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by Dorothy Crane   

Summer 2007   

Rich Biezynski’s chickens at Northwind Farm may have the best view in Dutchess County. From not quite the highest spot on Kerley Corners Road above Tivoli, the land continues to climb towards the west, where the Catskills turn dark blue in the fading light each evening. It’s a view I’d love to have from my living room, but Rich would prefer that it remain solely for his chickens, his pheasants, his ducks, his turkeys, his pigs, and his recently acquired British White and Angus cross-bred beef cattle.

Rich is one of the small livestock farmers I interviewed on my ramble through local farmland here in the mid- Hudson Valley, where small livestock farming has a tradition that predates Chancellor Robert Livingston’s shipment in 1802 of four Merino sheep from Spain to his Clermont estate in Columbia County so he would no longer need to import fine cloth from Europe. The resulting flock also built up the soil depleted by his tenant farmers’ crops and supplied meat for his family. In those days—before cans, flash frozen foods, and refrigeration—the only meat and dairy products available were the ones grown nearby. Over the past few years, as I’ve begun to eat more naturally grown, locally produced meat, milk, and cheese (not unlike those the Livingstons produced themselves), I’ve discovered that although the Livingston family had fewer choices for dinner, their roasts probably tasted better than the meat I find in the supermarket today.

Several miles south of Northwind, and just one-half mile from the Rhinebeck village store that sells imported cigars, Bernhard and Bentley Scholldorf, father and son, milk 45 Holstein cows twice a day, 365 days a year, on the last dairy farm in Rhinebeck. Their cows, like Northwind’s chickens, also have a view of the Catskills. Over the kitchen table in the brief lull after the morning chores, but before the cows are brought in for the afternoon milking, Bernhard and Bentley Scholldorf describe just how much things have changed in the past 50 years. Bernhard, almost 78, has a twinkle in his blue eyes and one of the most wonderful smiles I’ve ever seen. He sighs and shakes his head as he tells me—in a German accent that hasn’t faded—that there were 287 dairy farms in Dutchess County when he came here in 1952 to work on his Uncle Karl’s farm. By 2002 there were just 34 dairy farms left in Dutchess County, down from 55 in 1997. (The picture was slightly better in Columbia County, where the fall was from 87 dairy farms in 1997 to 54 in 2002. In Ulster County, the number of dairy farms has declined to a mere 15.)

The Scholldorf land is a developer’s dream—close to the village, a view of the mountains, just waiting to be divided into parcels for homes with large picture windows for the sunset. The prices for properties like this and even smaller, less spectacular ones, increased by over 65% between 2000 and 2004. While the real estate market may have flattened recently, there is no indication that this trend will reverse.

The Hudson Valley is blessed with some of the richest agricultural soil in the country. Almost everyone wants the open space, the cleaner air and the safe, tasty food that its soil can produce, yet we become dangerously annoyed when stuck behind that snail-slow tractor the farmer drives to work. It’s easy to take for granted our area’s small farms until we realize the role of the farmer and his or her animals as guardians of the land that lifts our spirits, cleans our air, and grows our food. When the small livestock farmer turns his animals out to pasture, he uses the grass, grown by the sun, to feed his animals, and they, in turn, fertilize the soil as they go. Yet this infinitely renewable energy cycle is in danger of being parceled away. "The fields that were corn and hay now have houses," says Northwind’s Rich Biezynski. "They can never be farmed again." All the small livestock farmers I interviewed are confronting rising costs, increased residential development pressure, and the impact of globalization.

Local Farms, Local Markets

Northwind’s Rich Biezynski, who has been farming for 25 years, says his love of animals and nature goes back to his boyhood. "I made a small pond in the backyard for the toads, frogs and fish I’d collected. One day my father sprayed the two apple trees on the edge of the property. When he came in from the spraying he was covered with white powder. The next morning, the fish and frogs were dead. I was scared. If it killed the animals, what would it do to my father?" Many of those pesticides were taken off the market when it was later discovered that they posed an unacceptable risk to the humans applying them or consuming the products they were used to protect. Biezynski is committed to raising his poultry without hormones or routine antibiotics.

