History, geography both played a part in making the state No. 1 in the nation for organic dairy farms.
TAYLOR, Wis. -- The pink had disappeared from the darkening sky, but the barn on this dairy farm radiated a warm light. Inside, the brothers worked in silence — wiping, tugging and readying the udders.
They milk these cows each day, twice a day. But it’s a ritual Jim and Alan Ideker don’t take for granted.
The brothers moved from Minnesota to this western edge of Jackson County five years ago to milk a mentor’s organic dairy herd. Since then, they’ve amassed 132 of their own Holstein cattle, fed from a patchwork of 450 acres they rent, till, pasture and harvest.
“If we were going to work hard, we wanted to work hard for ourselves,” said Alan Ideker, 24, pulling on the brim of his baseball cap.
The Idekers have relied upon organic neighbors for advice and, on occasion, a rotary hoe. They’re not hard to find here. Thanks to its hilly terrain and long history of organic institutions, including the now-international Organic Valley, based in little La Farge, southwest Wisconsin has become the organic farming capital of the Midwest and, by some measures, the country.
The state claims the second-highest number of organic farms, after only California, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2008, the most recent year available, it was No. 1 in organic dairy farms.
“I joke that I’m a blue-sky salesman, telling people how organics are great, you should go organic,” said George Siemon, chief executive officer of Organic Valley. “That’s one thing, but when their neighbor does it — and it works — it’s a whole other conversation.”
Few row crops here
The state’s organic past is part hills, part happenstance.
Organic farms are clustered in the state’s southwest, census maps show, particularly the Driftless Region, an area that escaped being flattened by glaciers. Those dramatic hills make the land “less conducive to conventional farming” and row crops, said Erin Silva, associate director of the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems at the University of Wisconsin.
The region “has a history of small farms and grazing, which are cornerstones of organic practices,” she said.
Each small city seems to have an organic operation bigger than its population might suggest. Viroqua, population 4,362, sustains the expanding Viroqua Food Co-op, which had $5.5 million in sales in 2011, and the Midwest Organic Services Association, a nonprofit that certifies more than 550 organic dairies across the country.
Spring Valley, pop. 1,352, is home to the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, which draws thousands to its annual conferences. In Westby, pop. 2,200, the century-old Westby Cooperative Creamery started offering organic options in 2011.
Then there’s Organic Valley, the world’s largest organic cooperative, which has grown up in La Farge, pop. 746.
“There was no magic to La Farge,” Siemon said. Just an old creamery for sale. Soon, the cooperative was renting out “every little hole in the wall in town here,” he said Now, its headquarters — with modern, angular wings anchored by a red, barn-shaped center — sits on a hill above town, flanked by solar panels.
The farmer-owned cooperative started in 1988 with 57 farmers. By 2012, it counted more than 1,800 farmers in 35 states and three Canadian provinces. Southwest Wisconsin accounts for 324 of those.
From the beginning, Organic Valley’s mission has been about more than organics, Siemon said over salad and bread pudding in the headquarters cafeteria. “It was also about how to make family farms viable.”
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