When Jerome Walker graduated from Franklinton High School in 1968, several of his classmates, like he, came from dairy farming families and planned to work on their families’ farms after graduating.
Today, Walker’s the only one still in the industry.
“It’s a real tough business to be in,” said Walker, 60. “There used to be lots of us. Not anymore.”
What has enabled Walker to withstand the economic pressures that have crushed so many domestic farmers in general, and small dairy farmers in particular, is the success he and two other Washington Parish dairy farmers have found supplying organic milk to the Florida-based Publix Super Market chain.
The three Franklinton-area dairies supply tens of thousands of gallons of raw organic milk a week to Publix. The chain then processes, bottles and sells the milk under its private label at the 1,035 supermarkets it operates in five states throughout the Southeast.
“Those three are expanding their herds and growing their cows, which is impressive in this day and age,” said Mike McCormick, research coordinate at the LSU AgCenter’s Southeast Research Station. “I wish the rest of the dairy industry was thriving like that.”
It’s been more than five years since Walker, whose farm is now known as Walker’s Organic Dairy, Ron Pope of Pope Brothers and Brent Duncan of Duncan Acres decided to convert their conventional dairy farms into certified organic farms. That means they cannot treat their cows with antibiotics and cannot use any chemical fertilizers or pesticides on the grass and grain they feed the cows.
It was an expensive decision. Walker spent more than $85,000 investing in all-natural fertilizers and feed stuff. But it was a decision rooted firmly in the realities of the market. “We realized if we wanted to stay in business we had to find a niche and do something to increase our margins,” Walker said. “So we started looking at going organic.”
The timing was right, in at least one crucial aspect. The rules by which farmers could become certified as organic by the Louisiana Department of Agriculture were getting ready to change.
Under the old system, farms could become certified organic after 90 days of switching to an all-natural fertilizer and feed. The new rules would require they wait one year.
Walker, Pope and Duncan decided to make the change while they could still get in under the old rules. They haven’t looked back.
“Some of the other farmers laughed at us at the time,” Duncan said. “But it wasn’t a hard decision for us, really.”
The trio also had a stroke of good fortune in that the dairy co-op they belong to, Southeast Milk Inc., counts the successful Publix chain as one of its clients. At the time they were converting their farms to organic, Publix was in the market for new suppliers for its growing line of organic milk.
“We couldn’t believe it at first,” Duncan recalled. “They (Publix executives) flew down here on their Lear jet and met with us and before we knew it we were off to the races.”
Not that it was really as simple as all that. Doing away with all chemical fertilizers and pesticides, particularly the latter, was a challenge, especially at first. They had to switch to all-natural fertilizers and become more creative - and sustainable - with the types of grains they were growing to supplement their herds’ mostly grass-fed diet.
Walker, for instance, now grows pesticide-free legumes in one of his open fields. Not only do his cows like to eat the beans, but the legumes produce nitrogen, a natural fertilizer, which can then be used to help grow more grass.
Perhaps surprisingly, the farmers didn’t have to buy new milking equipment when they went organic. About the only change Walker made in the way he does his twice-daily milking of Holsteins and Jerseys, which number 125, was to do away with the glycerine-based teat dip he used to make it easier to hook their udders to the milking machine.
But then, once the local dairies produce the milk, their work is done. There are no organic dairy-processing plants in Louisiana, or Mississippi for that matter, so all of the organic milk produced in Washington Parish is transported out of state, twice weekly, and brought to a Publix facility in Atlanta. There it is homogenized, pasteurized and processed into skim, low-fat or whole milk.
“We’ve tried to find a local processing plant,” said Duncan, who explains it would cut down a lot on costs if the milk didn’t have to be shipped out of state. “But we couldn’t find anyone in Louisiana who is interested.”
Not only have the farmers been unable to find anyone in Louisiana interested in processing organic milk, they haven’t been able to sell it to any Louisiana supermarkets or conventional dairy farmers. That fact is something of a sore spot with the farmers, especially considering the success they have had with Publix.
“We’d love to find customers in Louisiana,” Duncan said. “That’s something we really need.”
Not surprisingly, organic dairy farmers will tell you the taste of their milk is better. “Fuller” is the way Walker describes it. Indeed, a cup of ice-cold, raw milk straight from the 600-gallon bulk tank that stores his herd’s milk is naturally sweet, creamy and almost velvety to the taste.
They also maintain it is much more healthful. Walker cites research suggesting those who are lactose intolerant can better tolerate organic milk. While the data may be mixed on the impact organic milk has on the health of those who drink it, Walker said he is certain that using organic feed has made his herd healthier.
“They don’t get sick as much,” he said. “They don’t get as many infections and you just don’t have as many problems.”
As they look to the future, the Washington Parish organic dairy farmers said they hope to continue to grow their niche in the market, though given the expenses associated with organic farming, it won’t be easy nor will it happen fast.
They also hope to spark interest in organic dairy farming among others in the state, in hopes of creating more synergy and new opportunities for growth.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to stay in this business and continue to grow it,” Walker said. “Otherwise, we’ll end up like the others. When I was growing up, there were more than 400 dairy farmers in Louisiana. Now, there are fewer than 100.”