Rich sells his poultry, his beef, and his pork at the farm. His products are also carried by Adams Fairacre Farms, which has a commitment to local produce, and by health food stores that have a commitment to humanely raised, natural meat. The local supermarket chains are wary. They prefer to deal with large suppliers who can deliver the same number of chickens—most likely from Maryland or Georgia—all the same size, every week of the year. Every fall I drive up to Northwind to pick up a fresh turkey for Thanksgiving. The number of miles from his barnyard to my dinner table? 11.

In Rhinebeck, Bentley and Bernhard Scholldorf are well aware that their land would yield more in homes that it has ever yielded in milk. We sat around the kitchen table while they finished their lunch of leftover pizza (who has time to cook?), the counters piled with Hoard’s Dairyman and various market reports, as Bernhard fiddled with his suspenders and described how he fought his way through debt, bad weather, and low milk prices to stay on this farm and raise his children. To the uninitiated listener, his current challenges sound like a scourge of biblical plagues. The rising cost of fuel makes farming increasingly expensive. The livestock farmer who grows his own corn and hay to feed his animals pays more for the gas in his tractor; the dairyman pays more for the energy that cools the milk in his holding tank and for the transportation of that milk to the processor. The price of feed has skyrocketed. In September 2006, corn cost approx $2.50 a bushel. Just 6 months later, the price had climbed to over $4/bushel. The increased cost of feed is a reflection of both the increase in energy costs required to grow the corn and increasing price pressure as corn begins to move out of the food chain and into ethanol fuel. Add to the higher price of feed the higher feed delivery charges to cover the rising cost of gasoline. And, the prices of farm supplies, like everything else, creep ever upward. Water tubs, fencing, gates, vaccines, even ordinary shovels and wheelbarrows, have all become more expensive.

A large manufacturer can respond to increasing costs by moving his operations abroad where his labor and supplies are cheaper. Although I can buy a pear from Argentina at my local grocery store, the Scholldorfs cannot move their cows to Argentina to take advantage of lower costs. They want to keep their dairy small and family operated. In the Midwest and California, small and moderate sized dairies have consolidated into large confinement dairy operations with economies of scale; the cows remain in their stanchions 24 hours a day and are given bovine growth hormone to increase milk production.

The Low Price of Milk (to farmers)

The Scholldorfs, like other dairy farmers, are at the mercy of a complicated pricing mechanism that aims to keep milk production high while milk prices remain low. In 2004 the price of milk paid to the farmer fell by 38 cents a gallon as the price we paid at the store crept upward. Sam Simon, founder of Hudson Valley Fresh, says that even with price supports, the farm price of milk (the price paid to the farmer) comes in under production costs. "The banks own the farms," he says.

Simon, a retired orthopedic surgeon who grew up on a farm and now runs his own dairy farm in Pleasant Valley, is determined to give our small local dairies an option. In 2005 he launched Hudson Valley Fresh, a non-profit milk label that guarantees a higher quality, fresher, cleaner bottle of milk. Simon believes that the consumer will pay more for a better product— the seven farms in Dutchess and Columbia counties that market their milk through Hudson Valley Fresh must meet standards considerably higher than those set by the state. Simon uses the somatic cell count as the ultimate measure of clean, fresh, milk. This test measures the number of white blood cells in the milk. White blood cell count typically increases when an animal (or person) is ill or under stress. In the dairy business, it can result in milk that is off flavor. Hudson Valley Fresh milk must have a somatic cell count of under 200,000/milliliter, considerably less than the federal limit of 750,000/milliliter. Hudson Valley Fresh milk is processed in its own tank at Ronnybrook Dairy in Pine Plains and delivered to the grocery store in just 36 hours from cow to shelf. Hudson Valley Fresh milk travels an average of just 35 miles from the cow to the store.

