There’s lots of power in a story. Amy Forgues of Organic Valley remembers trying to get Organic Valley products into a Whole Foods store when she and her husband, Travis, were farming in Vermont.
"I remember my husband and I went to Whole Foods when we were very young, and I think this is one of the events that kind of spurred the oncoming of Gen-O,” she says. “We didn't have money at the time; we were a really small cooperative for the slotting fees. And I remember going and telling our farm story, and at the time they waved our slotting fees, just to get us started. So you know, the power of that authentic story is huge.”
Forgues is not on the farm anymore, but these days she’s helping recruit and train the cooperative’s next generation of farmers and storytellers, the latter of which is becoming more crucial than ever as competition for the dairy shelf increases.
Forgues helps run Organic Valley’s Gen-O program, which targets young farmers between ages 18 and 37 and has 330 members from coast to coast. Originally from Vermont, Forgues says the program got its start in the early 2000s to help the cooperative’s young farmers become more connected with the public and to become brand ambassadors.
“We wanted them to not only speak about the cooperative, but also be connected and understand the organic industry, and then just be more inspired and engaged to be in the cooperative because it’s their cooperative,” she says.
They do this through meetings, trainings, and trips to farms across the country and even overseas. In 2017, a group of Gen-O’s traveled to the U.K. to take part in an organic farming exchange where they visited farms and shared ideas with organic farmers.
Sharing practical knowledge is another big piece of the Gen-O program. This year, in response to the pandemic, Third Thursday calls were started to keep farmers connected and to talk about ongoing issues in the industry. It’s also a place where farmers talk to each other and share ideas on everyday issues on the farm. For example, May’s call focused on key financial indicators farmers should be tracking.
“We have farmers from all over the country, and one thing that's wonderful about us is that we've always been very good with contributing to that collective knowledge we have,” Forgues says.
No two farms are the same, but Forgues says the biggest challenges young organic dairy farmers face are clear.
“The No. 1 hurdle is land, that hasn't changed,” she says. “It's very expensive. Another big hurdle, health insurance. It's also very expensive. I remember paying more in premiums than paying ourselves. It's a big struggle.”
Making connections, gaining knowledge
Mathieu Choiniere, 26, of Highgate Center, Vt., rejoined his family’s dairy in 2015 after graduating from Vermont Tech, where he earned a degree in dairy herd management. Transitioning from college life, where he had tons of friends and activities, to farming full time was a struggle.
Courtesy of Mathieu ChoiniereLEADING CHANGES: Mathieu Choiniere, 26, returned to the family dairy in 2015 and has made some ambitious changes to the farm’s operation.
His parents own the 80-head Choiniere Family Farm with 350 acres of hay ground and 145 acres of pasture. The farm joined the cooperative’s grass-fed milk program in 2014.
Choiniere’s been part of Gen-O for eight years. He’s traveled to other parts of the country to meet up with other farmers to gain knowledge and advise, as well be an ambassador for the cooperative and the industry.
Gaining knowledge from other young, organic dairy farmers was important as he wanted to play a big role on his family’s dairy.
“One of the best ways to learn is going out on other people’s farms, seeing what they do, seeing what works and from actual experience,” Choiniere says. “We all have parts of our farm that we want to improve and we all have ideas, and more than likely someone else has already tried what we want to try, so getting to talk with people who have already been through what you're doing, or even haven't might have some valuable input that’s useful.”
Being part of the group has also made him more comfortable interacting with others, especially off the farm.
“Compared to where I was eight years ago, public speaking now for me is no big deal. I've had opportunities, and training has really helped,” Choiniere says.
Along with the dairy, the farm also has an on-farm store where they sell beef, eggs and other items directly to the public. His initial interest in returning to the farm was growing the farm store, but he found that he really liked animals and wanted to make changes on the dairy side.
“Looking back, they [parents] had to be really patient with me because I was throwing everything that I ever heard of at them, and they took it all in stride, and yeah, they really let me try my own thing,” Choiniere says.
One thing he brought back was artificial breeding (AI). His grandfather initially bred artificially, but his father, he explains, didn’t have time to do it. Instead, his father hired a local cattle breeder who was good at finding good genetic bulls, and bred heifers and cows that way.
The challenge with that, Choiniere explains, is that the farm has always had issues with bulls “harassing the cows,” not letting them drink or eat whenever they wanted, he explains.
He led the farm’s return to AI breeding and has also focused on increasing components and improving the farm’s calving program.
“It turns out I liked the dairy management aspect more than I thought I was going to,” Choiniere says.
No turning back
Like many farmers, Choiniere never has enough time in the day to do the things he wants to do. Being more efficient is a challenge and an opportunity in the short term. Longer term, though, the goal is keeping the dairy business relevant in Vermont, which is dwindling after years of struggles.
“The average age of farmers is in their 50s, and there aren’t many young farmers ready to take their place,” Choiniere says. “For me, personally, there’s a lot of support services around us that rely on the farmers that are here, but eventually there’s not that many young farmers coming up, so if we lose all the young farmers, we’re eventually going to lose a portion of our support services.”
For him, returning to the farm was never in question. “It’s something that I felt a strong purpose with. I’ve always had an interest in engineering and building and design,” but, “I don’t want to do just one thing for the rest of my life and the farm gives me an opportunity to be a mechanic for a few days at a time, or operate machinery, or handle animals,” Choiniere says. “I live problem-solving, I love a good challenge.”
As she’s gotten older, Forgues says that recruiting the next generation of farmers to take over as become a passion of hers. But compared to when she started, young farmers going into organic dairying have many more resources and ways to connect than she ever had.
"I actually feel kind of like a proud mama for all these Gen-O’s," she says.
Listen to more about the Gen-O program in these week’s Young Farmer Podcast.