Dairy farming is Merle Borntrager’s life. An Amish farmer in Kalona, Iowa, Borntrager has been milking cows and farming for as long as he can remember. His life and that of his young family of nine, one boy and eight girls, revolves around caring for and milking their 65 Holstein dairy cows. The Borntragers are up before the crack of dawn to milk their cows, and then do it again in the late afternoon—every day of the week. Their cows produce 4000 pounds of organic milk per day.
The Borntragers lead a simple, hard-working, and devout life steeped in the Amish tradition, and they produce a wholesome, healthful product—organic milk.
The Borntrager’s farm and some other 80 Iowa Amish and Mennonite family farms are the lifeblood of Kalona Organics, a leading Midwest producer of quality organic dairy products.
While many dairy companies—including a few organic ones—often project a misleading image of producing milk from small family farms, Kalona Organics is the real deal. Their dairy farmers, like Merle Borntrager, are following the organic rules, grazing their cows on pasture, and being good stewards of the land and of their cows.
“They treat their cows as if they are part of the family,” says Mindy Seiffert, marketing director at the Open Gates Group, the parent company of Kalona Organics.
“There is a lot of ‘feel good’ with our farms,” adds Phil Forbes, Open Gates Group procurement director. “People want to know the story of the farm, and they want it to reflect their values of supporting family farms, animal welfare, and environmental responsibility.”
Milk from Borntrager’s and other Kalona Organics farms is used to produce the Kalona SuperNatural® product line that includes milk, butter, cottage cheese, yogurt, and sour cream. Kalona Organics’ sister company, Provision Ingredients, also sells industrial bulk ingredients such as dry milk powder, cream, and buttermilk to food manufacturers.
Of the company’s products, Kalona SuperNatural organic whole milk is the top seller, while chocolate milk is a big favorite. “People love it,” Forbes says.
Kalona SuperNatural products are sold in supermarkets like Hy-Vee and natural food stores such as Whole Foods, Sprouts, and Natural Grocers in the Midwest and South.
While other organic dairy processors use an ultra pasteurization process that involves high heat to extend shelf life, Kalona SuperNatural milk is vat pasteurized using low heat to kill harmful pathogens. Kalona SuperNatural milk is also not homogenized, leaving the milk close to its natural state and allowing cream to rise to the top.
Challenging organic milk market
The pastoral farm life of the Amish contrasts with the intense world of modern milk production, including organic. Producing milk is a fast-paced, time-sensitive process involving picking up milk—a perishable product—from the farms, processing it, and then distributing it nationwide, all within a few days. That is the reality at Kalona Organics.
“In a normal business, you can just put inventory on a shelf but we have milk coming in every day, and we always have to find a home for it,” Forbes says. “Every minute counts with milk, every day you have to think about where it’s going.”
Adding to the intensity is a challenging market for organic milk that is currently oversupplied, which is driving down prices and hurting farmers.
“It is definitely a difficult time for everyone in the organic dairy market,” Forbes says. “Too many farms came on (transitioned to organic) all at the same time, which combined with low conventional milk prices. It’s hard to buy a $6.99 half-gallon of organic milk when a half-gallon of conventional milk is $.99.”
A recent Washington Post article described how Kalona Organics’ farms are threatened by large organic dairy operations such as Colorado-based Aurora Farms that are flooding the market with large volumes of milk of questionable organic integrity.
Though Forbes says Kalona Organics has an advantage. “If you have your own dairy farms like we do, you have your supply and can control your own destiny.”
Non-GMO Project verification
All Kalona Organic farms are certified organic, and the company is taking the extra step of getting their products Non-GMO Project Verified.
“Our consumers and food manufacturing customers want both organic and non-GMO certification,” Seiffert says.
“The (non-GMO verification) process has been very straightforward, with a lot of help from the folks at FoodChain ID (technical administrator to the Non-GMO Project),” Forbes says. “The initial process has taken some time but I appreciate how thorough it is.”
Kalona Organics is paying for their farms to become non-GMO verified.
“The farmers are okay with the paperwork (because of organic certification), understand segregation, and know they have to use a certain type of feed,” Forbes says.
Another advantage for non-GMO verification is that some of the farms are next to other organic farms, which helps isolate their fields from cross pollination by genetically modified crops.
Kalona Organics is also exploring the possibility of producing non-organic, non-GMO milk. “Consumers and industrial customers are interested in that,” Seiffert says.
Forbes says the advantage to non-GMO over organic is that farms can transition in 30 days as opposed to a three-year transition to organic.
As rBST-free became a standard in milk production, the same could happen with non-GMO. “Non-GMO could become the new conventional,” Forbes says.
Small, but flexible
Kalona Organics can explore opportunities such as non-GMO milk because, while small, they are flexible and “nimble,” Seiffert says.
“Because of our size, we evaluate every opportunity that comes our way,” she says. “That’s led to our success. We are constantly networking and partnering on projects in the dairy industry.”
“We’re small but we punch above our weight for how small we are,” adds Forbes. “We get a lot done and with not a lot of people.”
Kalona Organics also possesses a Midwestern virtue that is cultivated all the way back to the farm of Merle Borntrager and other Kalona Organics farms—friendliness.
“People generally like us; we never come off as arrogant. We’re Midwest nice,” Seiffert says.