Focus on organic dairy: An integrated program for Pennsylvania producers

Final Report for LNE05-234

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2005: $149,277.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Leslie Zuck
Pennsylvania Certified Organic
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Project Information


“Focus on Organic Dairy: An Integrated Program for Pennsylvania Producers” is a four-year SARE-funded project designed to fill an “organic knowledge” gap that often dissuades would-be organic dairy producers from taking the big step of transitioning to a new system of farm management. Led by an Organic Transition Specialist from Pennsylvania Certified Organic, the project provides information and knowledge through guidance materials, newsletters, intensive workshops, hands-on field days, one-on-one phone and email assistance, interaction with an Organic Dairy Advisory Panel, transitional farm visits and trained support staff.

Significant individual follow-up contact encourages continued participation by farmers and allows us to track our milestones and performance targets, which focus on two groups of beneficiaries: organic and transitioning dairy farmers. At the outset of the project, we expected that at least 30 transitioning farmers would successfully meet the requirements for organic certification over 4 years. Once a farm is certified, the project will continue to educate and support the farmer with the expectation that at least 40 farmers will improve their knowledge of organic standards and practices, thereby increasing the likelihood of ongoing success.

We were very pleased to exceed all projected milestones and targets.

Performance Target:

Performance Target #1: Thirty (30) Pennsylvania dairy producers will complete the transition to organic production by the end of the project’s four-year period.
We exceeded this performance target by 123.

Performance Target #2: Forty (40) organic and transitioning dairy producers in Pennsylvania will improve their knowledge of organic production standards and practices.
We significantly exceeded this performance target. See Impact section below for details.


Materials and methods:

To aid and engage our target audience, transitioning and organic farmers in Pennsylvania, we employed the following methods and materials: an Organic Dairy Program Specialist, an Organic Dairy Advisory Panel, full-day, educational workshops, hands-on field days, guidance materials, Organic Dairy Matters, Organic Matters, Organically Speaking, and transitional farm visits.

The Organic Dairy Program Specialist both coordinated the project and acted as the point person for producers’ questions. The Organic Dairy Program Specialist, in addition to other Certification Specialists, planned and attended field days and workshops where farmers received written materials, heard live presentations and case studies from agricultural professionals, experienced farmers, and university personnel, and participated in hands-on activities relevant to organic dairying.

A list of farmer-advisers was created to assist the Organic Dairy Program Specialist in providing organic production information to transitioning and organic farmers in the program.

PCO utilized the following publications to disseminate information on dairy-related issues: Organic Dairy Matters, “Organically Speaking” and Organic Matters. Organic Dairy Matters was a bimonthly newsletter that focused on topics relevant to transitioning and organic dairy farmers. Organic Dairy Matters was replaced by “Organically Speaking”, a monthly organic page published in Lancaster Farming, the region’s premier weekly farming publication. Organic Matters is PCO’s quarterly publication that usually includes several articles in each issue that address transitioning and organic dairying topics. See Milestone 3 discussion for more details about these publications.

Transitional farm visits have proven to be an extremely effective method in supporting and educating farmers during their transition to organic. During the visit, the program specialist thoroughly covers topics such as materials, health care and feed rations, record keeping, mastitis prevention and treatment, thereby averting many of the difficulties dairy farmers often confront. Many farmers have expressed how the visits have positively impacted their transition process.

Research results and discussion:

Milestone 1: Two Hundred Pennsylvania dairy producers will hear about PCO’s organic dairy program.
We met Milestone 1 before the first year of our four-year grant was over. Our Organic Transition Specialist, as well as several other Certification Specialists connected with new and transitioning farmers at field days and workshops. During these events, the Specialists presented information about the program and made themselves available to answer questions about the transition process. Though we met our milestone quite early in the grant, we continued to promote the program and thus far exceeded our goal of 200 farmers hearing about PCO’s organic dairy program. 480 farmers heard about PCO’s organic dairy program in 2006, followed by 1575 farmers in 2007, 700 farmers in 2008, and 160 farmers so far in 2009, with the field day season just coming into full swing.
Please see Attachments 1for each year’s list of events.

Milestone 2: One Hundred twenty dairy farmers will attend at least one of the workshops or field days.
Each year PCO has played a direct role in educating farmers, agricultural professionals, inspectors and consumers about organic dairy production and certification through workshops, field days and PCO’s Annual Meeting. In 2006, approximately 460 people heard about organic dairying and related topics. In 2007, at least 170 people attended workshops and field days with titles such as “Managing Grazing Quality Forage”, “Understanding Grazing Behavior”, and “Managing Weeds and Soil Quality.” In 2008, approximately 140 attendees heard about grazing, nutrition, herd health, sanitation and safety regulation, small batch dairy products, cropping systems, production and marketing practices and organic certification requirements at a DMS Meeting, a Grass-Based Dairy Farm Field Day and an Organic Pasture Walk.

