[Kevin Engelbert is a board member of The Cornucopia Institute.]
This article first appeared in The Milkweed
by Paris Reidhead
L-R: John, Kevin, Lisa, Joe and Kris
On May 2, 2014, I revisited the Engelbert Farm — just outside Nichols, New York. I’ve known these organic dairy farmers since 1996, when organic milk production was experiencing its first quantum leap in both production and consumer demand. Kevin and Lisa were the first certified organic dairy producers in the nation. This year, they’ll celebrate the 30th anniversary of that status.
The Engelberts have an excellent website: www.engelbertfarms.com. I’ll summarize info contained on their website, as an introduction to the interview I conducted that day, with Kevin, Lisa, and their sons Joe and John.
Pioneers from the get-go
On their Web site, Kevin explained that his forefathers came from Germany in 1848, and began their family farm in Conklin, New York. That farm was considered to be one of the nicest operations between Elmira and Oneonta, and consisted of over 500 acres… very large for those times. At the start of the Civil War in 1860, the U.S. government took the property by eminent domain, and Kevin’s great-great grandfather, his brother, and their families ended up across the Susquehanna River, still in the Conklin area.
In 1911 his ancestors sold most of that farm to the Lackawanna Railroad, for rail yard expansion.. And the rest of the farm was purchased by Broome County for future development. So that year Kevin’s family relocated to Nichols, where they have remained for over a century. He points out that their farm operation is the closest dairy farm to the west of Binghamton along the Route 17 corridor.
That’s a 30-mile stretch over which every dairy farm all the way east to Binghamton, along the fertile Susquehanna River bottomland, has been sold for development or for gravel mining.
Once in Nichols, Kevin’s great-grandfather and grandfather started buying neighboring farms whenever they came up for sale. These were small farms, because, with the area’s highly productive soils, farm families didn’t need huge acreages to make a living. The Engelbert family now owns about 600 acres: 175 acres of pasture, 175 acres of crop land, and nearly 250 acres of woods. They rent an additional 400 acres of ground suitable for row-cropping, 850 acres of grass hay ground, and 125 acres of pasture.
Land-grant party line
Kevin’s dad only worked a total of 150 acres of crop land. He attended Cornell in the 1940’s, and adopted their prevailing mindset – preached even back then – that high production per acre was most economical. Engelberts’ fertile, well-drained bottomland is also very prone to flooding. Newly emerging chemical weed and pest controls enabled Kevin’s dad to keep the low-lying fields in continuous corn, while keeping the higher elevation ground in continuous hay/alfalfa production. (Academics praised monoculture back then as the most efficient crop management method.) Kevin’s dad irrigated, fertilized heavily, waging chemical war on weeds and pests. And he grew some incredibly high-yielding crops.
By the time Kevin graduated from college in 1979, some serious problems were surfacing on their farm. The tractor power requirements for mold-board plowing became excessive. Their soils had become rock hard and plowed up as blocks of compacted, lumpy, lifeless, dirt. The Engleberts could no longer grow high-yielding, weed-free crops. This situation faced Kevin and Lisa, despite the fact that they rotated chemicals, using herbicides at the highest recommended levels.
Total annual chemical bills ran over $25,000. And monthly vet bills ran about $1,000. Due to the increasing herd health problems, Kevin’s dad was the first in his area to start weekly herd-health checks a few years earlier.
What made Kevin realize that the “correct” practices weren’t working was the need to purchase 20 bred heifers in the summer of 1979. Although he thought purchasing heifers was a sign of progress, his grandmother opened his eyes forcefully when she learned that he had to purchase heifers to maintain cow numbers. Kevin recalls her words, “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!”
Quiet … and permanent … revolution
The winter of 1979-1980 Kevin came to the (at last) obvious conclusion that there must be a connection between the amount of money they were spending on agricultural chemicals and all all the soil and animal health problems they were experiencing. So in 1980, they used oats as a nurse crop for alfalfa seedings… instead of clear seeding with Eptam. Contrary to “experts’” predictions, the Engleberts had a good crop of oats and a nice stand of alfalfa. This small experiment galvanized Kevin’s decision to farm very, very differently: In 1981 they stopped using chemicals cold-turkey…forever.
