Jack Perrin has been milking cows in the Willamette Valley longer than most of us have been doing anything. Perrin Dairy, established in 1976, transitioned to organic production in 2002. During the transition, he found that agronomists, input companies and most consultants were offering to help him on his organic system in a conventional way. They were using an organic through conventional approach, if you will. For example, if a producer previously used X amount of chemical nitrogen, simply replace it with X amount of organic nitrogen for triple the cost. While this system may help sustain profitable input companies and produce more organic product to assuage growing demand, it does little to help the producer’s bottom line. It also isn’t always in the best interest of soil life, ecosystem function or environmental concerns.
Take one piece of Jack’s operation: corn silage. Before Jack met Matt Slaughter, director of Earthfort Labs, at the Northwestern Ag Expo in Albany, OR, he was spending $400 an acre planting his silage corn crop. This past year, by substituting Earthfort’s Provide/Revive and fish hydrolysate for his more costly organic inputs, he cut that cost to $150 and his yields stayed the same. Multiply that $250 per acre over Jack’s hundreds of acres and you are looking at transforming a small family owned business from “barely getting by” to “thriving”.
Maintaining yields while simultaneously cutting costs barely scratches the surface of the benefits of Jack’s transition from organic through substitution to truly soil life focused agriculture. His dairy, like most, is paid on a butter fat based premium model. He had traditionally been producing butter fat in the 4.2% range. Since changing his approach to his forage, by applying one pound Revive, one gallon Provide and one gallon fish hydrolysate after each cutting and managing for soil life, he has increased his butter fat to 4.5%. He is getting $2.55/pound bonus for butter fat. This increase in the quality of his milk isn’t just good for his finances, it is also good for his customers who are getting more nutrient dense sustenance.
2019 has not been a good year for most producers in the US. Unfavorable weather, a difficult trade situation, and bad environmental press have all hit producers hard. Yet these difficulties can be looked at as opportunities. Managing for soil life unlocks the benefits of healthy soil which makes agriculture more resilient to weather events. Better food through healthy soils can be sold on a non-commodity market for a bonus that reflects the true value to consumers. Working with nature, rather than against it or ignoring it, allows producers to contribute more towards positive environmental externalities than even your electric car driving, fair trade shade grown stone ground espresso drinking Portlander’s eco-friendly lifestyle.
Jokes aside, making Perrin Dairy regenerative is about doing right by the land and future generations. Regenerative agriculture only works if it is a viable economic model that can be passed down and improved upon by Jack’s grandkids. Jack’s son, Matt, has two young daughters. Grandpa and Dad know that cutting costs, simplifying input systems, working with the soil food web to make nutrients available naturally, and producing the highest quality food possible is going to allow the farm to be an attractive career option. The “ground is our life” and if Jack takes care of that life, it will take care of him, his family and the rest of us.