Meet Organic Valley Farmers: Zweber Family Farm
The farm has been in the family for just over 100 years. Tim’s parents, Jon and Lisa Zweber took over the operation from Jon’s father in 1984. A couple of years ago, Tim and his wife Emily joined a long standing tradition by becoming partners in Zweber Farms. Tim’s younger siblings, Sarah, Steven and Samantha still help out on the farm, and one day, Tim and Emily’s children might decide to do the same. Meanwhile, Tim and Emily’s three children ages 7, 5, and 2 like to do the chores with their Papa, and already know all about chopping corn and making haylage.
There are always challenges with running a farm; however, the Zwebers have learned to create positives out of negatives. Sited in the Big Woods Area, much of their acreage is characterized by rolling hillsides that taper into tight valleys. Growing crops and running tractors on this steep, sensitive land would expose it to erosion that depletes topsoil at an alarming rate. Instead, they’ve learned to use the land to its best advantage, which means managing most of it for pasture. They rotationally graze their animals on the pastures, and crop the more accessible fields for winter forage.
Not the least of the challenges to the farm is the encroachment of development. Located just 30 miles south of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Scott County is the fastest growing county in Minnesota, and neighboring Dakota County is the third most populous county in the state. The Zwebers have used the population density of their location to their best advantage with a direct marketing business. They sell the poultry, pork and beef they raise to one nearby restaurant, plus loyal local customers who come right to the farm for pick up. The milk from their herd of 100 Holstein and Brown Swiss cows, is sold exclusively to Organic Valley, the farmer-owned cooperative of which the Zwebers are members.
The decision to join the Organic Valley cooperative was made pretty much jointly with the decision to formally certify the farm as organic. Parents Jon and Lisa had talked about transitioning for a long time. It didn’t make sense to live on the edge at conventional dairy prices when most of their farming practices qualified as organic anyway. When Tim made his decision to stay on the farm, they realized that the only way to bring him in as a partner and make it economically viable was to certify their operation organic. The formal shift would bring them a measure of financial stability and enable Tim to continue farming with his parents. Joining Organic Valley was not a tough decision, Lisa says. “We liked their emphasis on pasturing, and the fact that the farmers own the cooperative.”
All four Zweber Farms partners say that one of the greatest advantages to going organic is that they have more family time now. To clear enough money to bring Tim in on a conventional operation, they would have had to nearly double their production, which they had neither the acreage nor the inclination to do. “I don’t mind managing people and things,” Tim says, “but there’s a point at which you’re either running a farm or just running a business. I would rather have my life run by 50 cows than 5,000.” The family does keep pretty busy with their 100 cow herd, but the Zwebers spend their spare time doing activities with their kids. Emily also serves as director of the Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom Foundation, taking the mission of educating people about farming even farther afield. Emily and Tim are pen pals with a class of grade schoolers, they give several farm tours each year and also maintain a blog on the farm’s website (zweberfarms.com). So we can thank the Zwebers for sharing their farm knowledge with urban and suburban folks, along with their delicious, organic, local milk!