cows in field

On The Road Again: Five Danes in a Van

Danes Tour Northeast Organic Farms

Rob Moore talking to the Danish visitors

By Susan Beal, DVM, Laughing Oak Farm

Added December 1, 2014. What do you get when you put two Pennsylvanians and five Danish farmers and organic advisors - and all their gear - in a Chevy van and head out to get the scoop on the state of grass based dairy, Holistic Management and planned grazing in the Northeast?

Well ….. lots of miles (1190 between Sunday evening and Friday night), lots of farms (a dozen), lots of amazing and generous farmers, lots of livestock (cattle of all classes and colors, poultry, sheep and hogs), some glorious scenery and examples of the vast variety of land and farming practices in the region, not much sleep – and amazing experiences, buckets of laughter, and the foundation of friendships and collaborations that are sure to span the years.

We jumped into the week at the deep end when Maggie Robertson, a vegetable farmer friend from Clarion County who provides a van service as part of their farm business, and I headed from west central Pennsylvania to Newark Airport to meet the Crew of Danes. We had names and the flight number – and a sign to welcome them – and after waiting for hours for folks to clear customs and hunt some stray luggage that was in another time zone, we were off.
The group consisted of five Danes. Thorkild Nissen and Carsten Markussen work for Okologi, an organic advisory and educational organization. Thorkild is the livestock specialist and Carsten works mostly with the crop and agronomy end of things. In addition to his “day job”, Thorkild has a small group of cattle he is rotationally grazing.

Marie Sogard is an experienced dairy farmer who is transitioning her hundred and sixty cow Jersey herd to holistic planned grazing with the goal of producing purely grass/forage fed milk.
Leif and Sarah Rorbye, father and daughter, rounded out the group. Leif is a long time dairyman who is studying Holistic Management and is grazing five hundred dairy steers on land that is part of a large CSA and Sarah, who recently graduated from agricultural school, is working on her boyfriend’s father’s large confinement hog farm. Sarah stepped in at the last minute, zooming through visas and paperwork, when one of the farmers who had planned to come was significantly injured by a run-away round bale.

After the insanity of Newark, we headed to Maggie’s parent’s rambling stone farmhouse near Oley, PA. Stuart and Ann Kerns opened their home, hearts and pantry to us for several days through the week, and that first evening there was a good transition from the long day of travel. It was just a short ride the next morning to the site of our first visit: Bendy Brook Farm. Nevin Mast met us in the yard and we trundled around, looking at cattle, poultry and hogs, as Nevin told about his experiences transitioning to a rotational grazing system. After a morning there, we were off – headed for Lancaster County and Roman and Dwight Stoltzfoos’ and their family’s Springwood Dairy. Roman and Dwight, both busy with moving stock and building projects, tag teamed with us that afternoon as we saw the diversity on their farm. The integration of poultry and cattle was of great interest to the Danish group and there was much discussion on how to manage for optimal performance for both species, given the very different pasture requirements and influence on the land.

Pushing the envelope of time and distance, we piled into the van and headed Southwest. We wanted to sleep close to Tuesday’s destination – and that meant getting to Chambersburg because we were to spend the day with Cliff Hawbaker at his Hamilton Heights farm as well as at the Emerald Valley Farm about an hour away. Both farms ship to Trickling Spring Creamery in Chambersburg – and we stopped there to meet Joe Miller for lunch and have a personalized tour of the plant (and an ice cream tasting). The Danes repeatedly said they were amazed at how sweet the food, particularly the desserts, are in the States.

The van time was not lost, though. As Maggie drove, there wasn’t much silence. The Danes talked about the farm visits as Thorkild prepared reports for the farmers back home. Much conversation was had to make sure the details were accurate and to answer questions about what and why and how…. One of the very interesting things – and also one of the challenges of this trip – was dropping in to farms without our visitors really knowing what the long-term farm plan might be and without knowing what had come before. We were seeing a snapshot in time and it was useful for me to have some knowledge of the farms we were seeing to help put things into that context.