Pork, Beef & Christmas Trees

Hudson Valley Fresh came on the scene too late for Tom Hahn. Tom ended his dairy operation in Salt Point in 1988 when milk prices fell too low to make it worth his while. He moved into beef and pork, hay, corn, pumpkins and Christmas trees. From his farm stand at the end of the driveway, I walked up to his weathered wooden barn complex where I was greeted by a group of boisterous Yorkshire cross pigs, curious and hopeful that I might be there to feed them. They were completely oblivious to their view of rolling pasture set against a dark green tree line. Cows, including Heidi—an 18-year-old Black Angus as large as a truck—relaxed under the barn overhang. Heidi greets the some 2,000 school children that come every October for farm tours during Tom’s Fall Festival weekends.

Tom raises about 40 pigs and 60 beef cattle each year. He sells his meat exclusively at the farm. Although he’s had requests from restaurants, Tom prefers to have many small customers rather than a few large ones. Some order a whole side of beef or pork while others come by for just a few steaks or pork chops. Not only do his customers avoid the additional price mark-up his meat would face at the super market, they see where the meat is raised, who raises it, and how well the animals are cared for. Tom Hahn’s animals never set foot in a crowded industrial feedlot, hock deep in manure. I bought two large pork chops and a rib eye steak. The meat traveled just 15 miles from Tom’s farm to my kitchen.

Not far from the Scholldorf dairy, Pat McLaughlin’s family raises beef cattle on the pasture once grazed by her father Dan’s dairy herd. Pat talks passionately about the land and the soil itself. "My hands are in the dirt. I’ve tasted it, smelled it, felt it, I’m invested in the land." She remembers haying with his father at Wilderstein while Miss Daisy Suckley, FDR’s confidante, looked on as the bales slid off the wagon parked on the steep hillside. And she remembers working the field where Williams Lumber now stands, and how they used to cool off in the shade of a breathtaking grove of birches that stood close to the road in what is now the parking lot.

Lambing Time

On a cold, clear February Sunday I drove out to Wil-Hi farm just north of Red Hook. The large barn cat that met me at the car followed me as I went in search of Heidi and Chuck. It was lambing time, so they were busier than usual. We checked out the 4 ewes with their new lambs in the red clapboard barn. The first three ewes and lambs were doing well and would soon rejoin the main flock, but the little black Suffolk with his mother in the corner pen was having a tougher time getting started. He wore a tiny black coat and there was a heat lamp rigged up for extra warmth. The lamb was still too weak to nurse reliably, so Chuck and Heidi were milking out the mother and bottle feeding the little one until he grew strong enough to nurse on his own.

The Simmons have about 80 sheep—Rambouillets and Suffolks—on a farm totaling 34 acres. The sheep, plus the two goats used to raise orphaned sheep, look out on gently rolling hills covered with stately rows of apple trees. This operation is a labor of love, as Chuck and Heidi both have other, full-time jobs. The day begins at 5:30 with farm chores. They stagger their lunch breaks at work so that they can each return to the farm at mid-day to check the sheep. Chuck and Heidi do not have the time to process and market their lamb. They rely on their location—the flock is visible from Rt. 9—to sell the sheep to families from Greece, Italy, and Portugal who, as Chuck says, "like lamb the old fashioned way."

Although most of us are certainly not willing or able to butcher our own meat, Chuck has a point. Do you know where your meat comes from? Can you see beyond the plastic and Styrofoam package on the supermarket shelf to the farm where it was raised? To increasing numbers of consumers, this matters. Almost 50% of the lamb sold in supermarkets is from Australia and New Zealand. Heidi wonders "why would people want to buy meat from the other side of the world, where you don’t know how it was cared for or even how long ago it was butchered?"

