Going Organic: High Milk Prices Make Kinstetter a Convert
If you drive on County E west from Kewaunee to the high plateau of Ken Kinstetter’s picturesque 200-acre farm, you can see a rare sight in Kewaunee County today: cows outside in a winter pasture.
A decade ago, as many farmers were installing free-stall barns and increasing their herd size, Kinstetter faced the choice of transforming his 60-cow herd into an organic dairy or buying more cows and expanding the barn on his fourth-generation family farm.
He chose to go organic.
And this February, with organic milk selling for a high of $39.78 per hundredweight (CWT) compared to $13.64 CWT for conventional milk, Kinstetter is glad he made that choice.
“It was a little struggle in the beginning because I had to go the extra steps to be certified, but I made the right decision,” he says today. He joined the Organic Valley cooperative in 2009 and said that it has provided him with both the income and financial stability he was seeking.
Organic Valley, based in LaFarge, Wis., is American’s largest cooperative of organic farmers. Organized in 1988, it represents 1,800 farmers in 34 states, including 470 in Wisconsin. In 2015, the farmer-owned cooperative surpassed $1 billion in sales, making it the first billion-dollar organic-only food company.
Today, the company is seeking more organic farmers because demand is higher than the current supply of organic milk and is growing at more than 10 percent annually, says Hans Eisenbeis, communications manager for Organic Valley. He said that this year, Organic Valley’s pay price for its farmers is $34.10 CWT.
“Millennials are driving the ‘good food’ market that provides locally grown, high-quality food,” he said. ‘”People today are more concerned about what they are putting in their bodies and want to know what is in their food.”.
Kinstetter said that it took three years to meet all of the requirements to become organically certified, which included no antibiotics or synthetic growth or breeding hormones for cows and no persistent pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, except those that are approved by Organic Valley, on his feed crops of corn and hay. It also requires no genetically engineered crops and good animal care that includes pasture time for cows.
He was certified by Global Organic Alliance of Ohio, an independent auditor.
In 2009, he had finally met all the requirements, but at that time demand had subsided and he had to wait another year to sign his contract with Organic Valley.
Today, his cows live on hay he harvests as wet bales and some corn in the fall. He rarely has to buy additional feed other than what he grows himself.
“Last year was a good growing season with timely rains,” he said, adding that the farm had a particularly high yield feed crop.
But what he says he enjoys most about his choice to go organic is the financial stability that comes from having a contract with an annual guaranteed milk price from Organic Valley. He said that this allows him to better plan financially and not be as dependent on fluctuations in milk price.
Kinstetter said that before he become an organic farmer, he was tired of being dependent on the markets.
“You don’t know what you are going to get for your milk,” he said.
“The cooperative puts farmers first by paying a high stable price for their work and paying them first,” said Eisenbeis. “Paying farmers fairly ensures a future for a family farming culture while rejuvenating the soil and protecting water quality.”
Kinstetter says that managing manure, which can be a particular burden for farms with large cow herds, is also less difficult on his organic farm.
“Some of the time they are out in the pasture spreading their own manure,” he said.
Barn manure is stored in a pit and spread on his own fields. He said his cows’ manure provides enough fertilizer for his crops, but some years he has to buy a small amount of additional fertilizer.
He has also added three beef cows to his herd to begin raising organic beef as another source of income. The market for organic beef is also increasing at about 12 percent a year, according to Eisenbeis.
“People perk up when they find out I’m an organic farmer,” he said. “They have lots of questions.”
“Organic farming is about working with nature instead of trying to control it,” he said, adding that he knows of five or six other organic milk farmers in the county.
Eisenbeis said that Organic Valley’s mission is to ensure a future for family farming.
Each summer, the Kinstetter family, including his eight siblings and their families, gather at the farm for a family picnic that coincides with the Feast of the Assumption at the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion.
“The shrine has been a big part of our life,” said Kinstetter, who graduated from Kewaunee High School in 1975.
Although his siblings are now spread throughout the United States, they enjoy coming back to the farm each summer, Kinstetter said. They tell stories of their great-uncle Joe, a Bohemian, who saw Native Americans and bears after he bought the original 80 acres for the farm in the 1880s, he said.
The original log home was torn down in 1991 and replaced by a modern house with high ceilings and windows that capture the eastern sunrise. The original barn still stands, although Kinstetter added a modern milk parlor five years ago.
Today, his oldest son Daniel is married and lives in Virginia, although he is currently working in Iraq. His other son Alex, 27, lives in Green Bay and works as a musician. He also has four stepchildren, three of whom live in Wisconsin.
“My kids saw how hard it was to farm,” he said. “When I put in the parlor, it really made things easier,”
Like many farmers, Kinstetter is concerned about who will take over the family farm when he retires, but said with his children and stepchildren and all of his nieces and nephews, he hopes that a member of the next generation will step forward, particularly because the farm is now so profitable.
Kinstetter said one of the questions farmers always face is “how do you get away from the farm?” He solved that problem by putting up a notice in a Green Bay church and found his trusted employee Emilio Rameriz.
“You have to train someone, because if they screw up it can be a major problem,” he said.
Having an employee allows Kinstetter to continue testing milk for Gallenberger Dairy Records (GDR) and to use his strong alto voice to sing with accompanist Shirley Schlies at weddings and funerals and perform at restaurants and bars in the area. He is planning to be married in April and take a two-week honeymoon.
One of the choices that Kinstetter said he enjoys most about his herd is having cows of different varieties, including Brown Swiss, Holstein, Guernsey, Jersey and Dutch Belted. He also ensures that they get plenty of time out in the pasture –more than the 180 days required for organic milk producers.
“It is good to let the cows eat grass and be cows,” he said.
This is the third article in the “After the Harvest” series, examining the successes and challenges faced by small and medium-sized farms in Kewaunee County today.
Karen Ebert Yancey can be reached at [email protected], on Twitter at @EbertYancey, on Facebook at Kewaunee County Star-News Facebook or by calling 920-559-1235.
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press Gazette: Going Organic: High Milk Prices Make Kinstetter a Convert