Seven Stars Farm Sets the Standard for Organic Farming
Co-owner and manager Mark Dunphy uses biodynamic and organic practices at his Phoenixville-based dairy farm.
Sevens Stars’ coveted Jerseys. Photo by Roger Morris.
For a dairy farmer, herding cows can be as frustrating as herding cats. Mark Dunphy walks across the feedlot of his Seven Stars Farm outside of Kimberton, patiently trying to shoo the last milk cow into the barn for her midday snack of homegrown hay.
All the other 80 or so brown cows have gone inside to eat, but this Jersey is having none of it. Playfully nosing an in-ground water dispenser, she flips her head up and down, then back and forth. As Dunphy edges closer, she abruptly breaks into a leaping pirouette—her large udder testing the laws of centripetal force—then jumps up and down as though trying to buck an imaginary cowboy from her back.
Patience finally wins out. Now that the cow has made her statement, she trundles off docilely toward the barn.
Dunphy is co-owner and manager of Seven Stars dairy on the northeast banks of French Creek. The historic establishment produces the well-known brand of yogurt and cream, sold widely locally and in several nearby states. Certified organic, the farm is also biodynamic. The latter is a more-structured regimen, with some tenets dating back to the beginning of history, when man first learned to scratch the ground and plant seeds. “We process over a million pounds of milk annually,” says Dunphy.
The bulk of that comes from a herd of about 140 cows—all Jerseys or Jersey mixes. Others were purchased from nearby organic farms as the business has grown. Cows are milked at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily. “We have about 125 acres of pasture land in various parcels,” says Dunphy, who makes his way out of the barn for a tour of the gently rolling farmland.
Each pasture is on a six-year rotation, as it is refreshed with cow manure and composts. Cows are first let out to graze around April 15, and they continue grazing until late fall. They’re moved from pasture to pasture as the summer progresses. “Most organic farms say they pasture their cows, but often that means they feed them hay in the pasture,” Dunphy says.
Seven Stars Farm has its origins with philanthropists Mabel Pew Myrin and husband Alarik Myrin. In 1939, they purchased 1,000 acres of farmland northwest of Phoenixville, naming it Kimberton Farms. Followers of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, the father of biodynamic farming, they wanted to put into practice both his agriculture methods and his Waldorf approach to education. Next door to the farm, they established the Kimberton Waldorf School, which is still in operation. The property was eventually divided between the school and Camphill Village Kimberton Hills, a farming, gardening and handcrafting community that caters to adults with developmental disabilities.
Biodynamic farming is a complex philosophy of traditional agriculture woven into Steiner’s philosophical construct. One major concept is a closed-farming model, where most of the agricultural practices are self-sustaining within the boundaries of the property itself. Hay or winter silage is grown on the farm, and the manure is recycled. The cows calve to keep the population at desired levels, so the herd is self-sustaining—and its health is paramount. “If a cow has a scratch, we treat it immediately so no antibiotics are needed,” Dunphy says.
The controversial part of biodynamics is its allegiance to the lunar calendar. Many traditional farming communities around the world still plant and tend crops according to the phases of the moon and the positioning of the stars. While it’s widely agreed that the moon influences the tides, most scientists argue that it has little, if any, influence on plants and people. Still, the practices aren’t detrimental or in any way harmful.
Today, biodynamics is slowly creeping into the mainstream with some crops. Several well-respected wine producers—most notably Domaine Romanée-Conti in Burgundy, France—are biodynamic. “To get certified for organics is easy—it’s just a matter of checking all the boxes,” says California winemaker Robert Sinskey, who owns the biodynamic Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Napa Valley. “But biodynamics is more of a journey than just checking boxes. We’re compensating for the damage being done to the earth. Our mission is to heal it.”
In the U.S. and much of the world, the certifying body for biodynamics is Demeter, of which Seven Stars is an active member. Being certified is seldom used as a marketing point—like, say, being organic and free of GMO products. Seven Stars happens to fall into those categories, as well.
David and Edie Griffiths leased what’s now Seven Stars Farm from the school on a long-term basis, and the farm’s signature yogurt was first produced 30 years ago. When David Griffiths was severely injured in an accident, Dunphy took over operation of the farm as a partner in the privately held venture. The farm and the school’s property are now part of the Chester County Open Space Preservation Program.
A Bucks County native, Dunphy had no prior farming experience when he took over Seven Stars. It now employs about 14 people, including two of Dunphy’s four sons. “All four boys went to the Waldorf School,” he says.
The dairy products are produced and packaged at the farm, and there’s a small outlet store on site. “Everything is packaged in quarts because that means fewer containers to be recycled,” Dunphy says. “It’s easy for parents to pack smaller portions for their kids’ lunch boxes.”
Cheese is also made from Seven Stars milk, but it’s produced by a third party. That’s because it’s risky to make yogurt and cheese in the same facility. “Even our yogurt flavorings—such as maple—are made organically,” says Dunphy.
As for the cows, they have plenty of room to graze, and their horns aren’t removed, as is usually the custom at most dairies. On the whole, they seem quite happy—some deliriously so.