|Working Cows Dairy is Alabama’s First Certified Organic Dairy|
Residents of South Alabama have a long-held pride in their reputation for early and prolific produce like Slocomb tomatoes or the fresh peas and strawberries coming from their area. But just outside of Wicksburg stands Working Cows Dairy, the first certified organic dairy in Alabama, and a business bringing its own farm-fresh pride to icy glasses across the state.
Rinske and Jan de Jong, originally from Holland, have lived in the United States for 25 years now, and Rinske said she and her husband never imagined they’d settle in Alabama. The couple had talked about maybe moving to Texas, but a European friend of theirs returned from a trip to the U.S. talking about the southeastern part of the country.
"We were renting a farm in Florida near Marianna, and it wasn’t going to be available any longer," she explained.
So the de Jong family began their search for a new location, and they had to move quickly.
"We only had about 30 days to relocate our dairy cattle. Really, this was the only property for sale at the time that was the size we needed," Rinske said.
So for the past 19 years, Rinske, Jan and their sons Jonny, Mendy and Ike have been living and working in Geneva County.
"The only family we have here are our boys, and they all work here on the dairy and are welders, too," she said, adding she is pleased to have raised her boys on the farm.
"I grew up in the city, but Jan had always been around dairy cattle, and we knew we wanted to have a dairy of our own," Rinske explained.
While times have grown increasingly difficult for dairy farmers, Jan and Rinske saw the promise of organic milk as a way to ensure they could keep their dairy afloat in the future.
"It has been a long and difficult transition, but we think our cows are happier, and it feels good to produce milk that meets a growing demand," she said.
Currently under contract to Horizon Organics, Working Cows Dairy has nearly 500 dairy cows grazing organic pasture for their primary food source.
"Right now they’re eating sorghum, sudangrass and some turnips," Rinske explained, all of which were planted from organic seed.
"We have about 400 acres in grazing and another 400 acres in crop production to grow organic silage which we feed them with their minerals to make sure they have a good diet," she said.
The de Jongs began the transition to an organic operation four years ago and were certified by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) in 2009.
"According to the standards for certification, the fields had to remain free of non-organics for three years to ensure there were no residuals in the soil," she said.
And today, Working Cows Dairy milks twice a day producing organic milk that is low-temp pasteurized and bottled on their farm. The milk – which is not homogenized so the cream rises to the top - is available on their farm in an honor-system cooler, but the de Jongs are making every effort to expand their customer-base by selling at various farmers markets, farm stands and health food stores.
"We want to expand to other farm stands where people are selling their own products and would like to offer organic milk. We hope it will expand their current market and ours," Rinske added.
While many people might think organic means old-fashioned, Working Cows Dairy’s day-to-day operations utilize some impressive technology. Each cow has a pedometer around one foot to help gather information about that animal every day. When the cows enter the milking barn, an antenna gathers information from the pedometers on each cow’s movement over the past 24 hours, and each cow’s individual milk production is examined.
"The pedometers let us know how many steps a cow has taken in the last 24 hours, broken down into four-hour increments. Based on her movements, we can monitor her heat cycles and detect a possible injury or even get an idea that a particular cow maybe isn’t feeling well. Monitors also signal us as to the salt level of each particular cow’s milk, which may indicate possible infection. The equipment also records how much milk each cow produces, and it generates a daily report of any cows whose milk production dropped 20 percent or more from the previous day’s milking," she detailed.
In addition to the careful attention paid to their cows, the de Jongs also have to maintain very detailed records of other farm activities to keep their organic certification.
"Our feed and fertilizer bills and other receipts all have to reflect that we are working according to plans and regulations," she said.
Rinske also added their local Co-op store has been an important part of their operation for years.
"We’ve done business with Hartford Farmers Co-op long before we made the move to becoming an organic operation," Rinske said, adding their farm continues to rely on the Co-op.
And Working Cows Dairy isn’t resting on their laurels now they’ve become the state’s first certified organic dairy.
"Our equipment can pasteurize and bottle more milk as demand increases and, sometime in the future, we’d like to explore fresh cheeses and yogurt, and maybe organic beef," Rinske said.
For more information on Alabama’s Organic Milk, visit their website: www.workingcowsdairy.com.
Kellie Henderson is a freelance writer from Troy.