The dairy farm is a three-time recipient of a highest quality milk award out of nearly 700 farms nationwide

HOPEWELL — Ask the Galens family about organic milk, and they’ll tell you it wasn’t always their way.

For decades, Galens Homestead Acres in Hopewell, a small family farm nearing the century mark, did dairy the conventional way. But not long after the recession hit in 2008, the farm — now in its third generation — switched to organic production. Driven mainly by practical reasons, Stephen Galens said he wanted to maintain a small operation and found it less cumbersome and more profitable to go organic.

It proved a wise decision. As the demand for organic milk has grown, so has the price that helps offset the cost of organic seed and other requirements of running a farm without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.

The switch paid off in quality, too. This year marks the third year out of five that Galens Homestead Acres has won a quality award in competition with nearly 700 other farms nationwide. The Horizon’s National Quality Award went to the Galenses in 2012, 2014 and again this year for delivering the highest quality milk of all Horizon producers. Founded in 1991, Horizon was the first company to supply organic milk nationally and today supplies a variety of organic dairy and other products. Galens began shipping milk to Horizon in 2010.

“We’ll keep doing what we’re doing as long as we can,” said Stephen Galens, who runs the farm with his wife, Hope, and brother Paul. The brothers took over after their parents, Charlie and Shirley Galens, retired a while back.

Stephen attributes their milk quality to an ability to adapt quickly to changes on the farm, observation skills and simple patience.

“I think part of our success comes from our consistency, I try to go about my day the same way every day," Stephen said. "I also need to be vigilant to spot any issues as they arise, which can keep me on my toes and interested in what I’m doing. It’s much like all other walks of life — you need to stay engaged with the work you’re doing in order to enjoy it."

The 160-acre farm on Taylor Road houses 22 cows. About 90 acres is for growing organic animal feed, mostly forage such as grasses, clover and alfalfa.

The HOPE Quality award is focused solely on milk quality based on Horizon’s quality checks. The honor goes each year to the farm with the highest quality milk counts over the course of the year and does not include outside factors beyond milk quality.

“It is a rare and noteworthy accomplishment to receive the HOPE Quality award three times,” said Jody Mason, senior manager for industry relations and organic stewardship at WhiteWave Foods Company, which has Horizon as one of its brands.

The winning family gets some perks. One is attending the annual Farm Aid concert and receiving a special dinner in their honor. Farm Aid 2016 took place the weekend of Sept. 17 in Bristow, Virginia, and featured stars including Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp, the event's founders.

Stephen told Horizon he often talks to other farmers who are hesitant to transition from conventional to organic farming. He explains that organic dairying can be lucrative when done correctly, and that it’s important not to view organic regulations as a barrier.

“It’s an attitude change,” he said. “Organic farming comes with different challenges than conventional farms are used to, but they aren’t necessarily hurdles that are too hard to overcome.”

Last week, the state comptroller reported the latest figures showing a surge in New York's organic farming, with a burst over the past several years led by milk sales. Agricultural land federally certified organic expanded to 934 operating farms last year.

Sales of organic farm products rose 56 percent from 2008 to 2014, to $164 million. That included almost $94 million of organic milk from 402 farms, ranking New York second nationally in the sales of organic milk according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's survey.

The report shows organic farming is "a robust sector" with soaring demand, said Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

Another federal report shows New York's organic sales jumped 35 percent more last year to $221 million. Crop sales were led by vegetables and melons, followed by apples, strawberries and blueberries. New York's organic maple syrup ranked third behind that of Vermont and Maine.

— Includes reporting by The Associated Press