Morning-Times Daily (link no longer available)
By Matt Hicks, Times Reporter
NICHOLS – For five generations the Engelbert family farm has stood as a beneficiary in Southern Tier New York.
The farm was first established in 1848 by the Engelberts’ German forefathers in Conklin, N.Y. In 1860 at the start of the Civil War, the U.S. government took over the 500-acre plot through eminent domain, forcing the family to move across the Susquehanna River into the area to be renamed Kirkwood. Then, in 1911 the Lackawanna Railroad purchased a portion of the property to expand rail lines while Broome County purchased the remainder to place future development.
That’s when the family purchased a portion of its current 550 acres of land in the Town of Nichols, where Kevin and Lisa Engelbert and their family work to this day.
“Everyone used to farm in this country,” stated Kevin. “Even by the 1950s I think 50 percent had ties to the farm, and now less than two percent of the U.S. population is engaged in farming. 98 percent just get their food from the grocery store. Food has just been taken for granted in this country.” He added that every day thousands of farmland acres are lost to gravel pits and development, and when farmland is lost it never comes back.
“I think this country is very close to becoming a net importer of food for the first time in its history,” Kevin added.
Over the years the Engelbert family farm has undergone plenty of changes, including a gradual shift from diversified to primarily dairy, and most recently to certified organic.
After finishing college at Cornell in the 1940s Kevin’s father became the first farmer in the area to use chemicals such as herbicides, fertilizer, hormones, antibiotics and pesticides to increase production following the emerging national trend. The chemicals enabled him to produce some incredibly high-yeilding crops at the time, according to Kevin.
“Our situation was unique,” Kevin added. “My father, because a lot of our land lies so low, didn’t rotate crops like most farmers did then and still do today. He just kept the lowest-lying fields in corn and the highest in alfalfa because that was a lot harder to establish and more costly. Then we got to the point where we couldn’t grow crops or control weeds, and we started rotating chemicals instead of crops and using them at the highest possible limit we could . . . we still couldn’t grow crops.”
By 1979 their soil was dying, and their animals were having weekly vet checkups and foot trimmings due to failing health. After a winter of brainstorming following college Kevin tried substituting oats as a nurse crop for alfalfa instead of using the usual chemicals, and was successful. From that point the farm documented another first in the area as it fully transitioned to organic in 1981. Seven years later their regular herd checkups had declined to an “as needed” basis.
Currently the Engelbert farm grows and sells field crops, organic beef, organic vegetables, and pork, which can be purchased at their farm. Their beef products can also be found at the Sayre Farmer’s Market, Down to Earth Whole Foods in Endicott, Green Star and Smart Monkey Cafe, both in Ithaca, and 911 Earth in Athens. Their milk falls under the Organic Valley brand, which only collects milk from organic family labor farms.
Currently organic farming is growing both locally and nationally, and Lisa attributes it to a growing concern from people as to where their food comes from. Even still, Kevin warned that some corporations view it as a new way to make money and are trying to reduce organic standards so they may do so. He added that most store brands, aside from Wegmans, produce their organic milk under looser standards.
“They look at organics like a cash cow,” said Kevin, “and they want to be able to fit their industrialized production method into organic.” He continued, “That’s not what organics is about. It’s about returning a fair price to the farmer that grows your food and respecting them and respecting the lands and creating something sustainable.”
Under current restrictions farms have to graze their cows from spring to fall and are not allowed to confine their animals. Additionally, the land must not have had any chemicals used over a three-year period, and operations are subjected to annual inspections along with random spot inspections.
Kevin helps fight against the reduction of these standards as a member of the National Organics Standards Board. Lisa also has her hands deep in organics through her work with Northeast Organic Farmer Association of New York, an organic certification agency.
Even though the Engelberts have been able to maintain a farm through five generations and over 150 years, Kevin admitted that farming is a hard life.
“This country takes its food for granted, so farmers are kind of a forgotten entity, so to speak. That’s why you see so many farms continue to sell out, even here. We’re the closest farm along the Susquehanna River to Binghamton.”
Although his two oldest sons have chosen to keep the tradition going, Kevin and Lisa noted that they wouldn’t blame them if they didn’t want to.
“Farming is something you have to love it to do it,” said Lisa. “It has to be in your blood, and it’s such a tradition in the Engelbert family.”
As for the visible future of the Engelbert farm, Lisa noted that they’re hoping to increase direct marketing of their products to consumers.