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The View from Here: Past and present

Mike Gangwer Published on 06 February 2015

We are well into winter here in upstate New York, albeit not as cold as last year. The trees have shed their leaves, which form a deep mat of organic matter on the woodlot floor. The pastures are green in spots, covered with snow in others, and the surface waters are cold and flowing toward New York City reservoirs.

This region of New York, at the base of the Catskills, is an ecological wonder. Forest lands cover four out of five acres, and surface water flows out of the ground in thousands of seeps on hundreds of fields, all emptying into what will become drinking water for the several million people in New York City.

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At one time, Delaware County was home to the largest dairy cattle population in New York state. There is a town here called Bovina and another named Bovina Center. Remnants of dairy farming are everywhere, including many in my office with all things Holstein and Jersey.

A woman across the hall has one of those old ideal Holstein cow figures, surely coming from Nasco decades ago. I visited an old creamery in Bovina Center a month ago; it is now home to an arts and crafts center. Artists and craftsmen/craftswomen practice their art here.

While completing a pre-construction meeting with a dairy farm family, I learned the cows, about 80 of them, had been sold to an Amish family in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

The Lancaster County farm sat vacant for a very short time, as the family there missed the cows they had sold to their oldest son. He relocated the cows to his wife’s family farm nearby. The Amish family had plenty of feed already, and with cows once again, they have a reason to farm.

On this farm here in Delaware County, two brothers milked all the cows and farmed all the ground of about one-third of a section, scattered out as pastures, and on the flatter ground, corn for silage and some alfalfa. They wanted to remain in farming, so they purchased about 60 beef feeders. All sizes and shapes and colors. And all in the tiestall barn for the winter.

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There are hundreds of these older barns here – and for many of them, when the cows are gone, beef are raised. The major land use here is perennial grass pastures, and with the rainfall occurring mostly in the growing season (snow in winter), the landscape is ideal for grazing of beef, sheep, goats and horses – as well as dairy.

Given the terrain here of mountains and hillsides, the obvious landscape is perennial cover so that water from rain or snowmelt, along with ground seeps, filter through vegetation including woodlots, thereby stabilizing soils.

I have learned so much about this part of New York, and the learning is largely the history here. Everywhere are remnants of the past. The old boneyards of tractors and haying equipment, the stone fences of a century ago and the barns, the old structures that might have had a new roof to save them or ones caved in from snow.

There are dozens of barns here with great gashes in them – sometimes entire roofs caved in from snow. I will be on such a farm site tomorrow in a place called East Planter Brook Road in Delhi.

Have I written here that the two brothers are in their middle 50s? Their parents still live in the main house, and while I have met them only once, they had an entire life of hard work on this farm. I do not know how they feel about the dairy herd being gone. I do know the two sons, these two brothers, are tired with a slow gait, sore knees and a weariness about them. I can see it on their faces.

We are building a structure on the farm, and the work will continue. The fact is, animals are here – whether dairy or beef does not matter. Both excrete manure that has to be contained.

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Now then, such a story of a dairy herd sale is more than just a story of shifting the animal species to beef from dairy. It is about the life cycle of a dairy farm; a topic I have and others have written about for years. To wit, I posit here that the deciding factor for this sale was not a financial one but simply the lack of a younger-generation son or daughter to take over.

We all know any measure of an industry in terms of vitality is a function of young people coming into the industry. Countless times in a career of doing this kind of work, it is the human environment, or what we might call the farm family, that is the most important part of the family farm.

Here in Delaware County, no different than anywhere else, the dairy farms with cows are dairy farms with young people engaged in the farm family. The dairy farms without cows, like this one, even with beef, are ones without young people engaged in the farm family. Yes, there are exceptions, of course. But they are few and far between.

I often claim that in our technical work, we need a rural sociologist to help us understand this farm family dynamic. Recently, I attended a CAFO Road Show meeting in eastern New York, a town called Ballston Spa.

There were 150 landowners there, most of them dairymen and most milking hundreds of cows. While the discussion was all about the writing of a new general permit, I found myself thinking about what a rural sociologist might tell the group.

Something that I know is more important than the technical aspects of winter spreading, facility storage, hydraulic risk and nutrient loading. And there are simply the dynamics of the farm family. There were few younger people here, and very few women. I wonder why.

I have been away from Cascade Dairy in Parkdale, Oregon, now for 24 years. And in these years, working on what must be thousands of dairy farms all over the world, the commonality of multiple generations of farms, the equity transfer to the younger from the older, is so essential that I am caused to write about the importance of the farm family.

I do not have formal training in farm or rural sociology, but I know that others do. I am convinced that our industry is full of technical people and we are surrounded by technological advances and big data – to the extent we can barely keep up.

In my own agency, NRCS, we pride ourselves in technical development – science-based through our conservation practice standards, conservation planning and our soil survey. May I suggest to my readers that this effort is but a part of the whole.

What remains left to do, and I suggest is sorely needed, is a thorough discussion about inviting young people into our industry, or those that are a part of a family, wanting them to remain on the farm.

Yes, the New York cows are now Pennsylvania cows. Milk is still produced. But I am certain that on the Amish farm in Pennsylvania, a young family, perhaps the younger brother of the one with his own cows now, is milking a herd of 80 cows in a tiestall barn while his wife is feeding the calves. Or maybe she is milking them … PD

  • Mike Gangwer

  • Agricultural Scientist
  • USDA-NRCS
  • Email Mike Gangwer

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