Scientists have been predicting the perils of humanity’s mark on planet earth for decades. I remember being in the Costa Rican rainforest in 1992 just after the Rio Earth Summit, the first major United Nations conference on the environment of it’s kind.
The town I was in had gotten electricity only 3 years prior, and the roads surrounding it were still unpaved. We were staying with the late River Phoenix and his family and they had just returned from the summit, full of inspiration, but also conviction - that we must do everything in our power to reverse this thing called "global warming". I remember telling River’s mother that I wanted to move to the Amazon to help protect it and she said sternly, “No, Amy, you’re needed at home in the USA.”
As a yogi, living in harmony with nature feels like it’s been part of my DNA, in some ways since before I even stepped on the yoga mat for the first time as a teenager. But with every breath and every pose, practicing yoga reaffirms my interconnection with the natural world and the importance of being a responsible, conscious steward of the earth.
If you’ve practiced yoga, you yourself have likely had a similar experience of interconnection. To put it bluntly - you just give more of a damn after immersing in the study of yoga!
Last week, it was my great pleasure to teach a benefit yoga class for my newest favorite organization, the Rodale Institute. Rodale definitely embodies this caring approach to interconnection, and in fact, sees yet another way for us to solve the climate change crisis through regenerative organic farming.
While I was there, I interviewed Jeff Tkach, Rodale Institute’s chief growth officer and avid yogi. He told me the most heartwarming story about the dairy cows on the Rodale’s farm in Pennsylvania and their neighbors, James and Ida Burkholder, who by going full-on Organic changed their family’s life (and a whole herd of adorable cows) by doing so!
While I am not a dairy eater myself, pasturing animals the old fashioned way can benefit the soil, which is much needed in the journey toward a cooler planet.
I hope this story inspires and gives you as much hope as it gave me:
AMY: Hey Jeff! Tell us about Rodale’s neighbors, the Burkholders and why they started building a new barn on their land.
JEFF: The Burkholders are Mennonite dairy farmers who own and live on the land bordering the organic fields and pastures of the Rodale Institute. James was struggling to farm conventionally, and the banks (which technically owned his cows, farmland, and buildings) were pressuring him to increase the size of his herd in order to increase revenues so that he could pay on his loans.
Since James did not have enough land to effectively graze his cows on pasture, he needed to build a second barn so that he could double the size of his herd (the cows would live 24/7 in the barn, eat, sleep, and get milked). This is simply not the way that cows are meant to live!
James’ family has been farming since they emigrated from Switzerland in the 1700s, but when the conventional milk market bottomed out in 2009, James and Ida almost lost everything. “We were in danger of extinction,” James explained. As a small conventional dairy, he said, “It was tough to compete against larger operations.”
AMY: Rodale eventually proposed a better (organic) solution to the Burkholders that involved a partnership with Rodale. How did that go?
JEFF: We’ve had a long-standing relationship with our neighbors, but given the culture of the Mennonite community, it was not customary for them to build business relationships with people outside of their community. There was of course, much hesitation and reluctance for the family to partner with the Rodale Institute as a result of the pressures from their community, but the Rodale Institute took all of the financial risk out of their transition to organic.
James and Ida’s partnership with the Rodale Institute began in 2010, and it’s a simple relationship: the Burkholders get land on which to graze their cows, while the Rodale Institute gets an organic herd to jumpstart its livestock research program and help build healthier soil from the cows being on their land.
For James and Ida, the partnership with Rodale ensured that the Burkholders’ farming legacy would endure.
AMY: Tell us the story of what happened when the cows were finally released! And what was the outcome for the Burkholder’s farm once they went organic?
JEFF: Well, we did not know how the cows would react to being put out on pasture after living 24/7 in a barn. But to our surprise, they literally ran (and danced!) their way out of the barn and into the gorgeous green meadow!
Now, each day, the cows find their way from the barn out onto the Rodale Institute’s pasture. They do not need to be herded. They simply follow their biological patterns, and return to the barn twice per day to be milked.
In terms of the outcome, financially, the Burkholders are now earning 30%+ more for organic milk which they sell to Organic Valley, a popular independent cooperative of organic farmers that got it's start because they were fed up with the state of American agriculture and the fact that family farms were going extinct.
In addition, the Burkholder's have less expenses (not paying for as much grain and vet bills) and earn more for their end product. There is both an economic and environmental pay off for farmers to put animals on pasture.
Infact, James & Ida have not had a single veterinary bill for their cows since they transitioned to organic (the cows are healthier because they are eating a better diet!). Their cow’s health made them realize that their own family should eat organic to stay healthy as well - so now the family has transitioned as well!
Most livestock animals such as cows are ruminants. Meaning, cows are not meant to eat corn (which most conventional cows are fed). Their stomachs are designed for them to eat grass. And it produces a much higher quality and nutritious milk!
Best of all, the Burkholder’s conversion to organic was so successful that other farms in their community also transitioned!
There are also many reasons organic farming and pasture raising animals helps stop harmful climate change. When you put animals on pasture, they help to regenerate the soil (thus, storing and sequestering carbon out of the atmosphere and into the soil where it belongs!).
AMY: That is the best! Tell us - what can yoga students, in your opinion, do to help support organic farming besides the obvious (buy organic!)?
JEFF: Absolutely! Here’s a list of things yogis can do to help:
- We need for consumers to demand organic! The more we demand organic items at the grocery store and restaurants we frequent, the more farmers will be incentivized to transition due to demand.
- Get Informed. People need to become more attuned to where their food comes from, and how it was produced. We need to become more intimately connected with “the source” of our food. Get to know your farmers. Shop at your local farmer’s market, and support the artisans in your community who are producing such beautiful food. The best organic food does not come from the grocery store. It comes from the small farms that surround your community!
- Share! We need the yoga community to influence the world at large. We are already beacons for health. People look to us as yogi’s to be role models for health. We need to educate others about the benefits of going organic. Some ideas:
- Write blogs.
- If you teach yoga, teach a class with the theme of “organic”, regeneration, and the importance of making conscious choices.
- Post your colorful farm hauls on social media.