Mud-flecked roads snake through the hills of Nichols, New York, a sparsely settled town tucked under a bend in the Susquehanna River just north of the Pennsylvania border. Weeks’ worth of late-September rain has left behind soggy pastures full of lush forage. There are no cows in sight in this landscape once dominated by dairy farms—until the road bends through a sudden thicket of trees, plunges downhill, and spills (muddily) out between Engelbert Farms’ milking shed and some cream-colored barns.
There, several dozen pretty, shiny, ombré-coated cows—Holsteins crossbred with Jerseys, Milking Shorthorns, Dutch Belteds, Ayrshires, Brown Swiss, and Norwegian Reds—munch from piles of haylage while they wait for the surrounding fields to dry out beneath a weak sun.
The Engelberts have been raising dairy herds around here for six generations. In 1980, they started moving toward organic, after Kevin Engelbert, then 24, took over the farm from his father and started moving away from chemicals. Other local farmers “thought we were nuts” to abandon a practice then considered essential to dairying, says Engelbert, but he persisted, and in 1984, Engelbert Farms became the first certified organic dairy operation in the country. Engelbert went on to help develop the standards for organic dairy in New York, and later served on the board of the National Organic Program.
Though Kevin has now largely turned the operation over to sons John and Joe, he and his wife, Lisa, 57, are still a daily presence on the farm—manning an on-site store that’s frequented by neighbors; managing a wholesale business that sells organic beef and some cheese to restaurants, wineries, and stores in the Ithaca region and elsewhere; and helping with fieldwork. They recently spoke to Civil Eats about their history with organic dairy, as well as its fraught future.
When did your family start farming here?
Kevin Engelbert: They came to Nichols in 1911. Five or six cows was all anybody had then, plus a flock of chickens and a few pigs and sheep. We owned quite a lot of small little farms 100 years ago, and [my sons] have continued to buy farms as they become available. Counting woods and pasture, I think we now own around 700 acres, and we lease another 2,300 acres within a 15-mile radius of the farm. That gives us enough land to support the families that work for us, plus our 250 dairy cows, 80 beef cows, and the organic grain we grow.
Were there once many farms like yours around here?
Kevin: When I was young, in this general area there were seven farms, with one right across the road, and probably 50 dairies in the town of Nichols. We’ve only got five farms left. Because of the lack of parity pricing for milk and the high cost of doing business in New York, young people have said, ‘What do I want to do that for?’ It’s almost impossible to make a living at dairy farming. Our sons [aged 29 and 33] are the youngest dairy farmers in town.
You decided to convert to organic almost 40 years ago. Why?
Kevin: My dad was first in the area to stop rotating crops. Instead, he started rotating chemicals. We were getting huge yields in late ’60s, early ’70s because of the way my father was farming. When he couldn’t control the weeds with the chemicals he was using, new ones would come out and he’d start using those. Eventually, it killed the soil; there was no life in it at all. I remember in 1979, plowing 200 acres that had been planted with corn three years earlier. I found six earthworms and cornstalks that had never broken down.
My dad was also the first to keep his 120 cows inside—and part of that was because they were so sick they couldn’t walk up on that pasture. It was all they could do to go out to a bunk feeder to eat, then go back inside to lay down. They would get infections in their udders; their feet wouldn’t grow properly; they wouldn’t breed back; and when they did have a calf, they wouldn’t expel the placenta—they’d get milk fever; they’d get sores; they’d seem perfectly fine then just drop dead. We took some of them to Cornell [University] to see what was going on, and they had cancer. I finally realized there had to be correlation between the $25,000 a year we were spending on chemicals and the $1,000 month we were spending on vets trying to keep our cows alive.
Was it difficult to convince your father to do things differently?
Kevin: We experimented with cutting back on chemicals in 1980, then went cold-turkey in 1981. At first, my dad was dead-set against it. It went against everything he had learned at Cornell and done most of his life. But he did make the leap eventually. In the late ’80s, he said, “If everybody farmed the way you do, we’d be a lot better off.” I took that as quite a compliment.
