Engelbert Farms History
By Kevin Engelbert
My forefathers came from Germany in 1848, and began our family farm in
Conklin, New York. Back then, the farm was considered the nicest operation
between Elmira and Oneonta, and consisted of over 500 acres. At the start
of the Civil War in 1860, the US government took the property by eminent
domain, and my great-great grandfather, his brother, and their families
ended up across the Susquehanna River, still in Conklin (the east side of
the river had seceded and been renamed Kirkwood).
In 1911, the Lackawanna railroad purchased a majority of that farm to
expand their railyards, and Broome County purchased the rest for future
development. That led to the family’s relocation to Nichols, where we have
managed to remain ever since. An interesting side note, we are now the
closest dairy farm to the west of Binghamton along the Route 17 corridor, a
distance of 30 miles–every dairy farm east of ours along the river has been
sold for development or for gravel mining.
Once in Nichols, my great-grandfather and grandfather began purchasing
adjoining farms whenever they came up for sale (most were very, very small,
due to the highly productive soils of the area). At present, we own about
600 acres: 140 acres of pasture, 150 acres of crop land, and nearly 300
acres of woods. We rent an additional 400 acres of ground suitable for
row-cropping, and 150 acres of grass hay ground.
My father never pursued land, and only worked a total of 150 acres of crop
land. He attended Cornell in the 1940’s, and was entrenched in the `high
production per acre’ philosophy. Our land, while very fertile, is also very
prone to flooding. My dad was the first farmer in the area to use chemicals
extensively. They allowed him to keep the low-lying fields in continuous
corn, while keeping the higher elevation ground in continuous hay/alfalfa
production. He irrigated, fertilized heavily, sprayed for pests with
abandon, and grew some incredibly high-yielding crops. As an example, in
the fall of 1971, he purchased a JD 4020, because our 60 hp. JD 3010,
pulling a one-row, New Holland 818 chopper, didn’t have enough power to run
the chopper in 1st gear without slipping the clutch.
I graduated from college in 1979, and by that time some serious problems
were surfacing on our farm. We were moldboard plowing with a 115 hp IH 986,
pulling 5-18″ bottoms, in third gear! Our soils were as hard as a rock,
plowed up as blocks of compacted, lumpy, lifeless, dirt. We could no longer
grow high yielding, weed-free crops, even though we rotated chemicals and
used them at their highest recommended levels. We were spending over
$25,000/year on chemicals of all kinds, and also spending $1,000 month on
vet bills. My dad was the first to start a weekly herd-health check a few
years earlier, due to the increasing health problems we were encountering.
We no longer made culling decisions–we simply kept the cows we could keep
alive, get bred back, that didn’t lose quarters, that could keep their feet
and legs under them, etc.
The key event that got me thinking seriously about the shape of our farm,
and the direction we were headed was the purchase of 20 bred heifers in the
summer of 1979. I was quite proud of the fact that we were doing so,
because up until then we had had a closed herd, and I thought purchasing
heifers was a sign of progress! My grandmother opened my eyes when she
learned of our need to purchase heifers to maintain cow numbers by saying “
Well, we always had extra heifers to sell–sure helped our bottom line.
Just think how much better off you would be if you were selling heifers
instead of buying them!” And she was, of course, right.
I spent that winter doing a lot of thinking, and came to the obvious
conclusion that there had to be a connection between the amount of money we
were spending on chemicals and all the problems we were having. As an
experiment in 1980, we used oats as a nurse crop for our alfalfa seedings,
instead of clear seeding with Eptam, and surprise, surprise – we had a good
crop of oats and a nice stand of alfalfa. Who would’ve thunk it?
That was all the success I needed. In 1981 we quit using chemicals
cold-turkey, and haven’t used any since. Seven years later, after our herd
health checks had gradually been reduced to an `as-needed’ basis, I finally
had the confidence to sell all of our spraying equipment. In spite of all
the nay-sayers, we have seen with our own eyes the truth about soil health,
plant health, animal health, and, in turn, human health. Changing our
rotational hay crop from pure alfalfa to a mixture of orchardgrass, clover,
and alfalfa has allowed us to become less susceptible to losses from
flooding. We have learned that the more you work with Mother Nature, the
more successful you will be in the long run, and that’s what we try to do
with our crops and our animals, as much as our location and facilities
A huge step in that direction was rotational grazing, which we began in
the late 1980’s. Getting the cows out of the barn and off concrete was
another eye-opening experience. It didn’t take long to realize that managed
grazing was also going to be a key in our long-term sustainability. Our
herd’s health had been continuously improving since we converted to organic
crop production, and it improved even more once we started pasturing again.
(By the late 60’s, in an effort to push milk production even higher, my dad
had stopped pasturing the milking cows, and by the middle 70’s, he had stopped
pasturing dry cows and bred heifers.)
Our feeding program has evolved to the point that we feed only 8-10 lbs.
of high moisture ground ear corn per milking cow per day, along with
pasture, supplemented with baleage as needed throughout the year. We feed
kelp at a rate of 2 oz. per cow per day, and offer some free choice during
stressful times of the year.
By and large, we have moved to seasonal milk production, to time our peak
milk production with peak pasture production. We do milk all year, but the
majority of our cows freshen in the spring and early summer, and we don’t
normally freshen any animals from December thru February. Our herd health
strategy basically involves keeping our soils healthy and in balance as best
We also don’t push the cows for production and we keep them outdoors all
the time, which helps them stay healthy: There has never been a barn
designed and built by cows. They are meant to be outdoors. We don’t have a
cow in our herd that has ever had her feet trimmed, or that has ever been
examined by a vet for anything other than a pregnancy check. We spend less
than $2/cow/year on purchased feed (kelp), and less than $2/cow/year on vet
expenses (dehorning calves). We did not reach these numbers overnight, but
gradually as our soil health continued to improve over the years.
We became involved with NOFA-NY in its early years, and obtained our first
certification in 1984/85. We had hoped to put in our own processing plant,
but were unable to convince a bank that organic farming was not simply a
fad, and that demand for organic dairy products was sure to increase
dramatically at some point. We were with various handlers from 1994 until
2001, when we joined CROPP cooperative (Organic Valley), where we remain
today. In the early 80’s, time there were no set organic standards for dairy
operations, since all organic farms then were small vegetable or fruit farms.
We explained our entire operation to the NOFA Administrator at the time,
she came to see our farm, and then declared we were organic! I served on
the NOFA-NY Standards Board for a number of years, and our farm helped
serve as a role model for NOFA’s dairy standards.
The biggest challenge we face now involves trying to increase our land
base and our income level so that we can support two more families – my
oldest sons have both decided they want to farm. We have decided that
milking more cows is not the direction we want to go in, and doesn’t lend
itself to true organic production in my opinion. We are going to try to
expand our cash crop sales, and we have begun to diversify into beef, veal,
and pork production.
To be truly sustainable though, farmers need a fair price (namely, parity
price) for their products, and I’m hopeful that organic dairy production can
help achieve that worthwhile goal. As my sons take over more and more of
the workload, I would like to devote more of my time to helping maintain the
strict organic standards that have enable small, family farms to survive.
The past 25+ years have been very satisfying while watching the organic
movement grow and develop, and I hope more and more people come into the
fold, both farmers and consumers!