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Milking for All It's Worth

Meet Idaho's only organic family dairy

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You probably already know about Horizon, the international milk juggernaut based out of central Idaho. But unless you shop at a small number of farmer-friendly markets in Boise or the Wood River Valley, you probably don't know about Idaho's only other certified organic dairy, Saint John's. While Horizon's interpretation of organic standards have been the subject of controversy in recent years, there's nothing controversial about Peter Dill. When his cows gets colds, he gives them garlic. When weeds invade the pasture, he pulls them out by hand. Dill calls the approach "the joy of good work," and he tells BW he wants to stay just small enough for other local farmers to be able reach for the same dream.

Milk companies don't generally have individual pictures of named cows on their labels. Why do you?

They're the favorites of ours. Also, it's a portrait with a name below because we treat our cows in many ways as friends. They all have names, and there is an element of relationship with the creatures that we tend and care for.

How many cows are we talking about?

Well, there' s one other organic dairy in Idaho that has 4,000 cows. We have about 40.

Has your operation always been organic?

The dairy has been in the family since the 1930s. Back then, the practices were probably what one would call these days "organic." My wife and I took over in 1997 and began a transition to organic production. Previously there were interests in trying to do things in this fashion; we just took it the whole way.

Why did you make the switch?

Several reasons: Interest in pure foods, interest in caring for the environment in which we and the community live, a desire to farm in a manner that reflects the rest of our convictions. Organic foods are the most nutritious foods, if the farming is done in the highest level. That's important for us. If we're going to do it, we're going to do it right.

How does this translate into taste?

Some people think milk is milk. From what our customers tell us, that's not even close to the truth. It's the next step beyond organic that affects the taste. For us, that means being completely pasture-based, which means we don't feed any grain to our cows. Our cows are out on green pastures. That makes a big difference in the nutritional value and flavor of the milk. Most people say our milk is sweet, but the flavor will change through the year as the grass changes--even as the cows go from one pasture to another.

How much milk do you drink?

My wife and three children and I drink several gallons a week. My wife makes cheese, and my wife and kids make ice cream. Many people are nervous about fat, but we feel just as milk is not milk, fat is not fat. There's good fat and bad fat. In the last dozen or so years, there has been good research illustrating the importance of good fats in a person's diet. That good fat is traced in cattle to being on a native feed, which means grass-fed. If you take grains out of the diet, it turns out the meat and milk have this high-quality fat which are actually very good for you.

How do you maintain your 160 acres without chemicals?

Our place is much healthier now that we don't use pesticides, herbicide and chemical fertilizers. We manage it in an historic fashion, the way people used to. We use compost to improve the soil, and wegraze much of our ground, so the cows put out a natural fertilizer every time they go out. When you have healthy soil, you have healthy plants, animals and products. And along with healthy soil goes a smaller weed and pest problem. We do hand-picking of weeds, and I'm very happy to hire people to pick weeds rather than hire a big chemical company to buy poisonous chemicals. I'd rather use my money to pay people.

If you take good care of it in the first place, there's much less work to control weeds and pests. It's a beautiful process, and each year we have less and less weed-picking to do. The farm heals itself, if you give it time. It's true of all creation; if you give it time, it will heal itself.

Visit Saint John's on the Web at www.saintjohnsorganicfarm.com or at 2228 Johns Road in Emmett. Their milk is also available at the Boise Co-op.