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Organic dairywomen persevere for their passion

Robyn Nick Published on 20 November 2013
Liz Bawden

Liz Bawden of Hammond, New York, and Netty Loos of Scappoose, Oregon, may live on opposite coasts of the country, but their personal and professional paths and passions led them to discover a similar, fulfilling life of organic dairy farming.

Earlier this year, the USDA’s Economic Research Service reported that women-operated farms have increased over the past 30 years.

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Furthermore, the USDA’s 2007 Census of Agriculture showed that organic farms are more likely to have their principal operators be women than conventional farms (22.1 percent versus 13.9 percent).

“It’s a balancing act to be a woman in this century. We’re supposed to have meaningful lives with meaningful careers to have a full life. We’re also mothers, wives and daughters, so how do you balance it all?” asks Liz. For her family, the answer was farming.

Liz does most of the round baling and all of the organic paperwork. Up until a few years ago, she also milked every day. “Farming allowed me to stay home and raise my son while also allowing me an outlet for work and self-expression. Farming is interesting and important work.

“Going organic when my son was little was really important to me,” Liz says. “I didn’t want him exposed to herbicides or pesticides that are used in conventional crop production. Going organic made me feel more comfortable allowing him to work in the barn and around the farm.

It also preserved our farm and way of life. For a family that wants to work the land and have the kids involved, organic makes a huge difference. We’re providing a product that consumers want, and we get a fair price for the milk.”

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As a girl, Liz describes herself as a “wannabe farmer” from suburban Springfield, Massachusetts, who had an affinity for nature. She became a dairy farmer when she married her husband, Brian, a third-generation dairy farmer.

The Bawdens have farmed organically for more than 13 years on an organic dairy farm in upstate New York along the Canadian border, and their son is now 17.

“We have heavy shallow clay soil over flat rock,” says Liz. “It’s not ground that people can grow lots of row crops on. But it’s great for grazing cows and growing hay.”

The family has been on the current 120-acre farm since 1999 and leases another 500 acres. They milk 50 cows, predominantly Holsteins, and sell organic hay. Liz wouldn’t change a thing.

“It’s attractive to be organic because it allows farmers to continue on with the land base and equipment they have,” she says. “Organic works. My advice is to find a successful organic farmer as a mentor. Farmers helping farmers is always a really good thing.”

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Netty never planned to be a dairy farmer, but when her husband unexpectedly passed away in 1992, she had to choose between running the farm or selling it.

“My husband was a very smart and very good dairyman,” she says. “He had the top production in the state of Oregon.

I was always happy to be second-in-command and be a good worker, but he made the real decisions and took responsibility for the farm.

“I had a really strong desire to keep the farm,” she recalls today. “My son Tony, who is deaf and therefore a bit challenged on the farm, wanted to be around the cows ever since he was 2 or 3 years old, but couldn’t do the full job all by himself.”

Tony went to Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf in Washington, D.C., for a business degree. He came back to the farm full-time in the 1980s, after college.

“I wasn’t taken seriously at first, as a woman farmer,” Netty says. “It was always a man’s world; that’s how I perceived it. In this new role, I had to get a little tougher and really learn to say what I thought.

It wasn’t easy, but I had some really good people who were always there to help me. There were those who thought the Holsteins would go to pot after my husband died, and I’m proud that we were able to keep the dairy going so well.”

Netty, originally from the Netherlands, has farmed for more than 60 years. She and her son Tony decided to transition to organic dairy farming in 2002.

“We had good pastures, so it was a natural fit to try it. The only thing I was worried about at the time was that I didn’t know much about organic health treatments and was afraid my favorite cow would get sick and I wouldn’t be able to treat her,” Netty says.

“In organic, you have to stay ahead of the game. We watch the cold and the rain, and we watch our cows like a hawk.”

The Loos family now milks 160 Jerseys and registered Holsteins on 120 acres. The farm’s name, Looslea Holsteins, combines the family name with “lea,” an Old English word for pastures. Today, Netty’s very happy with her decision to become a full-time farmer and to transition to organic.

“It’s a very good life,” she says.

Tony manages the cattle and the fields along with hired help, and Netty buys all the inputs, keeps the accounting books and manages the organic certification paperwork. In addition, Netty says, “I watch the cows for heats, and Tony does all the breeding.

Texting made communication much easier, and he can handle much more on the farm now. He texts everybody. That’s been a very good thing. I’m so proud of him; he’s doing very well. I hope he takes over the farm.”

When asked about what her husband would think about the farm today, Netty laughs and says, “I think he would be happy we’re still dairy farming, and that we’re profitable. I hope to be dairying for a long time.” PD

Liz Bawden and Netty Loos ship their organic milk to Horizon Organic. Founded in 1991, Horizon works with more than 600 active and transitioning organic family farmers across the U.S.

Robyn Nick isSenior Manager of Organic Stewardship and Industry Relations withHorizon Organic.

PHOTO 1:Liz Bawden of Hammond, New York, farms 120 acres and milks 50 cows with her husband, Brian, and 17-year-old son. Photo courtesy of the Bawden family.

PHOTO 1:Oregon dairywoman Netty Loos kept her family’s dairy running when her husband passed away in 1992. Photo courtesy of Jerry Downs.

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