised. These standards cover the product from farm to table, including soil and water quality, pest control, livestock practices, and rules for food additives.
Virginia had 165 certified organic farms in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. Tobacco is the top organic commodity sold in Virginia, followed by poultry and milk, respectively.
David Hughes of Rivermont Farms in Timberville uses solar panels to power his poultry farm. Covering two acres of land, the panels produce 172 kilowatts of energy – necessary to keep his more than 100,000 turkeys cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
“I used to have thousands of dollars in electricity bills each month, but now it’s zero,” Hughes says.
Rivermont is the largest poultry farm in Virginia to be powered by solar energy. It took about a year to get the necessary permits and install the solar panels, but Hughes says the effort paid off. In addition to the savings on electricity bills, he also got a 30 percent tax credit for installing solar panels.
Hughes says the use of solar panels is indicative of innovation in agriculture. “Agriculture is not stagnant,” he says. “It’s constantly evolving. I think we’ll see farms move more toward alternative energies.”
The solar panels at Rivermont were installed by Paradise Energy, which has an office in Harrisonburg. In 2015, the company completed an installation at Windcrest Holsteins dairy farm, located just 3 miles from Rivermont. That project is a 557.38-kilowatt system aimed at reducing the farm’s estimated $40,000 annual electrical bills to zero. The system at Windcrest is the largest privately held solar installation in Virginia.
Hughes says while the savings are significant, solar may not work in every operation. The initial investment is substantial.
“It’s a big upfront cost,” he says, but the savings, tax breaks and USDA grant money mean the system should pay for itself in seven years.