Working around the clock to finish harvest
BY WENDY POST
If you speak with many farmers in the area they will tell you that harvest is their favorite time of year; it’s a time to reap the rewards of all their hard labor. But they will also tell you that it’s a time of year when you watch the weather and keep an eye on the time change — getting out to the field to harvest crops at every possible chance you get.
For the Engelbert Farm in Nichols, N.Y., a transition to becoming certified organic producers in 1981 created additional challenges as the fifth generation farm worked, at that time, to cultivate and revitalize the soil in the fields in which their crops are grown.
Owners Lisa and Kevin Engelbert talked about the harvesting time of year, and described what it takes to operate a farming operation as large as the one they own, organically.
In 1848, Kevin’s great-great-grandfather, Edward, started a farming operation in Conklin. Eventually the operation moved to the Nichols area where Kevin’s great-grandfather, Albert, and grandfather Richard Lewis would lay a solid foundation for the family’s farm.
The farming operation in Nichols, was diversified at that time, like many others, with a variety of farm animals that included cattle, chickens and hogs. But in the late 50s the farm narrowed its’ operation to the production of dairy.
Kevin’s father, K. Kay Engelbert, followed family suit in operating the farm, and would eventually integrate Kevin into the operation as well. Today, Kevin’s own sons, 27-year old Kristopher and 24-year old Joseph are working the farm. The couple’s other son, John, is a junior in college, studying math, economics and business.
When Kevin Engelbert, who is a 1975 graduate of Tioga Central, and Lisa (Hiley) Englebert, who is a 1978 graduate of Athens High met, and then married in 1980, they almost immediately transformed their farm into an organic operation - a move that the couple feels benefited their land, their soil, their livestock, and expanded their customer base.
"It was scary," said Lisa of the transformation of the farm. "But it was more profitable," echoed her husband Kevin.
The entire organic operation now spans their 500-acre farm in Nichols, as well as an additional 1,000 acres farmed by the family spanning from Athens, Pa. to Owego, N.Y. This expanded operation is comprised of leased land from area farms such as Rosh Farms in Sayre, Pa. At the land leased from Rosh Farms, the Engelbert’s have approximately 160 steers and heifers that are grass-fed.
On a farm where Lisa grew up near Roundtop Park, 125 steers and heifers are free-roaming and grass-fed as well. The organic crops produced on harvested portions of their land, as well as leased land, include corn, soybeans, and some smaller grains like oats and spelt.
But in describing this transition, which they previously noted as being scary yet profitable, the Engelbert’s emphasized the health of soil as being key.
At the beginning of their transition from traditional to organic, the Engelberts looked at their soil, and knew that much work was needed to revive it.
"The soil was bad," said Lisa. "There weren’t any earthworms - there was nothing - it was just hard and lumpy," she added. "It had no life."
To revive the soil, which was an approximately three-year process, the Engelberts had to immediately discontinue the use of chemicals, and then utilized their own manure to begin the revitalization process. They also began utilizing more clover and oats.
The result is that the organic method of farming has become more profitable for the Engelberts, and the soil, as well as the feed produced, is healthier. "Our land is flat and free of rocks," said Lisa, "and the river soil is suitable for organic." On the hillsides, grass is grown and there is no tilling. "We don’t till on the hill where it would wash away," Lisa added.
Kevin talked of the positive effect that organic feed has had on the farm animals. Kevin’s father went to Cornell University and was one of the first to introduce the use of chemicals. This use of chemicals, according to Kevin, led to an increased incidence of sick cows, and a continual problem with weeds.
"We couldn’t maintain the cow numbers back then and actually had to go out and purchase cows on a regular basis," he said. He further described how a veterinarian visited the farm every week at that time. Today, having a veterinarian come to the farm is rare.
"Our cows are much healthier today," he added. "The only thing we feed our soybeans to are the hogs."
But with fields of organic crops to harvest, and 120 dairy cows, 60 beef animals, 10 pigs and another 90 being raised for dairy, the race for preparing ahead for the winter months is on for the Engelbert family.
Although Lisa and Kevin noted the harvest as being never-ending, they did note that the heavier work begins from mid-summer on.
"Harvest begins in the fall for grain, corn and soybeans," said Lisa. "The time needed depends on how many machines break down." She also noted that oats and spelt are harvested in July and August, and hay begins in May and ends in mid-October.
And with cows requiring approximately 50 pounds of dry matter per day, this harvesting is vital to the farm’s production, as well as its’ livelihood. "Part of the equation of survival is feeding your cows," said Kevin.
In the summer the cows at the Engelbert farm will graze from the pastures, and in the winter they will rely on the feed harvested from the fields.
Ultimately, for the Engelberts and other area farms, the biggest challenge is taking care of all the animals, in addition to the harvest.
And going organic, according to the Engelberts, is resulting in a growth in business as more and more customers are preferring to buy their products locally, and consuming products that are free of chemicals, antibiotics and hormones.
As the dairy program administrator for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA), a position held part-time since 2002, Lisa works with other farms to help them integrate into organic operations.
Because of this affiliation, Lisa and Kevin had to obtain their own certification from the Vermont Organic Farmers, which is USDA accredited.
Through this certification the Engelbert Farm has a growing customer base of organic farms locally, farmers’ markets, and individuals who purchase their organic cheese, feed, and organic beef, veal and pork.
The farm also has plans to open a farm store, and has begun renovations to an area reserved for the retail business at the location of their main operation on Sunnyside and River Roads in Nichols.
They are hopeful that they will be able to open in the upcoming months, and have plans to be open on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays initially.
The store opening will be posted on their Web site at www.engelbertfarms.com, and it is anticipated by the couple that this will bring more customers to them from the Ithaca and Elmira areas. Available at the store will be organic beef, pork and veal, and a good variety of cheeses.
But in the meantime, the race continues to bring in the harvest before snow blankets the ground, and the winter temperatures temporarily halt organic crop production. "The days are shorter, so you lose time," said Lisa of the daily farming hours that typically begin at 4 a.m. all year long.
The Engelbert Farm has already done their silage, has been picking corn in between, and will begin combining soon. "We go with the weather and the maturity of the crops," Lisa said of their production cycle.
Helping on the farm, in addition to their two sons, is Kevin’s younger brother Mort. As a retired Tioga County Sheriff’s Department officer, Mort now enjoys his days helping out on the family farm.
Lisa, along with her part-time work with the NOFA, enjoys introducing the farm’s products to the community, and plans to continue participation in farmers’ markets located in the Triple Cities area of New York. The farm also has products available through 911 Earth in Athens, and four locations in Ithaca to include the Summerhouse Grill.
As a bonus, this year the family produced an acre of potatoes.
As winter nears, the Engelberts will continue to study the weather forecasts, finish chores, and wake up with anticipation of getting into a combine to do what they love to do — harvest.
Engelbert Farms, LLC is a true FAMILY FARM!
Certified Organic by Vermont Organic Farmers
ENGELBERT FARMS, LLC
Kevin and Lisa Engelbert & Family
182 Sunnyside Road
Nichols, NY 13812
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