The 2009 Field Day and Workshop season is just coming into full swing but already, more than160 people have attended at least one of the following workshops: “Organic Production of Crops and Feed for Livestock” and “Transitioning to Organic at the Rodale Institute.” At the Transitioning to Organic workshop, PA State Rep. David Kessler presented information on the PATH to Organic project, a pilot program providing financial aid to farmers converting from conventional to organic agriculture. Jeff Moyer, Farm Director at Rodale Institute, presented an overview of the electronic resources and field demonstrations that Rodale Institute offers to current and prospective organic growers. Carissa Gigliotti, Certification Specialist with Pennsylvania Certified Organic, presented the nuts and bolts of the certification process and record keeping. Also, a panel discussion with a group from PA NRCS about new opportunities for funding organic and transitioning farmers was held.
See Attachment 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 for Annual Meeting Programs, photos from dairy related events, and field day/meeting announcements.

Milestone 3: One hundred organic dairy producers will either read dairy resources or contact PCO’s Transition Specialist.
Over the four years of the grant, PCO has addressed dairy-related issues in the following publications: Organic Dairy Matters, Organic Matters, and “Organically Speaking.” Organic Dairy Matters was a bi-monthly newsletter with approximately 725 subscribers. Lancaster Farming has approximately 54,000 paid subscribers while Organic Matters has approximately 1000 paid subscribers, many of whom are organic and transitioning dairy farmers. Unfortunately, “Organically Speaking” was temporarily suspended. PCO, however, continues to address dairy related issues in their quarterly newsletter. In addition, PCO Certification Specialists make themselves available to answer questions from transitioning farmers. Please see attachments 8, 9,10,11,12,and 13 for Organic Dairy Matters, Organic Matters, and Organically Speaking dairy related articles.

Milestone 4: Forty farmers from conventional or transitioning operations will request information.
In 2006, 184 dairy producers from conventional or transitioning operations requested and received information, followed by 97 requests in 2007, 108 requests in 2008 and 144 requests in 2009. While the nature of these requests vary, this spring PCO staff answered lots of questions regarding the funding opportunities for transitioning farmers, such as EQIP, the Path to Organic and the Organic Initiative.

Milestone 5: Thirty-five transitioning farmers will request and receive a transitional farm visit.
In the four years of the grant, 72 transitioning farmers have requested and received a farm visit, which more than doubly exceeds our milestone! These visits are extremely helpful to transitioning farmers as they provide one on one time with a dairy specialist who can answer questions relevant to their farm, management practices, materials, recordkeeping, and certification procedures and documents.

Milestone 6: Thirty farmers will respond to mail, phone, or e-mail surveys regarding program needs and changes in farmer practices.
In 2007, PCO Board members and the Education Committee cooperatively conducted a survey to assess the increase in knowledge from the PCO Annual Meeting. 46 people completed survey. Of the 20 people who attended the Understanding Grazing Behavior session, 1 reported no increase in knowledge, 4 reported a slight increase in knowledge, 11 reported a moderate increase and 4 reported a great increase in knowledge.

In 2008, 16 people completed PCO’s Annual Meeting survey. Of the 6 people who attended the Management Intensive Rotational Grazing session, 3 reported a great increase in knowledge, 2 reported a moderate increase in knowledge and 1 reported a slight increase in knowledge. Please see Attachment 14 for the results of these surveys.

Milestone 7: Thirty transitioning farmers will submit paperwork for organic certification.
PCO received 14 applications for organic dairy in 2005, followed by 35 in 2006, 22 in 2007, 28 in 2008 and 9 in 2009, bringing the grand total to 108, which more than triples our milestone goal!

Participation Summary


Educational approach:

Field days, workshops and transitional farm visits are particularly effective forms of outreach as they all provide farmers direct contact with Organic Dairy Specialists, Agricultural Professionals and experienced certified farmers. This gives farmers an opportunity to ask specific questions, network with other farmers, and gain written resources as well as hands-on training. We have received very positive feedback from farmers for all three of these types of outreach.
The publications Organic Dairy Matters, “Organically Speaking”, and Organic Matters have all provided informative articles on relevant transitioning and organic dairy topics. Some are most effective in their timeliness with regard to standards, regulations, and funding opportunities while others provide a long lasting resource you can refer back to for guidance.

No milestones

Additional Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Impacts of Results/Outcomes

Performance Target 1: Thirty Pennsylvania dairy producers will complete the transition to organic production by the end of the project’s four-year period.