Within seven years, their herd health checks had gradually been reduced to an “as-needed” basis, and Kevin sold all their spraying equipment. Again, contrary to the “experts”, they have witnessed the truth about soil health, plant health, animal health, and, ultimately, human health. Changing their rotational hay crop from pure alfalfa to a mixture of orchard grass, clover, and alfalfa strangely made their farm a little less vulnerable to flooding. They learned that the more you work with Mother Nature, the more successful you will be in the long run, with your crops and animals.
Kevin openly praises rotational grazing, which they started in the late 1980s, as key to achieving these successes. Getting the cows out of the barn and off concrete was another epiphany moment, as they soon learned that that managed grazing would become a key element in their long-term sustainability. Herd health had been continuously improving once they converted to organic crop production… and even more once serious grazing programs became routine.
Engelberts have evolved their dairy into seasonal milk production, to time their peak milk production with peak pasture production. They do milk year-round, but the majority of their cows freshen in the spring and summer; rarely do they freshen any animals from December thru February. He insists that their herd health strategy basically involves keeping their animals outdoors year-round and keeping their soils healthy and in balance to the best of their ability.
Early birds for third-party organic certification
The Engleberts became involved with NOFA-NY (Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York) in its early years, and obtained their first organic certification in 1984/85. They hoped to build their own small dairy processing plant, but couldn’t convince a bank that organic farming was anything more than a flash-in-the-pan fad. Lenders couldn’t be convinced that demand for organic dairy products would increase at some point.
Kevin and Lisa shipped milk to various handlers from 1994 until 2001. Then they joined Organic Valley co-op, where they still continue to ship most of their milk.
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. Kevin and Lisa explained their entire operation to the current NOFA Administrator at the time; she visited their farm, then declared that Engelbert Farms was organic. Kevin served on the NOFA-NY Standards Board for a number of years, and their farm helped serve as a role model for NOFA’s dairy standards.
Kevin and Lisa believe that the biggest challenge now facing them involves trying to increase their land base and their income level so that they can support two more families: their two youngest sons, Joe and John, have both decided they want to farm, so they decided to expand their cash crop sales, as well as to diversify into beef, veal, pork and cheese production.
And very importantly, start retailing home-grown organic foods an on-farm store… thus hopefully maximizing on-farm value addition.
Questions & Answers with Kevin and Lisa
So, having studied Engelbert’s history, as my own homework assignment, I asked many questions (and took lots of notes).
Q. How many cows are you milking?
Lisa: First of all, Kevin and I changed the business arrangement so that our sons Joe and John have taken over the dairy operation. This change-over occurred on September 1, 2010. So they’re the ones managing approximately 130 cows (including dries), plus 45 bred heifers, 90 six months to breeding age heifers, and twelve heifer calves. Joe and John own all the cows and equipment, and are responsible for all the decisions. Our son Kris works off the farm full-time, but he still helps when he can, particularly during cropping season. Exactly one year after the boys took over, the flood of 2011 struck.
Q. So the flood struck during the hundredth anniversary of your family being at this location. Would so describe how bad it was?
River bottom land west of Binghamton, New York:
severe flooding crested at the Engelbert Farm on
September 1, 2011.
Kevin: We lost 80% of all our crops. The rental ground at higher elevation, about fifteen miles away, fortunately faired much better than the home farm. The flood water level was over this ceiling (pointing the ceiling of their farm store where we were all standing). When you have a disaster like 2011, it’s amazing how many folks chipped in to help, and how generous they were, donating lots of round bales… even, without being asked, presenting the necessary organic paperwork that must accompany crop sales… and crop donations.
