A crop of young farmers is hitting the road to spread word about sustainable agriculture - among them Coos Bay residents Kelly Mahaffy and Tuesday Reed.
Mahaffy owns River Bend Jerseys with her husband Pete. Reed is their employee. They are members of the nation's largest cooperative of organic farmers, Organic Valley.
Organic Valley selected Mahaffy, 30, and Reed, 23 to join about 15 other 18- to 35-year-old farmers on a mission to engage college students about careers in sustainable agriculture.
Generation Organic 2010 "Who's Your Farmer?" tour is making stops at Harvard, Yale and Columbia universities, among other prestigious institutions. They'll speak at lecture halls, interact with students through grilled-cheese socials and hand out Organic Valley swag.
White House visit?
Other potential happenings include a visit to the First Lady's organic garden at the White House and an appearance on a network morning show.
They'll travel in an eye-catching school bus fueled by non-genetically modified vegetable oil.
Reed joined the tour Wednesday. Her first stop was Oberlin College in Ohio.
She's happy to go along for the ride.
"I hope to teach people about the benefits of going organic," said the 2005 Marshfield High School graduate.
"It's not only better for your body, it's better for the planet."
Reed is currently taking a break from her studies at Oregon State University to work on the Mahaffys' organic dairy farm where duties include "anything that needs to be done."
‘Fell in love'
After working on the farm for a summer, Reed changed her major from equine science to dairy science.
"I just fell in love with it," she said.
"We grow healthy grass for healthy cows for a healthy dairy product."
She epitomizes the demographic Organic Valley is aiming for - young and environmentally conscious.
Compared to her peers, Reed is ahead of the curve on the subject of organic. She said she is learning more about sustainable farming through on-the-job training than she was at OSU, which is renowned for its agricultural program.
"Most of what I know about organic is from working here."
Millions fewer farmers
Mahaffy will catch up with the tour in New York on Monday, Oct. 18. She's eager to encourage students to consider a future in organic farming, addressing very real fear that the industry could face a shortage of workers.
According to the USDA Census of Agriculture, America has lost about 4.5 million farms since 1935.
"It's going to die out if people don't take over," Mahaffy said.
Besides, there's money to be made.
"Farming is a viable option," she said. "You can make a good family living."
Oct. 3 marked the Mahaffys seventh anniversary operating the family dairy farm. Pete Mahaffy's grandfather bought the bucolic 200-acre ranch just outside Coos Bay. His parents took it over, but got out of dairy in the ‘90s.
The Mahaffys - parents of three - resurrected the business with a emphasis on organic. They produce about 1 million pounds of milk a year without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or artificial hormones.
Organic Valley advantage
Joining the Organic Valley co-op shields them from fluctuating prices.
"Organic Valley pays us steady prices for our milk all year," Kelly Mahaffy explained. "That way, we can budget.
They are one of about half-a-dozen Organic Valley farmers in Coos County, she said.
The Mahaffys have about 130 dairy cows - all reddish-blond Jerseys. Each has a name. One rascally escape artist is inexplicably called iPod.
Organized in 1988, Organic Valley represents 1,630 farmers in 33 states and four Canadian provinces. It did $523 million in sales last year. It is one of the most recognizable organic brands with dairy products, soy, produce and juice at supermarkets and natural food stores.
Follow along: Get updates from the ‘Who’s Your Farmer?’ Tour at www.facebook.com/GenerationOrganic, or twitter.com/GenOrganic
Business Editor Nate Traylor can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 236; or at email@example.com.