KENNEDYVILLE – You've seen it in the supermarket, but did you ever wonder where it came from? Or what makes it different from the other offerings?
We're talking about Horizon Organic dairy products, and a lot of the answer is right here in the center of Kent County, just south of Kennedyville. Horizon Organic Dairy is celebrating its 15th year of doing business locally, and it has made an impact on farmers across the county.
Julia “Sissy” Everett and Dudley McHenry, the farm managers at Horizon, talked to the Kent County News July 2 about the farm and its methods. Everett, who has been with Horizon since the start of its local operation, said the company – which at the time was based in the west – needed an East Coast farm. The farm's proximity to three major cities – Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia – was in its favor. But equally important was the fact that the farm had been idle for some time before Horizon took over.
Milking 450 cows that graze on 130 certified organic acres isn't a project that can be started on a whim. It takes three years of pesticide- and chemical-free operation before a farm can qualify for organic certification. In the case of Horizon's Kennedyville operation, the owners took over a property that hadn't been farmed for several years, making it easier to gain the certifications from the beginning of their operations.
The regulations governing use of the “organic” designation are set by the federal goverrnment, but farmers use any of several contractors to certify that they have met the standards. McHenry said Horizon is certified by Quality Assurance International. In addition to meeting the initial certification, an organic farm must keep detailed records to show it continues to meet the required conditions.
The health and well-being of the cows is as important as the freedom from pesticides and herbicides. Animals must not be overcrowded, and must have regular access to open air and sunlight. Cattle must have access to pastureland. Antibiotics cannot be used on organic livestock. Sick or injured cows are treated with holistic or homeopathic methods, according to the Horizon Organic website.
Genetically modified organisms also are prohibited by the organic regulations. That includes cloning of the animals, and the use of growth hormones to induce milk production. If cows from an outside breeder are added to the herd, they must have been raised under organic conditions, or be kept in those conditions for at least one year before their milk is offered for sale as organic.
In addition to producing high-quality, chemical-free milk, Horizon's Kennedyville farm takes a number of steps to protect the environment. The farm's stormwater management system includes a 3-million gallon pond that collects the rainwater for irrigating the pastureland. Solar panels provide hot water for the shop and radiant heat for the barns. “We're not selling power back to the grid,” McHenry said.
With 450 cows on hand, the farm produces plenty of manure, which could have a significant impact on the watershed if allowed to wash into the headwaters of Morgan Creek near the farm. To reduce that potential for pollution, Horizon supplies manure to other local farmers.
Also, Horizon purchases a significant portion of its feed from other organic farms in the vicinity. This encourages other chemical-free farming locally and reduces the amount of fuel used to ship in feed, benefiting the local environment as well as the economy. And supplying Horizon's manure to other local farms has the same benefits in reverse. “It's a win-win,” McHenry said.
Another benefit of working closely with the rest of the community is that accidental contamination of Horizon's fields, for example by a crop duster spraying too close to the farm, is less likely. “Crop dusters know where we are,” McHenry said. While there have been incidents of accidental spraying elsewhere, Horizon has never had to deal with the problem – which would require keeping its herds out of the contaminated field for three years.
The success of Horizon has been made easier by a general increase in the demand for organic products, making it easier for them and their suppliers to do business. “There's more organic cropland in the county,” McHenry said. “People see the opportunity to take advantage of the market. It's better for all of us.”
The Kennedyville farm is one of two that are owned by Horizon. (The other is in Idaho.) The majority of the milk sold under the Horizon Organic label, some 93 percent, comes from 600 certified organic farmers from around the country. So, McHenry said, the container of Horizon milk you buy in a local store may have some of the Kennedyville farm's product in it – or it may not. Either way, it's produced by family farmers using the best practices to deliver a healthy product.
Horizon's impact on the local agricultural community is part of a growing trend toward healthier, chemical-free agriculture. And the entire community benefits from another successful business, employing local people and working with its neighbors to spread around the benefits of its prosperity.