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Little bare feet, brown with dust, as children explore the expanse of farmland that is their heritage.
That is the vision Chuck and Julie Johnston have for their three children. It’s also one of the reasons they bought their dairy, which is part of Organic Valley, the largest farmer-owned organic cooperative.
“We wanted our kids to grow up this way,” said Julie Johnston, who, with Chuck, has been on the farm for nine years now. “We bought all our equipment and bought our cows.”
Julie went back to work full time for the first time in years to help support their farm operation, taking a job at the University of Tennessee Extension Office in Roane County.
Chuck travels to trim cattle’s hooves.
Their youngest, 3-year-old Kyker, follows her mother among the cows, picking her way through the rough grass.
She giggles contagiously one minute at a kitten trapped in her loving embrace, and next fusses at Bonnie, the attention-demanding farm dog. The other children are Abilene, 8, and Creek, 10.
The Johnstons say their Skipping Rock Dairy in the Philadelphia community is one of two certified organic dairy farms in the state. The other is in Benton.
“I think, long-term, it is a better financial return, because your cows have a tendency to last longer because they are under less stress,” Julie said. “Conventional is not bad. This is just more conducive to how the cow would act in a natural environment.”
In addition to the dairy, the Johnston farm is also being used by the UT to study which organic forages will do well in East Tennessee.
Organically designated cows are primarily fed pasture grass, which is more natural to their systems.
“With grain and commodities going higher and higher, it is a very economical way to feed your cows, but it is very labor intensive,” Julie said.
“When we can grow good pasture, we feed very very little grain,” she added. Their farm isn’t blessed with the richest soil.
Chuck put it more simply: “We’ve got sorry ground.”
“The basis of organic is getting healthier soil. Healthier soil, healthier plants, healthier animals, healthier people,” Julie said.
They cannot use many of the things conventional farmers use to treat the ground. Instead they use natural fertilizers.
“Chicken manure is a great source of nitrogen,” Julie said.
Fish oil and lime are also approved soil treatments.
Organic cattle aren’t given antibiotics. Once a sick cow is treated, it is sold to a conventional farmer.
Organic farmers can use natural remedies, like garlic, to treat infections.
“I think when you are organic, it helps you build a stronger herd faster, because if you have a sick cow, she leaves the herd,” Julia said.
Chuck feels good about the lack of hormones and antibiotics in his herd.
“When I was in high school, a lineman 6-foot-2-inches, 250 pounds — they were monster men. I think the way we feed our kids now — these kids are coming out of high school 6-foot-8-inches and 300 pounds. What has changed?” he said.
The Johnstons’ livestock include Holstein and Jersey breeds. They also have chickens, kittens, and Bonnie the herding dog.
“She’s a red heeler, so she helps get up the cows,” Julie said.
The cows are named in groups having names starting with A and so forth.
Inside, being milked is Apple. Outside in the field is her heifer, Fritter.
“I’m on Fs right now, so I know they all grew up together,” she said.
Julie has fond memories of her own childhood on a family farm.
“I grew up in the Northeast on the same farm my dad grew up on,” she said.
There are pros and cons in organic or conventional farming.
“It is a very fine line,” Julie said.
Organic farmers have to spend more time and money on making better pasture, and the paperwork involved in operating a certified organic dairy is considerable.
On the other hand, they are paid more.
“We have set prices for our milk,” Julie said.