Engelbert Farms, New York

All photos courtesy of Organic Valley.

Lisa and Kevin Engelbert, along with their sons Joe and John, have run Engelbert Farms in Nichols, New York organically since 1981. The family earns their income by producing milk for the Organic Valley coop, as well as from cheese, meat, and vegetable sales direct to their local customers.

In their Know Your Farmer video interview, Lisa and son Joe discuss some of the non-compliance issues that are allowing big operations entry into the organic marketplace and driving prices down. They also talk about their own fertility and grazing practices.

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Know Your Farmer | Engelbert Farms, New York

Joe Engelbert: And I think right now the industry is rapidly losing family farms – organically and conventionally, the entire dairy industry is suffering from the same thing:

Corporate farms that are overproducing milk cheaply and pushing small family farms, who may not be as economically efficient, out of business.

In July of 2018, our pay price was 50 cents lower than it was in July of 2010- no, 2008. We’re 50 cents lower than we were 10 years ago, right now.

Three years ago we were at an all-time high of $38.50 a hundred (gallons). Right now, $27.50 kinda hurts.

grass fed cows graze on pasture at Engelbert Farms New York

Well, I think it’s the large dairies generally in the arid West that are flooding the market with milk that may not comply as stringently with the organic standards, specifically the Pasture Rule, as we do or small family farms in general.

When Organic Standards Aren’t Strictly Enforced, Honest Farmers Suffer

And also the Origin of Livestock – they are in a continual state of transitioning young stock in. And so they’re always buying conventional, young conventional heifers, and then
transitioning them.

And by the time they’re “fresh” – you know, fresh as in a milking cow, they’ve had their year of transition to Organic.

And all the rigid certifiers such as NOFA New York and Vermont frown upon that and actually disallow it. But there’s other certifiers who are a little bit more lax and let things like this happen.

So I think it’s Origin of Livestock and the Pasture Rule, which requires 30% Dry Matter Intake from pasture. If those two were strictly enforced by the NOP (National Organic Program), in my opinion, the national surplus of organic milk would cease instantly.

And with the cessation of the huge surplus of milk, it would be an immediate increase in pay price to family farms, or all the farms who follow the rules properly and work hard to make an honest living, rather than a corporation that drives on profit for shareholders.

Fertility Practices at Engelbert Farms, New York

Lisa Engelbert: You know, when we first started doing this back in the 80s everybody thought we were crazy, but we really believed in what we were doing. And it’s really paid off because our soils are healthy, our cows are healthy, and these guys don’t know any other way of farming except organic farming.

Engelbert family on tractor

We currently have about 2,500 acres in (organic) certification ranging from grow crop land to growing forage pasture, to grass hay land. And vegetables! Tiny vegetables – small scale.

We frost seed Clover on the pastures every two to three years. And aside from cow manure, chicken manure on the far-away rented ground that we can’t cow manure, and lime and that’s pretty much all we do for pH and fertility.

And really good crop rotations, of course. That’s really important.

We generally go from a grass alfalfa sod, mow it down, grow corn one year, beans, then corn again. And then either put a small grain on it for the next year or seed it down to alfalfa sod again.

panoramic view of crop fields at Engelbert farms new york

Some corn is chopped for forage for the cows and other corn is combined for grain and sold ground and sold in a dairy ration to other organic dairies. We direct market all of our stuff except for our milk, which is under contract to Organic Valley.

Cows on Pasture at Engelbert Farms, New York

We have a contract with Organic Valley to take 100% of the milk that we produce, with the exception of small amounts that we are allowed to divert cheese for our our own label.

We milk about 200 cows. We’re grazing probably an acre to a cow, just for the dairy, just for the milking herd.

When it’s not too hot out they get fresh grass morning and night after both milkings.

When it’s blisteringly hot, which is very unhealthy for cows, we’ll let them shade all day in the barn and give them fresh grass at night. Every night after milking, they go out, to a fresh piece of grass.

Herd of cows with heads down, grazing super green grass at Engelbert Farms New York

Lisa Engelbert: I’m in charge of the retail and the wholesale part of the operation. So I oversee all of the vegetable production. I oversee the sales of all of our meats and cheeses. And the cheese production as well.

We actually recently just bought a big building, it’s an old Borden Creamery, here in town.

So we’re going to move our farm store there and we’re going to put in a commercial kitchen. So we can process more value- added things with our products. And eventually we’re going to
hopefully put in a small milk processing plant there and make our own cheese curds and yogurt, and maybe some fresh cheeses – and ice cream – Yeah, down the road, maybe some ice cream.

packaged cheese curds from Engelbert Farms New York

Organic Farming is an Intergrity-Based System

I think organic is different in that it is an integrity-based system. You can’t, I work for a certifier as well, and you can’t be on every farm every day.

But your customers, once they get to know you, especially when you’re direct marketing a
lot of stuff like we are, you build a trust, you know. And they know that they can come to
our farm anytime they want to.

I tell them, and I tell every new farmer to tell every new customer that comes out:

I said, “you’re welcome to come here anytime.” I said, “our store is open two days a week. If you want to know somebody’s going to be here, come during these hours, but you’re welcome to come.”

I said, “our farm is an open book.”

So “you might find us knee deep in mud,” or I said “it might not be mud.”

We’re a real farm.

Joe Engelbert: 90% of the rules are made for 10% of the people, sadly, and we all get punished because of it.

Linley Dixon: And those people don’t even follow them.

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