Q. You had a bad flood in 2006. Why was 2011 so much worse?
Kevin: We had a lot more rain than five years earlier… some places around here got up to 20 inches in little over a day. But another very serious factor is the fact that the state Department of Environmental Conservation… with very few exceptions… prohibits stream and river beds from being dug out so as to maintain depth to the bottom. This seriously reduces the water carrying capacity of creeks and rivers, greatly increasing the likelihood of major floods. And we border the Susquehanna River. Mother Nature wasn’t entirely to blame in 2011.
Q. Would you describe your crop program please?
Kevin: We have 70 acres of winter wheat, which is coming on slowly, due to the cold spring, but looks good otherwise. We plan to plant 250 acres of grain corn, 15-20 acres of silage corn, 950 acres of hay ground (harvested mostly as baleage). We try to put up about 1,000 small squares of mostly alfalfa, and the same amount of grass hay. Yesterday we just seeded 20 acres of hay ground. We’re way behind this spring, so we need the rest of spring weather to behave, and we need our equipment not to break down.
Q. I see your cattle bear the “rainbow” look so common to organic dairy herds. What’s the genetic make-up of your herd?
Kevin: Over the years we have bred with just about every dairy breed except Guernsey. For us the best breed is Milking Shorthorn. We use AI as much as possible, then use a purebred Shorthorn bull for back-up. The other part of the breeding is largely New Zealand Holstein and red breeds from Europe. This genetic package yields high solids… great for making cheese.
Q. Do you make the cheese here?
Lisa: The milk is made into cheese at Lively Run Goat Dairy up in Interlaken. They come and get the milk about once a month in the spring and summer, using a trailer-mounted refrigerated tank.
Then I go pick up the cheese when it’s ready, also every couple weeks, usually. I also take products to the green market in Ithaca on that run. Our making cheese with small amounts of our milk has been OK with Organic Valley, because we’re making more exotic types of cheese that they don’t make like Gouda, flavored Cheddars and a spreadable soft cheese we call MooVache. .
Q. Speaking of NOFA-NY, you work for them part-time. So where is Engelbert Farms certified?
Lisa: Our farm is certified with Vermont Organic Farmers, which is the certification branch of NOFA-VT. This separation is absolutely necessary in order to avoid any conflict of interest issues. Lively Run Goat Dairy is also currently certified by Vermont Organic Farmers to process organic cheese for us.
Q. Would you describe your dairy cow feeding program?
Kevin: 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 haylage and 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.
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, we rarely need a vet for anything other than pregnancy checks. We spend less than $2/cow/year on 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.
Q. 250 acres of grain corn is an awful lot more than what you dairy needs. Where does the rest of it go?
Lisa: We run a small certified organic feed grain business, supplying about twelve customers, most of them small local organic dairy farmers; there are some very small non-certified customers who just want to feed their few animals organic grain. Our complete grains are mostly shelled corn, with some of our roasted soybeans, ear corn, wheat and / or oats, salt and minerals mixed in. We use a pto ginder mixer to make our rations.
Q. In your Web site you mentioned that are working to increase your land base in order to support more families. What kind of progress have you made toward that goal?
Joe: We are purchasing about 300 more acres from a neighboring farm family that wants their land to stay in agriculture. This acquisition brings the total land that we own to 900 acres.
Q. You mentioned beef and pigs. How big are those enterprises?
Lisa: Right now we have 58 beefers, all started from within our dairy herd by breeding first-calf heifers to beef bulls, then keeping the heifers to be bred back to beef bulls and raising the steers for beef. This is the first year we’ll do farrow-to-finish with two sows. We’re selling organic meats in our farm store, as well our cheeses. In the summer we also sell organic vegetables that we raise, but that isn’t our main focus. The eggs come from another local farmer, who buys our organic chicken feed, and we carry local honey, syrup and jelly.
Q. Any closing comments?
Kevin: As you can see, Engelbert Farms has been managed organically for more than a third of a century. But 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!
I thanked Kevin, Lisa, Joe, and John for their time and insight. As I left they gave me two packages of cheese: one of Feta, and one of Lemon Thyme MooVache.