There are lots of benefits to going organic.
As the organic movement ripens, more companies incorporate the organic philosophy into their products. Alexandre EcoDairy Farms has been doing that for almost a decade.
Blake and Stephanie Alexandre bought the 570-acre dairy farm that serves as their headquarters north of Fort Dick in 1992 and have established three more farms in Ferndale, Eureka and Smith River, now totaling over 5,000 acres.
On the main farm alone, they milk 1,400 cows. In all, the company produces 12,000 gallons of certified organic milk a day, which they mainly sell to Humboldt Creamery. Blake said that their operation grows a little bit each year. Stephanie's dream would be to have a farm store.
Lush green pastures provide enough grass for the cows to graze on year-round. In order for farm products to be certified organic, the soil and grass has to be organic, meaning no synthetics or chemicals. In addition, any grain or hay cows consume must be organic. The Alexandres also recently acquired an organic hay ranch.
Now the family of seven has expanded to selling organic eggs from free-range chickens. Blake and Stephanie were raised on dairy farms and have chosen the same lifestyle for their family, but the eggs have become a project for their sons, Joseph and Christian.
Mobile chicken coops
While pointing out the many features of the coops at the main farm off of Lower Lake Road, 16-year-old Christian explains how by moving the coops 300 feet every four days the chickens get more grass to peck around in.
andquot;If they're in one place for too long they tear up the ground,andquot; Christian said about the free-range chickens.
Christian drew up the design for the 14-by-24-foot coops. He got the idea from a farm in Virginia that has pasture-based poultry.
Yet, they don't stray too far from the coops. Charolais the sheepdog keeps a watchful eye over the chickens to protect them from hungry coyotes.
Hens can lay one egg a day and they all tend to do it within the first six hours of the day.
The Alexandre children collect the eggs every day after school and then package them up. The local eggs are sold at Rumiano Cheese on 9th Street.
The eggs are organic and free-range, which means they aren't sequestered to the coop all day. Christian said it's important to eat healthy food and andquot;there's no place to get good eggs.andquot;
They started off with about 150, now there are about 300 chickens in three coops. The venture continues to grow.
andquot;My dad is pushing me to make it bigger,andquot; he said.
Inside the coops, chickens can perch, get water or feed. There's also a trap door on the bottom, which Christian said is his favorite part. The nests are lined along the perimeter of the coop. Hens hop up, do their business and then hop down.
andquot;The chickens have the best life,andquot; he said. andquot;We try to make it as simple (for them) as possible.andquot;
The Alexandres have a variety of chickens, such as Black Star, Red Star and Rhode Island Red. They lay brown, white and sometimes blueish-green eggs. The shell color doesn't make a differenceit's all the same on the inside, Christian said.
They raise the chickens for two years (until they stop laying eggs) and then sell them as andquot;stewers,andquot; which basically means they're used for stew.
The Alexandres say they are committed to treating their animals humanely, hence the chickens and cows' ability to roam freely. The idea behind organic and grass-fed animals is that they make a healthier product.
The decision to become an organic farm was basically a business decision back in 1998-1999, Blake said.
andquot;We wanted to be a viable option for our kids,andquot; he said about their children continuing the family business. andquot;It's a niche market for what we have herelush green grass.andquot;
There is plenty of grass, cows don't need to be grain fed, which farmers have become accustomed to doing. Organic products also tend to sell at higher prices.
The more they learned about organic farming the more passionate they became. They went all over the country to learn more.
andquot;It's exciting to learn about organic and being part of the movement,andquot; Stephanie said. andquot;It was a turning point in our lives.andquot;
What they discovered was how much healthier the cows were and that they were living longer.
It did cause a bit of a decrease in their production, but they also save a lot of money on feed. From the grass, the cows get nutrients like Omega-3 fatty acids, about 20 percent of which goes into the milk. The other 80 percent of nutrients go back into the earth.
On the farm
The cows are spread throughout the farm on Tuesday morning: some are hanging out in the fields, others are being milked, expectant heifers have their own area and the calves are in their hutches.
The pregnant heifers are kept in the maternity barn before giving birth. Once they are 2 years old, Stephanie explained, they can give birth and once the calves get the first bit of milk, the heifers can be milked on a regular basis.
The calves stay in the neatly lined hutches for the first part of their lives. The hutches are big enough for the calves to turn around and the openings in the front and back allows them to poke their heads out. This allows them to be exposed to their environment without being in harm's way, Stephanie said, and build up immunities.
andquot;It's like putting newborn babies in separate cribs,andquot; she explained.
Cows that become sick or injured are first treated with natural remedies, but if necessary they are given antibiotics, which means they can't be milked.
The 350 steers the Alexandres raise on their farms are also grass-fed. They sell the organic beef to companies in the Bay Area.
The cows don't deplete all the grass, either. Not using chemicals and synthetics on the soil actually yields better, more luscious grass, Blake said.
andquot;Really, the organic approach is still the most efficient,andquot; he added.
Being organic helps them to be sustainable; there's more grass for the cows to eat, which cuts back on grain consumption, and the animals are healthier and live longer.
The message of eating healthy is one the Alexandres want to tell the community that has been their home for 16 years. Stephanie occasionally teaches nutrition classes in the area and talks about the benefits of natural, unprocessed whole foods.
andquot;God gives us passion for a reason,andquot; Stephanie said. andquot;Our farm is about teaching people about eating healthy.andquot;