Working with Nature:
How NY Couple
Went Organic and Brought Farm
Back from Brink
By Lindsay Debach
from Lancaster Farming
The scene is Engelbert farms on a raw January morning. The first milking has just ended, and 100 or so organic dairy cows line up near the barn for their breakfast of baylage and hay, the steam rising from their noses in staggered puffs. Across the way, a herd of pigs waits eagerly to be fed and beyond the barn, the frost-covered fields lie dormant until summer.
Kevin Engelbert and his wife, Lisa, are proud of their farm. Raising everything organically, they sell their milk, beef, pork and produce at their farm store and local establishments. But the pastoral grounds they manage today are a far cry from the infertile, clay-like fields and sickly herds that once defined this generations-old farm.
Kevin’s family has farmed in New York state since before the Civil War. He followed in his father’s footsteps and began working on the farm as a child, then helped manage it after he graduated from college in 1979.
As his father had been taught, Kevin practiced conventional farming methods, using common fertilizers and pesticides for his crops.
“My father went to Cornell, which was very progressive. He wanted to maximize his milk production and his crop yields,” Kevin says.
On the cutting edge of farming practices, his father was the first to consistently use chemicals for crop maximization. The spraying and irrigation also prevented the need to rotate the crops: Corn remained in the lower fields, prone to flooding, while the vulnerable alfalfa and hay remained in the higher ones.
At first, production was steady. But as time went on, Kevin and his father began to experience serious declines in their production.
“I plowed 200 acres in 1979 or 1980 and only counted six earthworms,” says Kevin. “The soil was just hard lumps, almost like concrete. We were spending $25,000 a year on fertilizer and chemicals and still had weedy alfalfa. We had velvet leaf in our corn taller than our corn.”
In addition to a decline in soil quality, their 100-head dairy herd was failing, too.
“By the mid-’60s we reached the point that (my father) was trying to get the vet center to come once a week to examine cows. The whole time they were there infusing uteruses, giving shots, trimming feet and wrapping abscesses, and working up different concoctions for mastitis. By the late ’70s we couldn’t maintain cow numbers. “So, in the summer of 1979, Kevin bit the bullet and bought 20 bred heifers to maintain their herd, which up until this point had always been closed.
“I was expecting a pat on the back,” says Kevin. “Until my grandmother said, All I know is that when your grandfather and I were managing the farm we had animals to sell every year.’ “
After this disappointing reaction from his grandmother, Engelbert Farms would never be the same.
“That winter I started looking at things,” remembers Kevin. “$25,000 a year on chemicals. $1,000 a month on vet bills. Instead of rotating crops around our fields like we used to, we were rotating chemicals.” He knew something had to change.
In the spring of that year, Kevin and his father tried something new. Rather than use Eptam, a common fertilizer, on their crops of oats and alfalfa, they planted a nurse crop with nothing on it. “Just a beautiful clean field of alfalfa and a nice crop of oats and that was it.”
With the nurse crop proving successful, they went to even more drastic measures the following season. “We just went cold turkey — quit everything.” Since that summer of 1981, Kevin saw a gradual increase in crops and herds. Soils became less compacted, and cows became healthier. “We eventually got to the point where (the vet) only had to come every other week, then it was once a month, then it was as needed. “
And today, says Kevin, “We haven’t had the vet here for a sick cow in probably 15 years.”
Even Kevin’s father, who had originally balked at farming without chemicals, saw the results and got on board.
“I was going against everything he had been doing,” says Kevin about the transition. “But, he also was a smart man, and he was realizing, too, that something is wrong here.”
As the years went on, the new methods began to pick up momentum. Kevin proudly recalls, “By 1987, I had gotten enough confidence in what we were doing to realize we were on the right track. In spite of what everybody said, you can farm without chemicals. And so we sold all of our spraying equipment in 1987.”
The Engelberts were certified organic in 1984 with the newly-formed NOFA-NY certifier, many years before “organic” was the buzzword it is today.
“Everybody laughed at us,” says Lisa. “Back in the early ’80s, our conventional neighbors were like: Those young fools, they’re going to be out of business. You can’t grow corn and alfalfa without spraying it.”
They would eventually overcome, but the battle was far from over. Since going organic, Kevin and Lisa were paying more for the hands-on methods of farming it required and still getting paid the same price for their milk. Without an outlet for organic dairy products, their milk was sold to conventional distributors.
“There were quite a few times when I did bookwork in tears,” recounts Lisa. “But we always paid our bills. Even if we paid them late, they always got paid.”
Gradually, they adapted such farming practices as rotational grazing, getting the cows out of the barn and into the pastures, changing crops to reduce flooding, and timing the milk production to coincide with summer and fall calving.
In 2001, after several disappointments, they found a distributor for their organic milk with Organic Valley, with a pick-up truck based in Rome, Pa. They’ve also begun an organic beef operation, and raise organic pork with the excess milk. The dairy herd has remained closed since 1979 and the beef herd will remain closed as of this year. With crops sufficient to feed the cows in the winter and sell at the farm store, it’s safe to say that the Engelberts have come a long way.
“It wasn’t easy,” Kevin says. “I went to bed a lot of nights wondering what I was going to do the next day to not lose the farm.”
Over the years, Kevin and Lisa have played an active role in the organic community, with Lisa an employee of NOFA-NY and Kevin a member of the National Organic Standards Board, a position which he steps down from this month.
“They called me “Mr. No” on the board because I voted against everything and tried to preserve my vision of what it should be.”
Kevin will also share his story at the annual NOFA-NY winter conference in Saratoga Springs Jan. 21.
Today, the next generation takes to the farm, as Kevin and Lisa’s grown sons, Chris, John and Joe, continue the family business. As the boys work the farm, Kevin and Lisa have time to consider future options and manage their current sales outlets. Selling meat, produce and dairy products at the farm store and such establishments as Ithaca Bakery and Athens’ 911 Earth, they still see room for expansion. They would like to increase their organic pork production and Lisa would like to learn to make cheese from their milk. (Currently it is sent to a cheese maker in Bernville, then returned to the farm to sell at the store.)
Though proud of where his farm is today, Kevin never fails to acknowledge the impact of the past. “We had no changes to facilities whatsoever. We couldn’t keep our cows alive in 1980 and 10 years later we were having excess animals with no changes to our facilities, management, feeding.”
Whatever the future holds for this family farm, it is certain that they will continue to uphold their organic practices and hope to educate the public through their products about the benefits of organically and responsibly-raised foods.
The key, as Kevin learned the hard way, was to “work with nature and not try to control it.”
This article originally appeared on:
1/15/2011 2:00 PM on Lancaster Farming
ENGELBERT FARMS, LLC
Kevin and Lisa Engelbert & Family
182 Sunnyside Road
Nichols, NY 13812
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