Engelbert Farms: Organic Resurrection
27 Dec, 2010
As seen in documentaries like Food, Inc., it is clear that something has gone very wrong with “conventional” farming methods. Today crops are low in nutrients, plagued by pests, and showered with herbicides, fungicides and pesticides. Animals are treated in the least humane ways economically possible, and propped up with antibiotic and drug use in an effort to keep them marketable.
This is the story of one farm that survived a near-death experience—but revived by going organic.
A Family Tradition
The Engelberts have been farming for what would be, to anyone, a long time. “My great-great-grandfather came over from Germany in 1848 and started farming in the Southern Tier area of New York State,” Kevin Engelbert told Organic Connections. “My sons represent the sixth generation that has been farming with the Engelbert surname. We’ve been on our current property in Nichols now for almost a hundred years.”
All farms have their ups and downs, from weather, pests and numerous other factors. But it was an innocent belief in the latest agricultural “science” that eventually brought this farm to the brink of extinction.
The Impact of “Modern” Farming
“The story starts with my dad coming back from Cornell University in the late 1940s,” Engelbert related. “He was always a maximized-yields type of person: get high production out of his cropland and high production out of his dairy cows. He was the first farmer in the area to start using chemicals—herbicides, pesticides, insecticides, chemical fertilizers and other synthetics. He was first to stop cultivating his fields, and also the first to stop rotating crops, which helps control bugs and diseases.
“The information my dad got wasn’t just coming from Cornell—it was in magazines and everywhere at the time. If you wanted to compete, if you wanted to be more efficient, you had to grow, and to do that you had to start using these herbicides. Back then they cultivated corn two rows at a time, where they could go down and through with a 20-foot-wide sprayer, moving five times as fast and covering ten times as much acreage. They could increase their acreage and accomplish a lot more, and it was just a one-time pass; so they could go through and spray and that was it—they didn’t have to worry about it for the rest of the year.
“To start with, it was great because these soils had never been exposed to anything like that. They were still healthy and it took a few decades before we really began seeing the true impact of the use of chemicals.”
When that impact was realized, it was a hard lesson. “I graduated from college in ’79 and started looking things over,” Engelbert continued. “That summer we had to buy 21 bred heifers—not to expand, but to simply maintain our cow numbers. We had reached a point where we couldn’t keep cows alive. We couldn’t grow good crops to feed them; we had velvetleaf, which is a weed, in our corn and we had yellow nutsedge that took over our alfalfa fields. In the spring of 1980, I plowed 200 acres of ground and found only six earthworms in that entire 200 acres. We just turned over hard, hard lumps of soil. The soil was dead—there was no life to it at all. The chemicals had killed it. And we were seeing the impact those same chemicals had on our cows.”
In an effort to keep the cows healthy, a fortune was being paid to veterinarians. “In 1980, we were spending $1,000 a month on vet bills. In the late sixties, a lot of health problems had started in the herd, and my dad finally convinced the vet to schedule a weekly visit without his having to call him. He would come every Thursday morning as soon as his emergencies were taken care of. While the vet was treating cows—infusing their uteruses and giving them hormone shots, trying to make them come in heat, and whipping up mastitis treatments because they were getting infections all the time in their udders—his driver was trimming cows’ feet, popping abscesses and wrapping them. A thousand dollars a month trying to keep animals alive—and we weren’t able to do so.
“In August of 1979, just after I had purchased the 21 bred heifers, I happened to tell my grandmother, at one of our gatherings, that I had borrowed money to go buy them,” Engelbert recalled. “Just being out of college, I thought that was a pretty big deal and was expecting a pat on the back. Instead, she looked at me kind of disgusted and said, ‘Huh! All I know is when your grandfather and I were running the farm, we had bred heifers to sell every year. Sure made a difference on our bottom line.’
“I got thinking about that. We had just spent $21,000 to buy 21 bred heifers. What if we had had 21 bred heifers to sell?
“I told my dad that we had to make some changes. Back then we incorporated Eptam, a herbicide, in anything that we seeded into alfalfa. I said that instead of doing that, we were going to go back to a nurse crop,1 like they did 40 years ago, to spur our alfalfa. We did so and, lo and behold, we had a nice crop.
“The following year, 1981, we just quit cold turkey. We stopped using all herbicides, pesticides, insecticides and chemical fertilizers. One of the keys that allowed us to do that was a manure storage facility my dad had built in 1975. Instead of looking at manure as a liability, we could utilize it and consider it an asset; we could store it in that manure pit and then spread it on top of our fields when we needed to. We could spread stored manure on our corn ground and plow it down, and then top-press alfalfa fields with it. That enabled our soils to start recovering their health.
“We were able to start cutting down on our veterinarian visits. We went from having them come every week, to every other week, to once a month, to just coming on an as-needed basis. By 1987, I had gotten enough confidence in the actions we were taking that I knew what we were doing was right. Now we don’t have a vet on our farm except to dehorn calves and castrate any bulls that we’re going to raise as steers. We haven’t had a vet to treat a sick animal in close to 15 years now. There was an absolutely direct correlation between the health of our cows and the health of our soil.”
Engelbert was so certain in 1987 that they sold all of their spraying equipment, and they never looked back. The changes they saw in the soil were remarkable. “In the late seventies when I would stop in the field to fix a piece of haying equipment, about the only insects that I would see were the ones we were trying to kill: potato bugs, leafhoppers and alfalfa weevils. But now when we stop, we see ladybugs, spiders and even toads. The life has returned to the soil. When we did tillage in the late seventies, after we had plowed the fields we would spend hours just breaking up those big hard lumps of soil into little tiny hard lumps. We haven’t done that in over 15 years because now they simply break apart—they’re mellow; they still have life in them. The tilth has increased a lot;2 the organic matter has increased a lot.”
Out to Pasture
In addition to the dramatic increase in quality of the animal feed, Engelbert also moved his cows out to pasture, where they would naturally be. “The cows regained their health by the late eighties with no change in our facilities or practices,” Engelbert said, “but we were still using the barn. In the late eighties we started pasturing again and saw another improvement in our herd health.”
In addition to dairy products, the Engelberts raise several different varieties of meat, including beef, veal and pork. All animals are treated in the same humane way. The farm is certified organic by Vermont Organic Farmers—and on every front the Engelberts meet or exceed organic standards.
The farm is truly a family operation. Kevin’s youngest son is a senior at Alfred University and has promised to return upon graduation. His older two sons have already graduated college and are back. His wife does the bookkeeping and is in charge of the retail business, and his daughter-in-law runs the farm store three days a week. His brother, retired from the sheriff’s department, helps out with field work and delivering grain when needed. In a time when people might be leaving farms, it seems that everyone there is anxious to remain.
“It’s very unusual to have had sons come back to the farm in this day and age,” said Engelbert. “Organic is what has allowed us to be able to do that and has made them want to come back. They don’t know anything but farming organically; my oldest is 28 and it will be our thirty-first year next year, so they don’t know anything but that. They like to hear the stories, but they’re glad that they’re not involved with all those chemicals like I used to be.”
1. Nurse crop: a crop planted in the same field with another crop, especially to minimize the growth of weeds.
2. Good tilth is a term referring to soil that has the proper structure and nutrients to grow healthy crops. Soil in good tilth is loamy, nutrient-rich soil.
For more information on Engelbert Farms, visit their website at www.engelbertfarms.com.