Nearly all the meat we buy at the supermarket is from animals that spent their last months in huge crowded feedlots, without grass, where they were fattened on a corn based ration while they awaited slaughter. American consumers have grown used to the taste of corn fed meat. Yet research has shown that meat from grass fed animals contains less saturated fat and more omega-3 fatty acids than corn raised meat. In addition, large amounts of beta-carotene, vitamin E, and folic acid in the green grass make their way into the meat of the animals that eat it.

On a high windy ridge in Greene County, Mike Kelley’s Icelandic sheep have a spectacular view of Black Dome peak from Dancing Lamb Farm and Icelandic Sheep Dairy. Mike milks her sheep and makes an aged Catskill Mountain Tomme cheese. She’s a committed grass farmer who practices rotational grazing. In her small, white walled cheese room that looks out onto the Catskills, Mike explains that grass-fed sheep produce a richer, more flavorful milk. "I use my own milk and I know how clean it is and that it doesn’t have any antibiotics. It’s important that the milk for the cheese be fresh." She makes her cheese every other day. "Sheep milk just wants to be cheese," she says. "It’s more stable than goat milk, and it’s richer than both cow and goat milk."

Her Icelandic sheep are on the small side (they’re not nearly as big as Chuck and Heidi’s Rambouillets) and come in shades of brown, black, gray, and white. Mike says Icelandics don’t produce as much milk as the East Friesans and Lacaunes, which have been bred, like Holstein cows, to produce rivers of milk. She chose Icelandics because they do well on grass, they lamb on pasture, and they regularly produce twins and triplets. An ancient, hardy breed, unimproved by centuries of specialty breeding, they produce rich milk, good meat, and beautiful fiber for spinning and knitting. Icelandic grass-fed lamb is a milder, finer-grained lamb that comes in smaller cuts than the chunky Australian and New Zealand lamb found at the store. This year Mike is adding pigs (to better utilize the whey left over from cheese making), pastured poultry, and free-range laying chickens to increase diversity. Forty minutes after I left the farm with Dancing Lamb cheese and meat on the passenger seat beside me, I opened my refrigerator and placed them beside the kale and the orange juice, both of which had no doubt traveled a much longer distance.

Like the other small livestock farmers I interviewed, Mike has had to be creative in finding markets for her products. She sells her cheese at the Catskill Point Farmers’ Market, on-line through her website, at Heather Ridge Farm in Preston Hollow, and at the farm by appointment. Her lamb is available at the Farmers’ Market and at Honest Weight Co-op in Albany. She’ll be at the Troy Winter Farmer’s Market this fall.

Mike cares for over a hundred sheep, milks twice a day during the summer and makes cheese, with only the help of her husband, Ron, and an occasional intern. Then she goes to her "day job" as a part time physician’s assistant. The sheep are beautiful, but I am exhausted just listening to her list of chores. When I ask her why she farms, she laughs, "I’m crazy, but it’s the only thing I’ve ever done that makes me feel like I’m improving my part of the planet. And I love the animals. They do much of the work of pasture management. They eat the grass, keep the land open and fertilize it as they go. I could still improve the land without the animals, but not nearly as well." She believes that small livestock farmers, because they have fewer animals, spend more time with each individual animal and are therefore likely to take better care of their animals than large agri-business meat farms. The animals don’t need routine antibiotics because they aren’t overcrowded. And they aren’t given growth hormones because the farmer puts quality above quantity.

The sheep, the cow, the pig, and the chicken raised on our small, local farms not only taste good, they have also helped to enrich our soil and protect our open spaces. And, most likely, they have led a very decent life. If we lose our local small livestock growers, we lose a tradition that continues to give us the option of purchasing delicious, healthy food raised nearby by men and women deeply committed to caring for the soil and their animals. Finding this food takes a bit more time than one stop shopping at the supermarket, but it’s well worth the effort. When we buy local, we become the farmer’s partner in protecting the earth. Visit your local farm and see for yourself.

 
 
Contact: Mike (Mary Michael) Kelley
Dancing Lamb Farm & Icelandic Sheep Dairy
212 Harold Meyer Road
Earlton, NY  12058
518  634-2196