Back in 2006, Stephen Henning Sr. and his wife Tina decided to turn Henningstead Holstein farm into an organic dairy operation.
It is a decision they never regretted, for it has provided the farm, located in Mehoopany Township, with many long-term benefits.
The Henningstead Holstein farm - established in 1847 by George Henning - has been in the Hemming family for six generation.
Asked what made them decide to convert to an organic operation, Tina Henning’s answer was simple: “Money.”
“The conventional market is the pits,” she explained. “Back in 2004, we were only receiving $10 per hundred weight.”
“My dad got that in the 70s,” Stephen Henning explained. “He got what we got.”
But production costs have gone up considerably through the years, Stephen explained. Many of the co-ops are declaring handsome profits, but the farmers are getting nothing.
In 2005, Tina explained, they were contacted by a representative from the Cooperative Regions of Organic Produce Pools, who outlined the economic advantages of converting to an organic operation.
“He told me my children could come back to the farm in five years,” Tina said about what convinced her and Stephen to make the conversion.
The Hennings’ three children - Stephen Henning Jr., Daniel Henning, and Autumn Johnson, all work on the farm and draw a salary. But before the conversion, Stephen Junior explained, he and his siblings worked on the farm gratis, because there was no money to pay them. Today, all three of the Henning children work the farm and draw a decent salary.
But the conversion did not occur overnight. It required a great deal of effort, with the Hennings having to follow strict guidelines.
Eliminating synthetic substances - particularly in medications, the Hennings now rely on natural substances - such as garlic, aloe and kelp - to cure their cows.
“It was rough,” Autumn explained about what they had to go through to obtain organic certification for the farm.
She said they lost a number of cows during that time period who did not respond well to the conversation process.
Fortunately, Stephen Senior explained, they had access to an advisory staff - including a veterinarian - who provided information on a 24-hour basis.
Even after obtaining certification, maintaining it is an on-going process.
“You have to fill out a lot of paperwork,” Johnson said. “Then you fill out a lot more paperwork. Then you double that number.”
But the benefits far outweigh the additional effort necessary to maintain an organic operation.
Tina explained that since the organic milk pricing system was established 30 years ago, the price of organic milk has dropped only three times. By contrast, the price of conventionally produced milk fluctuates considerable and without warning, placing a terrible strain on dairy producers.
Stephen Sr. said that when a farmer sells his milk to a traditional co-op, there a number of middle men - such as creameries and distributors - who get their ‘cut,’ leaving the farmer with practically nothing. When they sell to Organic Valley - an organic milk distributor - they sell directly, eliminating a lot of the extra costs.
“A conventional dairy farmer thinks it’s great to get up to $18 per hundred weight,” Tina said. “Our minimum base is $28 to $29.”
“As long as the product remains stable, we know how much the milk check is going to be,” she said. “It’s great to be able to pay bills and have money left over.”
The Hennings have used their profits to make some much needed improvements to the farm. They proudly displayed a Double 4 Tandem Milking Parlor, constructed by Stephen Jr. who is a certified welder. The parlor was constructed, using the Henning’s considerable knowledge and experience, to perform milking more easily and efficient.
Before the parlor was constructed, Tina said, it took about 90 to 105 minutes milk the entire herd of 95 cows. Now it can be done in 35 to 45 minutes.
“We wouldn’t be here today,” Tina said about what would have happened if they hadn’t switched to organic farming. “We’ve been to meetings where others are making a last ditch effort to survive. That was us. We would have had to sell our cows and that would have put us out of business.”