Thus far in 2009, 23 Pennsylvania, New York and Delaware dairy farmers have submitted applications for organic certification. PCO issued organic certification for 256 dairy farms in 2009. Of the 256 dairy farms,17 obtained new certification while 239 renewed previous certification.

A total of 153 dairy farmers have become certified since the project began in April of 2005.

* 7 dairy producers became certified organic from April 1, 2005 to December 31, 2005.

* 28 dairy producers became certified organic from January 1, 2006 to December 31, 2006.

*73 dairy producers became certified organic from January 1, 2007 to December 31, 2007

* 28 dairy producers became certified organic from January 1, 2008 to December 31, 2008.

* 17 dairy producers became certified organic from January 1, 2009 to June 30, 2009.

We have exceeded our Performance target of 30 by 123.

Performance Target 2: Of the 120 organic and transitioning dairy producers in Pennsylvania, 40 will improve their knowledge of production standards and practices

PCO Board members and the PCO Education Committee conducted a survey to assess the increase in knowledge from the 2007 and 2008 PCO Annual Meeting. In 2007, approximately 100 received surveys, while 46 people completed surveys. 20 people completed the section of the survey for the “Managing Grazing Quality Forage” presentation. The results showed that 4 people greatly increased their knowledge of grazing and diet selection, 11 had a moderate increase in knowledge, 4 had a slight increase in knowledge and 1 remained the same. 35 people completed the section of the survey for the Organic Production Panel. The results showed that 31 people of the 35 farmers had an increase in knowledge for a rate of 89%. We can extrapolate the previously mentioned percentage to the 1575 people who attended educational events and workshops in 2007 over 800 people would have increased their knowledge.

In 2008, 16 people completed the Annual Meeting survey. 10 out of 12 people stated they had an increase in knowledge of Government programs to assist transitioning farmers for a rate of 83%. 10 out of 12 people stated they had in increase in knowledge related to rotational grazing patterns for a rate of 83%. 12 out of 12 people stated an increase in knowledge of tactics for improved soil health for a rate of 100%. 12 out of 12 people stated they had an increase in knowledge of pest management practices for a rate of 100%. We can extrapolate from the previously mentioned percentages that of the 700 people who attended events in 2008, 637 would have increased their knowledge of production standards and practices. See attachment 14 for results of these surveys.

Surveys aside, we can look at practical experiences within the certification process. Typically, the application process is lengthened due to incomplete and incorrect information submitted by farmers. PCO generally returns 90% of applications for these reasons. However, since the program began, the Organic Transition Specialist has been available to farmers via phone, email and events and staff has reported and 85% increase in information recorded correctly on dairy applications. Farmers would like to complete the certification process as quickly as possible so they can begin to reap the economic benefits they have been working towards.

Economic Analysis

There are both positive and negative economic repercussions associated with organic dairying. The negative repercussions lie almost entirely in the initial “hidden” costs of transitioning to organic. With education and proper planning, these costs can be accounted for in a long-term budget. When the transition to organic is complete, organic dairy farmers yield a “Percent Return on Assets” and a “Percent Return on Equity” 34% and 37% greater than conventional averages, according to NOFA-VT’s 2001 economic analysis, “Documentation of Organic and Transitional Dairy Production Practices” (LNE97-097). This has a significant impact on farm viability. According to the study, feed and crop related expenses are 21% higher in organic production, while freight and trucking; labor; veterinary, medicine, and breeding; cow replacement costs, and other expenses were all significantly lower in organic production.

Farmer Adoption

During the four years of the grant, Pennsylvania Certified Organic issued new organic dairy certificates to 153 farmers. Many of those farmers are direct beneficiaries of this grant. This successful project provides them with many long-term contributions. The economic benefits of organic dairy vs. conventional dairy play a significant role in farm profitability as described in the economic analysis section. Part of the process of transitioning from conventional to organic dairy within this project includes educating the farmers on ecological farming practices, such as building and enhancing the soil naturally, utilizing alternative medical treatments, avoiding toxic synthetic substances, and implementing riparian buffers. During transition and organic production, farmers must adhere to these standards and practices, thus ensuring their environmental stewardship. The outreach component of this project has greatly helped to weave relationships within the community. Each and every field day, workshop, farm visit, and meeting is an opportunity for the community to gather, to share stories, experience, and knowledge. Collectively, these events help to build and strengthen the community.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

One area not covered by this grant that deserves further attention is financial planning assistance for organic and transitioning dairy farmers. Extension agents have a financial model for conventional dairying that they use to assist farmers. However, they do not have a model for organic and transitioning dairy farms. Future projects should include working collaboratively with extension agents to both develop a model and assist organic and transitioning farmers with financial planning.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.