Cliff Hawbaker did a masterful job on Tuesday, combining his passion for grass based farming with his experience in the continuum of dairying. Cliff used to have a six hundred plus herd, milking three times and day, and now has approximately four hundred twenty five animals on 100% grass and forage, milking once a day. For anyone who has met Cliff, you know that he has a real sense of the value of grass-based dairying – from the economics to the environment to the animal and soil health of it all. Because the second of the two farms we saw that day is transitioning both cattle and land to perennial pastures, it was a stellar example of how change happens under carefully planned rotational grazing, and how adaptations can be made to keep things on the rails.

We headed back to Oley to bunk at Maggie’s folks again with a stop in Harrisburg for dinner. By Wednesday morning, we were all ready for some respite, what with packing a week or two of experience into two days of travel and information overload! We all congregated on the patio at the Kerns’ for a slow breakfast and some long conversation about a variety of topics, from cover crops to Holistic Management decision-making and financial planning.

It was there that we were able to expand upon that very important part of what we had seen over the last two days: how to look at what we’ve seen from the perspective of the Holistic Management view, realizing that this is about more than “grazing tall” or not feeding grain. While Leif has some background in Holistic Management and planned grazing, and Carsten had been at one or two short presentations about Holistic Management, the group did not have much experience with the larger and more encompassing aspects of Holistic Management, including the decision making process and how to determine what the priority for the farmer is and what action will serve the goal of the farm the best. (That will be fuel for another essay in a future issue of NODPA news.)

By late morning, we were on the road again, headed to the Rodale Institute. It seemed silly to be within twenty minutes of Rodale and not set foot on that land so, in spite of the fact that this was one of the busiest weeks of the year for Rodale, off we went. With apologies for not being able to give us a personal tour because they were having two large meetings that day, Jeff Moyer and his crew gave us free rein to explore the cover crop areas and look at their corn planting trials. It was a great visit, and the Danes were eager to see how the equipment was set up to achieve the rolling and crimping and to see the variations on inter-seeding of crop and cover crop.

Danes Tour _danes2

Dairy cows at Spring Creek Farm

Wednesday afternoon was spent with Greg Stricker at Spring Creek Farm. Greg and his dad, Forrest, are part of an active mentoring grazing group and there was lots to see that day. The farm store and species diversity was interesting to see – and Greg also had some pretty nice cover crops started, with tillage radishes as part of the mixture. That provided more fuel for conversation as we piled into the van and headed for New York State. We stayed up well into the night, talking about what we’d seen, clarifying some of the aspects of Holistic Management, and sharing stories of cattle and farms and ideas. We knew it was time to pack it in when Carsten looked at me and said he wanted to know everything about Holistic Management financial planning, including writing a plan, before he left for Denmark!

Thursday morning we headed for Rob and Pam Moore’s place. The weather threatened but held as Rob gave the background of their farm, talked about their experiences with Holistic Management and how it had influenced their farm.

We talked about seasonal milking and the transition to once a day milking and how and when it works for them to make that shift. The time at the Moore’s farm gave us a chance to look at a simple milking parlor set up and also some innovative ideas for waterers for use in sub-zero weather. The Danes were very interested in discovering how farmers in the Northeast deal with the weather in fencing and water movement.

Back in the van, we headed for a potluck feast at the church in Nichols. Kevin and Lisa Engelbert and Liz Bawden joined us, and Lisa Blodnick was there to act as a resource about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), since that’s a specific interest for both Carsten and Thorkild. There was so much wide-ranging talk happening, I’m surprised there was any time for chewing.

There was no shortage of dairy, too, including the full fat dairy preferred by the Danes, and there were pies made by Kevin’s 87 year old uncle, Arthur Engelbert.

Danes Tour _danes3

Sheep at Brothers Ridge Farm

After lunch it was back in the van and off to Brothers Ridge Farm, where Drew Lewis is doing some amazing things with stock, grass and Holistic Management planning. He’s running several hundred head of sheep in a planned grazing system in which the long recovery period and timely moves results in a longer residue – which works brilliantly to reduce parasite issues in the flock. Drew exemplified the generosity of the farmers on this tour. He made time and energy for the group, showing their gravity fed water system, a move of the ewes, and their bale in place feeding system (plus the changes from the previous two years of feeding areas) and a tour of the sugar bush – all the while knowing that they have to process a thousand head of newly arrived lambs the next day.

