Ill family member precipitates switch to organic

Arnold and Jeannette Van Os of Wetaskiwin, Alta., moved to Canada from Holland 13 years ago for a better life for their family, including their daughter, Nakaiah. The family has nine children, including two who help maintain the organic Jersey dairy herd.  |  Mary MacArthur photo

Seeking specialty markets | Farmers must meet a long list of requirements before an organic dairy is certified

WETASKIWIN, Alta. — The decision to switch their dairy farm to organic from conventional was easy for Arnold and Jeannette Van Os.

An ill family member who explored alternative treatment helped give the couple the push they needed to try something different when Alberta Milk looked for dairy producers interested in organic milk production.

“The switch was a little harder than the decision,” said Arnold, sitting at a long wooden kitchen table after morning milking.

Farmers must meet a long list of requirements before an organic dairy is certified. No fertilizer and pesticides are allowed on the fields for three years and the cattle must be fed only organic feed for a year before certification.

A combination of little rain and not enough hay land has made buying high quality organic feed difficult, said Arnold, but he hopes that additional land he recently purchased will help ensure a good supply of organic dairy feed.

Arnold estimated he lost 25 percent of his milk production when he switched to organic, which he blames on poorer quality feed.

The Van Oses are just one of 10 organic dairies in the province supplying nine million litres of organic milk a year for processing. About half the milk is sold under the organic label and the rest is added to the conventional milk system.

“I see a growing trend to organic, but it’s still growing and there are a few hiccups,” said Arnold.

Two organic processors operated in Alberta when the Van Oses began producing organic milk: Saputo and Saxby Foods, a cake manufacturer that entered the organic milk market. However, Saxby has since gone out of business, leaving Saputo as the only organic milk processor.

Arnold hopes increased marketing and advertising will increase the market for organic milk so that it eventually becomes large enough to use all the organic milk produced in the province.

The Van Os farm is one of six dairies in Alberta using Jersey milk cows.

The family bought an older dairy farm when they emigrated from Holland 13 years ago. The started by milking the more traditional Holsteins, but switched to Jerseys because they fit better into their older milking barns.

As well, farmers at that time were paid based on milk components. The 180 Jersey milk cows produce less milk, but the payments were higher because of higher fat content.

The payment system has since been changed, but Arnold still believes it was a good move to switch to Jersey cattle.

“We really started to like the breed. Their attitude is different,” said Arnold, who often gets calls from acreage owners who want to buy a Jersey cow for their own farm.

The bull calves are kept until about three months and sold to people who want roping calves.

“I can’t keep up. I could have double the numbers. I have no problem selling them,” he said.

The couple believes they made the right decision to move their family from Holland to Alberta. A friend had recently returned to Holland from Canada and was excited about the opportunities. The idea turned to reality, especially when Jeannette became excited about the move.

“When we looked to the future, we saw more opportunity here,” she said.

“It was a challenge, something new. I wanted a better future for our family.”

Two of the family’s nine children, aged two to 24, help in the family farm.

“It’s such a different culture here. It’s much more relaxed,” said Arnold.

“In Holland, you have to do things a certain way, act a certain way. Most people live for the neighbors. Here you can be yourself.”

Added Jeannette: “Overall, it’s better.”

The family filled a container with their belongings when they moved, including a box of wooden shoes, which they couldn’t live without.

Arnold is a director with Alberta Milk, the province’s milk marketing agency. For him, it’s a way to meet other dairy farmers, keep up with industry trends and give back to the industry.

“I really like the variety off the farm,” he said.

“It’s a way to meet other people, share experiences and move the industry forward.”

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