Lisa: When we first stopped using chemicals, we [started] cultivating our corn instead of spraying it. But not much else changed in the management of our farm. In 1987, we started crossbreeding our cows, and in 1989 we fenced in all of the prime farmland near our barns, and started doing intensive rotational grazing with our herd.
How long did it take for you to notice a difference, once you stopped the chemicals?
Kevin: We went from having a vet on the farm every Thursday morning, to every other week within a year, to once a month probably within another year. But it took seven years for me to have enough confidence to sell all our spraying equipment.
Yours is the first dairy farm to certify organic. How did that come about?
Kevin: In 1984, I found the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York [NOFA-NY], which back then was one person. She said, “We don’t have any organic dairy standards; just write down everything you do and we’ll look it over.” Organic certification was just for vegetables then. So I wrote down everything we did—crop rotations, how we treated the animals—and she came out and looked at our farm. A little while later I got a call saying, “Okay, you’re organic.”
After that, I got on NOFA-NY’s standards board and helped refine them. The practices haven’t changed much, except now there’s no antibiotic use at all, and meaningful pasture is required during the grazing season [rather than being “encouraged”].
Did anyone actually want organic milk back then?
Lisa: Right before we got certified, we sent out surveys to every natural food store in New York and Pennsylvania. They were vastly in favor what we were trying to do; people were starting to question how their food was raised and who was raising it. But there was just no way to get it going. So our organic milk went right into the conventional market.
Kevin: I think the first milk we shipped as organic went to Natural By Nature, but they didn’t have enough demand [to take all of it]. We didn’t ship all our milk as organic until 2001, when we switched over to Organic Valley’s CROPP Cooperative. [We still] sell them 5,700 gallons of bulk raw milk a week in summer, and 10,000 gallons in winter.
The price for all milk is so low right now. Do you think organic will be able to weather this slump?
Kevin: I hope it stabilizes for our sake and our sons’ sake. But right now I just don’t know. Aurora [Organic Dairy, which supplies low-cost organic milk to Walmart and other outlets] is building another processing plant in Missouri. They’re going to set up more CAFOs that confine cattle, and [continue to] buy illegal grain from foreign countries. If the government enforced the Organic Food Production law to keep that illegal milk off the market, small family farms would instantly have a market, and they’d thrive.
The Real Organic Project is issuing a sort of “beyond organic” label. Will that help?
Lisa: The USDA Organic label was supposed to be the gold standard, but some certifiers have looked at grey areas in the [organic] rules and [let them slide] rather than looking at their true intent. We actually chose not to have the USDA label on our products; we wanted the quality to be our selling point, and we feared exactly this corporate takeover of the organic industry that’s happening now. But I’m concerned that the Real Organic Project label could create more confusion [for consumers].
Many people don’t realize that “organic” can mean very different standards of milk quality and care for cows. Are there other misconceptions you wish you could disabuse them of?
Kevin: People don’t understand what it takes to farm, how much work is involved, and that farmers need to be taken care of. They’d much rather buy cheap commercial food than locally produced food that’s high quality. But you either pay your farmer now or pay your doctor later—we proved that with our cows.
Has diversifying helped you stay in business?
Lisa: Yes, and we’re lucky because even though our hill ground isn’t suitable for anything but grass and pasture, we’ve got a lot of silt loam river-bottom ground. We can use it to grow enough organic soybeans, wheat, oats, and corn to [feed our cows] in their grain rations and also sell to other organic dairy farms. We also keep a small amount of our milk back to make cheese and sell organic beef.
Kevin: The grain business is over half of our income now, or close to it; a lot of organic farms depend on us for their grain. When the government did away with parity pricing in the 1980s, there was no way to compete; you either had to get bigger, diversify and have another source of income, or you had to lose assets and equity. The government doesn’t think long-term, they don’t think sustainability. As long as food is cheap and plentiful, that’s all they care about.