We returned to the Englebert’s Farm and continued to visit along the feed bunk until darkness drove us to the house. There we had an amazing pot luck community gathering evening at Kevin and Lisa Engelbert’s kitchen table, and then it was back in the van for a ride to Cooperstown. Keeping things in the dairy family, we were headed for Brunner’s bed and breakfast. There wasn’t too much conversation in the latter part of that trip, though. Leif was riding shotgun and I was bringing up the rear and the rest of the crew was doing the napping for us all!

After a way too short time basking in the beauty and hospitality of the Brunner’s farm and table, it was time for another chorus of “on the road again” and we were off on this last day of an amazing week. Headed to Raindance Farm, we zigged when we should have zagged and when I stopped at a small dairy to ask directions, the farmers invited us to stay and make a tour there, too. Amazing hospitality, for sure. Because of the reality of linear time, we took a rain check on that (since the “next time” trip was already in the conversation….) and headed for the patiently waiting Siobhan Griffin.

Here, Marie was able to get her “Jersey fix”. We were able to see how the use of cattle and appropriate rest and recover periods helped remodel the land after the significant flood events of several years ago, and we explored the amazing diversity of that farm. After cheese and treats on the screened porch, Siobhan joined the group as we headed for lunch and then off to Dharma Lea Farm.

Here you need a little more background so you can realize how special this whole trip was and how everything was unfolding in an amazing way:

When the Danes arrived on Sunday evening, I asked the typical “do you know?” question that gets asked when there are tiny threads of connection in experience and geography. My friend and colleague, Byron Shelton, who lives in Colorado and works for the Savory Institute, had done some Holistic Management work at a big CSA in Denmark. So, when faced with a group of Danes on that first ride from the airport, I wondered aloud if anyone had run into Byron.
Leif’s head snapped around and he said he knew Byron and that his cattle were grazing on the land owned by the CSA. Always chuckling at connections, I texted Byron to say I was in the van with a bunch of Danes, including Leif and his daughter. His reply left me gob-smacked: Byron was in Maine and would be traveling through New York the latter part of the week. Did I know the Van Amburgh family ‘cause he’d like to stop there on his way through ……

With that background in mind, one can only imagine what was running through folks’ heads and hearts when we arrived for the last farm visit of this very full and amazing week.
After hugs and catch-up and treats at the picnic table overlooking a view that is not going to get old any time soon, Paul and Phyllis talked about their work with Holistic Management. We headed for the pastures, where they translated the conceptual words about recovery and biological monitoring and such into reality as we looked at the land. We moved a group of cattle, were awed at the condition of the calves and the ability of those mommas to raise such beasts, and also found out more about their Madre Method of raising calves. This was of particular interest to Thorkild, since he’d been exploring that at home.

The next task at hand was to deliver the crew to Brooklyn for their flight out, we took advantage of the daylight and peace at Dharma Lea to unpack and sort out the week and repack the van, so we’d have everything in order for the drop off in the city.

Once again ..… on the road again. This trip was quiet and noisy at the same time. How do you get it all conveyed before we arrive? What do we need to do next? Do we have the lists of information that need to be exchanged, the follow-up to all those conversations that we’d just begun? What’s next?

And then, with a whisper and a sigh - and hugs and laughter – we were done. Life changing.
And Maggie and I climbed into the van and headed west. On the road again.

* Funding for this educational and information-gathering trip was provided through a check-off funded program to which Danish farmers contribute. The funds are not assigned to organic or non organic farmers, but are shared throughout the agricultural sector and farmers submit applications for their disbursement. To learn more about Okologi, go here:
Susan Beal comes from a long background of holistic veterinary practice and is dedicated to providing holistic care for animals and the environment. She also provided educational programs, consulting and coaching for her clients as well as farmers, producers and consumer groups. Susan is particularly interested in whole farm/whole system pasture based ecology, and offers common sense advice and counsel with the goal of health from the ground up – thriving individuals and ecosystems. Susan in involved with providing information and education in Holistic Management, a whole farm/business planning process that considers the triple bottom line of relevant economic, environmental and social considerations simultaneously. Email:, phone: 814 952 6821, Laughing Oak Farm, Big Run, PA.