2018-05-02 / Business

Love of the life keeps family farming operations going

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Despite obstacles, area family farms are forging ahead
By Brian Sweeney

Dairy farming, once a mainstay in the Catskill Region, has steadily declined in recent decades due to numerous factors. Falling milk prices, increased production costs and the steady growth of mega-farms have had a dramatic impact on small farms.

Yet, despite these obstacles, the lure of the farming remains strong for some and the proprietors have adapted their businesses and continue to forge away with the way of life they deeply love. In its Sown and Grown section, the News periodically profiles some of these farms to illustrate the problems facing today’s dairy farmer and the innovative steps they take to keep their businesses viable.

Crystal Valley Farm, Halcott Center

Crystal Valley Farm in Halcott Center is owned by Chris, Judy, Elena and Greg DiBenedetto.The DiBenedettos have been farming in the Catskills for nearly 29 years. Chris recalled that his grandfather began farming in the region around 1920 and his family operated the farm until selling it in 1983.

Today, Crystal Valley Farm is comprised of two farms, totaling 290 acres. The DiBenedettos rent and utilize roughly 125 acres from neighboring properties for their hay crop.

When they began their operation in 1989, the family had about 40 cows and the herd size is currently about 80 cows.

Chris, Judy and their children are the primary operators of Crystal Valley Farm, but over the years, they’ve enjoyed assistance from a lot of supporters.

“We have been fortunate to have had help from extended family and friends, particularly early on as we were getting started in farming. We have also had some excellent young men and women work here at various times,” Chris explained.

“They are very much like family to us and it has been fun to watch them grow and have families of their own. Some of them have continued on in agriculture. Garrett Ballard bottles milk for use two days per week. Other than that there are three of us full time with our daughter Elena half-time,” he added.

Like all successful operations, the DiBenedettos have continually made adjustments over the years. In an effort to maximize the output from their herd they have utilized rotational grazing, for many years, which is an economical way to produce milk.

“For the last four or so years we have been pasteurizing a small percentage of our production and selling it directly to consumers, stores and restaurants,” Chris pointed out.

As is the case with many dairy farmers, the DiBenedettos are concerned about the industry’s future.

“There is a great uneasiness in the dairy industry right now. A market for your milk is not a sure thing anymore. It is nearly impossible for a new producer to find a market for their milk,” Chris explained.

Despite the uncertainties, the DiBenedettos prefer to look at the bright side of their profession.

“There are unique challenges and opportunities in our area. Though our support services continue to get further away, there is a lot of local support for small farms along with a great extension service and Watershed Ag program,” Chris pointed out.

He added, “We hope to continue dairying into the next generation looking for more creative ways to stay farming while making a reasonable living.”

DelRose Farm, Bloomville

Ernie and Barb Hanselman and sons Seth, Kale and Ladd, own DelRose Farm in Bloomville.

It’s truly a family-run operation, with no employees other than some summer help recruited to assist with picking sweet corn and throwing hay.

“That’s the way we’ve operated for the last 38 years, which is when Del-Rose Farm started,” Barb stated.

The Hanselmans milk 60 registered Holstein and Brown Swiss cows, with an additional 70 head of dry cows and young stock. The farming operation also includes about 350 acres that are utilized for growing alfalfa and grass for hay, corn and soybeans.

“Some of our crops are being sold to other farmers and horse owners,” Barb explained. “We also have a small herd of beef cattle that we raise and sell and a flock of chickens for eggs.”

Another part of the farm enterprise includes the popular Hanselman sweet corn, tomatoes and vegetables, as well as The Farmer’s Wife baked goods.

Barb noted that every aspect is important to keeping the business viable.

“We have evolved and added enterprises to sustain our farm. Our sons made the choice to become farmers like us. Having them become farmers is a dream come true. They bring a youthful enthusiasm and new perspectives to our farm that makes us more ready for the challenges that are always a part of farming,” she proudly stated.

