What I Did This Summer: Got Inspired by Organic Dairy

As a traditional back-to-school activity, my two daughters are writing and drawing about what they did over summer vacation. While their art and prose describe camps, hikes, mommy’s work, and amusement parks, my own response to “What did you do this summer?” would be, “I worked with some amazing women to focus on the development of an organic dairy online course.” I’m not sure if more emphasis should be on “amazing women,” “organic dairy,” or “online course” as all are remarkable.

Organic dairy cows grazing.

As part of my work here at UVM Extension, I coordinate the dairy team for eOrganic. eOrganic is an online community of more than 700 ag service providers and farmers who are providing science-, experience-, and regulation-based certified organic information—in the form of articles, videos, webinars, and online courses—for eXtension.org, an initiative among land grant universities across the U.S. to better collaborate and share informational resources.

Two years ago, we received a grant to help us develop eOrganic dairy content, including two online courses. I’ve learned a lot since then. You see, although I’ve been working in Vermont’s sustainable agriculture arena for more than 20 years, I’m a newcomer to the organic dairy community.

Dr. Cindy Daley

Dr. Cindy Daley (Photo courtesy of Cindy).

Since our project is national in focus, I’ve learned there are still relatively few researchers, educators, farmers, and non-profit folk that focus on certified organic dairy production throughout the U.S., so it is a close knit community…with many women. Dedicated, passionate, and incredibly smart and competent women. Women like Cindy Daley, professor of animal science at the California State University at Chico, who spearheads their Organic Dairy Teaching and Applied Research Unit, managing their certified organic dairy farm, teaching undergraduates (more on that later), and conducting applied research on grazing management, as well as running a cow-calf beef ranch with her family.

Sarah Flack explaining the Access to Pasture Rule and other organic certification requirements.

And women like Sarah Flack, a national consultant specializing in grass-based livestock farming and organic certification. She grew up and lives right here in Vermont but has shared her expertise with farmers and others throughout all of North America. And women like Heather Darby, agronomist at UVM Extension, who never fails to inspire me—see one of my past blog posts for a quick glimpse. My list could go on to include so many other women dedicated to organic dairy like Harriet, Karen, Kathy, Lisa, Laura, Regina, Siobhan, Kathie, Bethany… And when I think about these and other women that work so passionately on righting our food system, a quote from Sojourner Truth comes to mind, “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these together ought to be able to turn it back and get it right side up again.”

I’ve also learned a ton about what it means to be a certified organic dairy operation. It’s complex! An organic dairy farmer has to know everything from soil fertility and management intensive grazing strategies to maintaining good milk quality and holistic herd health (and this is a gross simplification). And business management and the organic certification documentation to boot! Editing just one article on organic mastitis management gave me a whole new appreciation about the commitment organic dairy farmers really have to maintaining healthy soils, healthy cows, and healthy milk.

To support these farmers, we do need more service providers who understand the complexity of certified organic dairy production systems who can assist farmers as they begin or transition to organic operations. And here’s where the online course comes in.

“Cow” artwork by my 5 year old.

We’re developing a ten-module Introduction to Organic Dairy Production Systems online, asynchronous course. It is currently being tested by more than 50 undergraduate students at Chico State under Cindy’s leadership. And we’ll be going live to the broader public later this year.  (please email if you are interested in taking a look). It’s exciting to coalesce the expertise of these amazing women into a course that can be accessed by anyone at any time.

Perhaps it will inspire my and others’ daughters to choose organic dairy cows as the subject of their next essay, artwork, or career choice!

About Debra Heleba

Deb works for University of Vermont Extension where she is the Vermont SARE coordinator and also coordinates eOrganic's dairy team.
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