Vernon County, Wisconsin
Roger Peters predates his farm by one year; that's how old he was when his father bought the land in 1959. Roger, his father, and the farm have been through some ups and downs in the past four decades. But today, it's a strong, diversified farm, and one of the oldest in the Organic Prairie family.
Like many Wisconsin farmers of his generation, Roger's father Wayne ran a dairy operation. In the mid-70s, Wayne hung up his milk machine and worked construction, which seemed to offer a more reliable living than farming. By the end of the decade, however, construction was in a slump, and Wayne returned to dairy farming—just in time for the 1980s farm crisis.
During the 1980s, fluctuating milk prices drove many family farms out of business. In the "Green Revolution" of the preceding decades, farmers had been using unprecedented amounts of petrochemical products. By the late 70s, however, most farmers couldn't afford high-priced chemical inputs. In some regions, large-scale farming took over, with thousands of acres planted by one farmer. But the geography of southwestern Wisconsin, where the Peters farm, precluded this approach; small acreages are separated by rocky cliffs and wooded lots. Instead, the Peters simply reduced their reliance on chemicals.
"Everyone used chemicals in the late 60s, but we used bare minimum," explains Roger. "In the mid-80s, we cut back even more. It was an economic and an environmental choice."
In 1988, Roger and a handful of other local farmers held a meeting to explore the idea of certifying their farms as organic in order to supply an organic cheese maker. "At the time, it was a pipedream," he remembers. "There were just a few little markets in Madison that carried anything organic." But the alternative, he says, was getting out of the business all together. The economics just didn’t make sense. Roger says that in the early days, there was so little demand for organic products that he and the others often sold their milk as conventional. But the group persevered and formed a farmer's coop—which eventually became the brain trust behind the Organic Prairie brand.
From these modest beginnings, Roger and his brother and father have built an impressive, diversified organic farm that includes crops, dairy and beef cows, and chickens.
Roger's story isn't unusual. Many farmers faced with the unfavorable markets of the 1980s looked to more natural, sustainable agricultural techniques to keep their farms afloat. It took a little longer for consumers to discover that natural foods provide a healthier—and tastier—feast, and that buying organic supports family farms. Today, organic food is one of the fastest growing segments of the grocery market.
When it comes to meats, choosing organic is, if anything, even more important. Factory farming confines cattle in feedlots where disease outbreaks are combated with heavy doses of antibiotics. Other diseases are linked to factory farming. Mad Cow, for instance, is believed to be associated with the practice of feeding rendered animal byproducts to livestock. Moreover, the factory system of raising and slaughtering cattle moves meat rapidly through the industrial food chain, so when disease does break out, it's effects are widely spread among food consumers. Finally, a growing number of critics, including religious and environmental groups, are pointing to the inhumane conditions in many feedlots.
Certified organic cattle like Roger's, on the other hand, spend much of their time grazing, which builds their natural immunities. Certification forbids the feeding of rendered animal byproducts, as well as genetically modified organisms (GMO’s). The result is healthy livestock— and meats that consumers can feel confident in buying. And unlike factory farms that confine tens of thousands of animals in unsanitary conditions, operations like Roger’s give cows a healthy, natural life. If one of Roger’s animals happens to get sick, he sees it right away and can nurse the animal back to health long before it enters the human food chain. In truth, he says, health problems in his herd are very unusual, due to the natural strengths of animals receiving healthy feed and exercise.
Spend a few minutes talking to Roger, and it's clear that he’s a man of action, not words. But he's passionate about the production of high-quality organic milk, eggs, and meat—and the satisfaction he takes in supplying consumers with delicious, nutritious food compensates for the early struggles to convert to organic and find markets.
Like a lot of Organic Prairie farms, Roger's is a family affair. His brother, Rory, owns an adjacent farm, and Wayne still pitches in. One of his sons works at the Organic Prairie headquarters.
He says the operation is the proverbial win-win situation. Organic Prairie is a strong, farmer cooperative that fairly compensates producers like his family, consumers who buy the brand enjoy the highest standards of quality for taste and safety, and the animals on his farm are demonstrably happier and healthier than those in factory farms.