The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Zweber Farms

Zweber Farms

From the Farmer's Tractor

February 27, 2011

Tim Zweber, 27, and his father, Jon, are co-owners and operators of Zweber Farms, a fourth generation dairy farm that was homesteaded by Tim's great-grandfather, John J. Zweber, in 1906 in Elko, Minnesota. Zweber farms transitioned to organic certification in 2007 and shipped their first load of certified organic milk under the Organic Valley label in 2008. Zweber Farms also direct markets grass-fed beef, natural pork and pasture raised chickens.  

How did you get into dairy farming? 

Our farm has been a dairy farm for its entire 105 years. You can say dairy farming is in my blood. After attending college and getting two degrees (an Associate in Automotive Technology and a BS in Dairy Science) I returned to the family farm in an official capacity. I bought shares into our operation in 2007. Today, the farm is co-owned by my father and I. My mother and my wife are also integral employees in the operation. 

How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?

The biggest change for us has been going through the certification process to become 100% certified USDA Organic. The process started many years ago when we decided that chemicals on our land just didn't work for us. We found that through better land management we were able to achieve the same (or better results) without the input expense. In the early 1990's we started an official grazing protocol. In 1996, we built a double 12 swing parlor. This aided the efficiency of our grazing system. In 2007, we started the process to certify our herd, and in February 2008 our herd and land was 100% certified organic. We have also expanded our direct meat marketing business from raising a few animals for family and friends to nearly 400 customers.

How will dairy farming evolve in the next five years?

All dairy producers are looking to gain efficiencies while being more environmentally sustainable. While organic dairy farming is just one option, I believe the most successful producers are those that will consider environmental conservation while improving animal care.

What is your greatest challenge as a dairy farmer?

Like all agricultural producers, the uncertainty of our business is the greatest challenge. Weather, markets and regulations are daily game changers and challenges that we must deal with or our operation will not be sustainable financially.

How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?

We don't know, and we don't pretend to be experts either. Thankfully, our cooperative has dedicated staff that solve that problem. Also, as dairy producers we pay state and national check-off dollars. These dedicated dollars are used for product development, research and promotion. With our meat business, we are still learning. One year our chickens are the hot item and the next it is beef. It all depends on what is happening in the media, culture and food trends.

What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?

Our biggest conservation tools are intensive rotational grazing and crop rotations. We currently have a four year crop rotation, moving to a five year rotation. The rotation between corn and hay with a small grain cover crop has made our organic crops very successful while not applying any chemical. The rotation suppresses weeds and breaks up pests' biological systems. With intensive grazing our cows are forced to eat all the available forage in a particular area and then are moved after 12 hours. This discourages weed growth and also evenly spreads out their manure. Organic farmers often get criticized that we use more fuel to manage our crops. That is not the case with us. We cultivate our corn only once. We have learned to work with nature not against it. One way we do this is to not prepare the fields for corn until the weeds have started to grow. We wait for this to happen, then prep the fields and plant within 24 hours. This gives the corn a good head start and minimizes the need for extra cultivation.

Do you sell any of your products locally, and if so, what is the process?

Yes, we sell all our meat products, beef, pork and chickens, locally. We raise chickens on pasture. We also raise feeder pigs in a straw bedded hoop building and dairy steers for beef. All our meat is custom order. We sell pork in 1/2 and whole packages and beef in 1/4 and 1/2 packages. Our chickens are sold whole frozen. We contact previous customers to get their annual order and walk them through the whole process. We explain cuts and options. This gives the customer exactly what their family will need. New customers can contact us at anytime to be put on the order list. Most of our customers find us through our website or our state's Minnesota Grown directory.

Our milk is sold regionally through the Organic Valley cooperative system. Our milk is picked up every other day and bottled at a plant in St. Paul, Minnesota. Then it is shipped to retail locations around our region. Organic Valley is currently putting faces of its local farmers on the carton. If you live in the Midwest, you can see my wife, Emily, and our two sons on 1% half and gallon cartons. The cartons also give information about the farm.

What kind of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in

We are a very open farm and enjoy giving tours. We give formal tours to schools, retailers, and more, and we also give small informal tours to our customers. It is a part of what we do to maintain an open relationship with our customers. Customers are always amazed at how much work and care goes into producing their food.