Thursday, March 24, 2016

Organics On the Rise

Empire Farm & Dairy


While organic farming is growing by leaps and bounds, there is one farm in the Southern Tier that was way ahead of the trend.

Organic potato harvest at the Engelbert Farm
Engelbert Farms in Nichols, Tioga County, began back in the 1860s when the first members of the family came to this country from Germany. The family has been on the same site in Nichols since the early 1900s.

But it was 1981 when current farm owners, Kevin and Lisa Engelbert, began to farm organically. They became certified organic in 1984.

“Before, the farm was very chemically intensive,” said Lisa Engelbert. “Our herd was not well. We came to see the correlation of the extensive chemical use on the land and what was happening with the cows. So in 1981, we went cold turkey. No more chemicals.”

This farm was dubbed the “the first certified organic dairy farm in the country” through a national poll done by ODairy, a message listserv operated by the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance.

Engelbert Farms organic veggies
In that poll, “Kevin responded that we were first certified in 1984 with NOFA-NY. He thinks the survey contacted certifiers, too,” said Lisa Engelbert in an email. “It was determined by that survey. We knew we were the first certified-organic dairy in NYS, but that survey actually showed that we were the first certified organic dairy in the U.S.”

Just what made the Engelberts so ahead of the game?

Lisa Engelbert said she and her husband believe a farm is only as good as its soil. The soil at the farm had been treated for so many years with various chemicals and was not in good shape, she said.

Cows were eating what was grown in this soil and they were having numerous medical problems. She said vet bills were averaging $1,000 a month on the 175-milker herd.

“It starts with the soil,” she said. “The chemicals kill all the microorganisms in the soil and the soil can’t take up any of the naturally occurring nutrients.”

It took about a year — to 1982 — before the Engelberts starting seeing benefits from not using chemicals on their more than 2,000 acres.

In addition to pastureland for the herd, they also grow vegetables and raise pigs, chickens and beef.

“Things started to heal,” Engelbert said.

Today, the Engelberts have 2,400 acres of certified-organic land that produces vegetables, pastures the cows and grows crops such as hay, corn, soybeans and wheat. The cows also are not treated with artificial hormones or antibiotics.

While the number of organic dairies continues to soar, it seems there are still a shortage of them to produce enough products to meet consumer demand.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service organic survey, New York had 13 percent of the nation’s certified-organic dairy farms in 2011, producing 8 percent of the country’s organic milk.

But Americans spent more than $5 billion on organic dairy products in 2014, with double-digit annual growth during much of the past decade, according to the USDA. While this demand increases, the supply of organic milk from co-op farmers has stayed fairly flat for the last few years, Travis Forgues, Organic Valley vice president of farmer affairs, recently told a Minnesota newspaper.

“The demand is huge, especially regionally like in the Northeast,” said Liz Bawden, a St. Lawrence County organic dairy farmer. “The highest demand is for organic dairy products and there’s also good demand for organic fluid milk.”

Bawden, who has been milking about 50 cows with her husband in the town of Hammond for about 15 years, said most organic dairies are small operations since the cows have to be in the pasture most of the time.

“Places like us could get bigger, but they still have to fit the organic standards (pasturing all the cows) and be placed along a route where they can pick up the milk,” Bawden said. “We’re good where we are right now.”

Lisa Engelbert agreed. She said it would be difficuilt for an organic dairy to reach the size of some conventional farms, such as those with 1,000 or more cows. Engelbert, who also works for the New York certification agency NOFA-NY, said there are many (she didn’t have an exact number) organic dairy certifications in the pipeline. 

Becoming an organic dairy is not for the faint of heart. There is a lot of planning and paperwork that goes into it.

A certified organic farm is one that goes through the certification process with an organization such as NOFA-NY. An exempt organic farm is one that follows National Organic Standards, but is too small to go through the certification process.

At one time, most states had their own standards for what it means to be organic. It made things extremely confusing, especially when it came to farmers from one state trying to sell products in other states.

Then in 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture set up one uniform organic standard that everyone must follow. Different organizations do the actual certification of farms, but they all use the same USDA uniform organic standard.

Farms in New York are usually certified by NOFA-NY (Northeast Organic Farming Association-New York). The Engelbert farm was certified by NOFA Vermont because Lisa Engelbert works for NOFA-NY and had to stay away from a possible conflict of interest.

A certified farm can use the USDA Organic seal on its products. An exempt farm can use the term organic, but cannot use the USDA Organic seal.

To have their land certified, farmers must prove they’ve added no fertilizers or chemicals to it for three years. They also have to be sure there is a buffer between the organic land and neighbor’s farmland, so chemicals used there don’t end up on the organic land. And then every year, there is more paperwork to recertify the farm.

According to organic guidelines, an organic dairy herd must get 30 percent of its feed from the pasture. The rest must be organic grain or hay. Lisa Engelbert said her farm’s herd is in the pasture from the end of April to mid-November, depending on the weather.

“Grass and clover — a cow’s natural feed is grass,” she said. “We don’t press them for production. We don’t feed huge amounts. Our production average is 35 to 40 pounds of milk a day.”

They sell their milk to Organic Valley, one of the largest organic dairy product cooperatives in the U.S. with nearly 1,800 farms. You’ve probably seen Organic Valley milk, butter, yogurt, sour cream, cream cheese, eggs, cheese and cream in local grocery stores.

The Bawdens sell their milk to Horizon, a brand within WhiteWave Foods, the company behind Land O’ Lakes and International Delight creamers. They also grow organic hay for their own use and for sale to local farmers.

The Engelberts sell their meat products, cheese and produce at their farm stand and at some stores.

“Pigs are fed certified-organic grains, milk, hay and leftover vegetables from our organic gardens,” according to the Engelbert Farms website. “No animal byproducts are ever fed to our animals.”

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