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The evolution of an organic dairy leader

Robyn Nick Published on 11 June 2014

Perry Clutts and dog

Organic dairyman Perry Clutts didn’t set out to be a farmer. “I was a bit of an environmental activist in my younger years. I later served time in the restaurant business and was a general contractor for 15 years,” he says.

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Today, Clutts is not only a farmer, but one who is committed to educating other farmers, his community and the public about the benefits of organic agriculture. In a way, he’s come full circle to his environmental activist roots.

Growing up in North Carolina, Clutts often visited the family’s Pleasantview Farm in Circleville, Ohio. During those visits, he was infused with a sense of family and place. “My great-grandfather purchased our present farm in Ohio in 1899. My immediate family had migrated to North Carolina in the mid-1920s, but we always wanted to keep the farm in the family.”

Describing himself as a “rational environmentalist,” Clutts grew up during a pivotal time in the environmental history of the U.S. His interest in sustainability was sparked by news coverage of the Love Canal and Three Mile Island disasters.

Following the death of Perry’s great-grandfather in 1935, the land was farmed by a succession of tenants. This all began to change in 1988 when Clutts and his father started working with the current tenant farmer. All three men shared an interest in food, sustainability and the environment, and they discovered that they could make a difference with the family farm.

Clutts’ first eco-friendly enterprise on the farm was the introduction of composting to improve soil quality. The farm’s soil is gravelly, a legacy of a glacial stream, leaving the area prone to drought. Clutts believes that high-quality compost can increase water-holding capacity, balance nutrient fertility, increase microbial diversity and population, suppress diseases and insects and increase aeration in poor quality agricultural soils.

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At the time, composting for agricultural purposes was not widely practiced in the U.S. In order to learn more about it, Clutts traveled throughout Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania and internationally to Germany and Austria to research the composting method best suited to the farm’s needs.

He began composting leaves and manure and straw bedding from his local community, demonstrating how urban enterprises and a rural farm can work together to help improve soil and watershed health.

Over time, he realized the farm was more suited to growing grass than crop farming, and it became clear that the farm should become an organic grazing dairy. Today, Pleasantview Farm has evolved from a typical Ohio cash grain farm to a vibrant organic grass-based dairy.

white dog

The core values that underlie the farm are based in a fundamental belief that everyone and everything should be able to live, prosper and develop to its highest potential, and that environmental prosperity and proficiency is equal in importance to financial prosperity and proficiency.

In 2006, Clutts helped found a local grazing group, Milky Way Graziers. “We started as a group of about 15 conventional dairy farmers. Today, all but one has made the transition to organic, and the group, which has grown to more than 30 members, has evolved to include crop farmers.

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All Milky Way Grazier members buy corn and grind their own feed. We all buy directly from local farmers, so organic grain farmers are interested in coming to our meetings to build those relationships. Taking this extra step makes us all more resilient in the marketplace.”

The relationship with the grazing group naturally grew to working with other organizations in food, sustainability and the environment, including the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, the Ohio Forage and Grasslands Council, Ohio State University and Slow Foods Columbus.

In addition, Clutts has been instrumental in highlighting the need for transparency in the food chain, including hosting screenings of the documentary “GMO OMG” in Columbus and Athens.

Today, Clutts describes himself as “carrying the torch for my family’s generational farm by farming in a way that preserves the farm’s longevity, as well as the local community and watershed.” He’s following in his great-grandfather George Gerhardt’s footsteps. In 1928, Gerhardt was named “Master Farmer of Ohio,” and in 2011, Perry was named Producer of the Year by the Ohio Forage and Grasslands Council.

Perry was appointed by Governor Ted Strickland to the Livestock Care Standards Board dairy subcommittee in 2009 and the Ohio Food Policy Council in 2010.

These appointments opened doors to industry-wide issues, including protecting the rights of consumers to receive truthful information about organic production practices on their milk and dairy labels, working with Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown on organic agriculture and helping to draft regulations for dairy livestock handling.

He served on the Organic Trade Association’s (OTA) Dairy Task Force during a 2011 Washington, D.C. presentation to the Organic and Dairy Caucuses.

Perry Clutts and dogs

In 2012, Perry was elected to the OTA Board of Directors as a farmer representative. He also serves as chair of OTA’s Farmers Advisory Council, helping farmer organizations across the country garner input from organic farmers, ranchers and growers on matters pertinent to the advancement of organic agriculture.

In 2013, he was elected to the board of the American Forage and Grassland Council, which promotes forage as a primary feed source.

With a philosophy that learning is a lifelong process, Clutts has a passion for fostering productive, meaningful and respectful dialogue within both the organic community and the agricultural community as a whole.

“I feel it’s important to encourage discussions that help everyone understand the challenges each group faces. There are no silver bullets, so we all need to be willing to step back and realize we may not have all the answers. I learn something new every day.”

Clutts regularly hosts tours and dinners at his farm, gives talks and media interviews and travels to network with other organic producers. “It’s all part of helping people understand what organic is about and making them feel comfortable with new systems and organic agriculture production.

When farmers exchange ideas, it builds confidence and character, and people feel empowered to do something they didn’t think they could do, such as consider a transition to organic. I’m excited about the opportunities organic agriculture has afforded our farm and look forward to continuing to advocate for organic both through policy and technical assistance.” PD

PHOTOS
MIDDLE: The core values that underlie the farm are based in a fundamental belief that everyone and everything should be able to live, prosper and develop to its highest potential, and that environmental prosperity and proficiency is equal in importance to financial prosperity and proficiency.

BOTTOM: With a philosophy that learning is a lifelong process, Perry Clutts has a passion for fostering productive, meaningful and respectful dialogue within both the organic community and the agricultural community as a whole. Photos courtesy of Perry Clutts.

Robyn Nick
Senior Manager Organic Stewardship and Industry Relations
Horizon Organic

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