Here at Ben & Jerry’s, making euphoric ice cream for our fans is only one part of our mission. As a business guided by progressive values and a three-part mission statement, we like to look at the full picture of how making your favorite ice cream flavors impacts the world around us. And since making ice cream requires lots of milk and cream, dairy farming practices are high on our priority list. After all, we believe that when you have a happy cow, a happy farmer, and a happy planet, you get the best dairy products.
We have long supported family dairy farms, from our “Save Family Farms” campaign in the early days, to the Caring Dairy program that we use today. Since 2011, the Caring Dairy program has encouraged family farms to support sustainable agricultural practices, top-notch animal care, and dignified conditions for farm workers. Seven years into the program, we are excited to be able to report that it has produced significant results.
How Does Caring Dairy Work?
Here’s how it works: Farms that supply dairy to Ben & Jerry's join the Caring Dairy program voluntarily, and for their efforts they receive an additional premium on top of their regular milk price. The program focuses on building soil health as the very foundation of a successful farm, but there’s a lot more to it. Participating farms must meet the basic standards of the program, which include cow care, planet stewardship, and farmer and farm worker support. Farms that go beyond these basic requirements to higher levels of achievement can earn a higher premium. Each year, farms that join the program must complete a self-assessment to evaluate their farm against key criteria, complete two improvement plans based on the results of their assessment, and attend three workshops for further learning. The assessment results from farms participating in the program are third-party verified by Where Food Comes From.
What Are the Results?
We have seen incredible changes on Caring Dairy farms over the past few years. While many farms were already making great strides toward sustainability, participation in the program raised the bar by educating farmers on better practices in environmental stewardship, herd management, community involvement and farm and farmworker communication. Farmers have stepped up their game, tracked their progress, and in the process have earned additional compensation. It’s a win-win! These are just some of the successes we’ve seen in recent years:
Planting Cover Crops
Cover crops are key to reducing erosion, protecting water quality, improving soil health, and reducing reliance on fertilizers and other chemicals. Caring Dairy farmers have planted cover crops over two-thirds of their land — that’s twice the rate of other farms in the region!
Adopting No-Till Practices
Planting without tilling the soil can be tough, but Caring Dairy farmers have been figuring out how to make it work. Avoiding tillage means keeping more carbon in the soil and preventing soil from eroding. Caring Dairy farmers have been adopting no-till practices on more of their land each year, including an 84% increase last year.
Reducing the Use of Fertilizers
Chemical fertilizers* can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution. They don’t feed the soil, just the plants. Caring Dairy farmers reduced their use of fertilizers by an impressive 28% last year alone.
Tracking Carbon Footprint
Just like humans, cows have a carbon footprint. Caring Dairy farmers have created a baseline to track their farms’ greenhouse gas emissions using a specially-designed computer program. They input their current practices and the program allows them to model how experimenting with alternative practices could reduce their carbon footprint.
Tracking Chemical Use
Caring Dairy farms are quickly embracing new technology and becoming pretty high-tech. We use another computer program to estimate the environmental risk of on-farm chemical use to ground water, aquatic organisms, soil organisms, pollinators, and beneficial insects. Farmers receive a report that identifies the risks posed by chemicals used on their farm along with alternative, less harmful solutions. Armed with these data, farmers reduced their chemical usage by 4% per acre last year. This is just a start —with more information and better practices, we will see a continued reduction in chemical use.
Ensuring Regular Veterinary Care
Cows are the heart and soul of dairy farming, and farmers are passionate about keeping their herds happy and healthy. We believe that proactive herd management is the most successful way to ensure that, so we pay for expert-trained vets to visit each Caring Dairy farm to evaluate the herd and their living conditions.
Ensuring Fair Labor Standards
We believe that all labor should be treated with dignity and respect, and we know that most farmers do, too. Whether from far away or nearby, all farm workers are a valuable part of the local community. While worker standards have always been a part of the program, we are proud that starting in 2018, Caring Dairy farms will be certified in a new set of labor standards through the Milk with Dignity program, a farm worker-led initiative.
We understand that being a Caring Dairy farm is extra work for farmers. For their efforts toward increased sustainability, we give farmers who participate in this voluntary program an additional premium on top of their usual compensation. Between 2011 and 2017, the total premium payout to Caring Dairy farmers was $7.5 million, including $3.3 million in 2017 alone!
Planning for The Next Generation
Planning for the next generation to take over farm operations is an important aspect of sustainability. Caring Dairy farmers complete a succession plan and a business plan to ensure that their herds and farmland are taken care of when the time comes that they are unable to do so themselves. While we recognize that the family conversations around these topics can be hard, we believe they are essential for the viability of farming into the future.
We are committed to our dairy farmers and the important work they do. After all, without dairy farms, we wouldn’t have ice cream flavors like Half Baked, Cherry Garcia, and Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough. But we believe that dairy farming can do so much more than produce milk for our favorite dessert: it can help to manage greenhouse gas emissions, build healthy and climate-resistant crops, and provide a livelihood that will support farming communities for generations.
*Fertilizer use is dependent on variable weather conditions. Use on any given farm may increase or decrease based on external forces like too much or too little rain.