Diversity is key

Barb continued, “Our diversification gives us more income streams to deal with the financial challenges that are so real to a farmer. We are continuously challenged by poor milk prices, competition for land resources, declining agricultural infrastructure (because of fewer farmers in our region) and unfair demands of consumers because of the disconnect with production agriculture. And, there are always the unknowns that Mother Nature can throw us.”

The Hanselmans said it often seems that the efforts and hardships endured by farmers aren’t fully appreciated by a segment of the population.

“Farmers feed people. And people need food — it is a necessity for life. Food is not created in a grocery store. It is planted and cultivated and harvested by a farmer. It is born, cared for, fed, milked, and loved until its last day by a farmer,” Barb explained.

“We love our animals and our land and we guarantee the American consumer and others in the world the safest food supply in the world. Our ability to feed our country also provides a source of homeland security to our people. We love being farmers, we just wish that there was more financial security and compensation for the job we do,” she added.

Barb concluded, “It is hard to explain why we choose to be farmers — it is in your blood, it is the essence of who you are, and so it is our hope that we will continue to be farmers for many generations, just as the generations before us were.”

Webcrest Farm, Bovina Center

Edward Weber has been a dairy farmer all of his life and his wife, Donna, has worked alongside him for the past 42 years at their Webcrest Farm in Bovina Center.

As with many family-run operations, Ed and Donna rely heavily on helping hands to keep the business running smoothly.

“We have many people who help us out daily, weekly, monthly and seasonally. We are so lucky to have friends and family who will step in and help us get the crops in the ground, fill the ag bags and barns with hay and silage and step in to milk and help feed the animals at a minute’s notice. We could never do what we do without them,” Donna remarked.

Webcrest Farm is comprised of 280 acres owned by the Webers, plus another 400 acres that they rent. The have 50 head of milk cows, 50 head of young stock and 75 head of Angus beef cows. Over the years, the beef herd has grown from 20 head of mother cows and the dairy herd has remained about the same size. Donna noted that the herd of Angus Cows was added as a source of extra income and they sell the feeders once a year.

Outside work

As the economics of dairy farming have made the business more challenging, more and more farmers have looked towards others means of supplementing their income. In the Webers’ case, Ed ran for public office and is the superintendent of highways for the Town of Bovina.

While employment off the farm is beneficial, the difficulties facing small dairy farmers remain substantial.

“ This has probably been the longest, hardest period of low milk prices we have ever had to survive. We have survived many ups and downs over the past 40 years, but with the cost of our production at $19 a hundredweight and the price of milk currently at $13.49, we are losing money at a rate we have never experienced before and there seems to be no upturn in sight. We just finished our Farm Business Summary and it was mighty depressing,” Donna lamented.

Despite the hurdles facing today’s dairy farmers, the Webers remain fully committed to their operation. When asked how long they plan to continue farming, Donna offered several responses: “1. Until we are so old we can’t do the work anymore. 2. Until we can’t pay our bills. 3. Until the milk truck refuses to pick up our milk. 4. Until Ed sells the dairy cows. 5. Until one of us dies.”

She added, “I would love to see our farm continue into the next generation. There are no better kids than farm kids. They have a work ethic like no others. However, it may be a dying breed. The hours we are working (4 a.m. until 9 p.m.), the worry about making our payments and paying our bills are just about killing us ‘old people.’”

High production costs

Donna continued, “If the price of milk continues to stay below the cost of production, the only dairy farms that will be able to survive are the huge dairies that operate 24 hours a day with three, eight-hour milking shifts where the owners manage people, not cows. They are able to buy all their supplies at wholesale while the small family farms are forced to buy in all their supplies at retail price. They get better prices for hauling their milk to the milk plant.

“In 1973, my economics teacher described it at Economics of Scale. It makes sense on paper, but not when you are trying to sustain a 50-cow dairy for the fifth generation of Weber children,” Donna added optimistically.

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