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Homestead Fields, LaFargeville, NY

Dog Henry, Jason Schnauber, Monica Walldroff-Schnauber, Eliana Walldroff, Anne and Ed Walldroff, Oliver Van Pelt, Maria Walldroff-Van Pelt, and David Van Pelt

Added June 19, 2018.

Homestead Fields has been in the Walldroff family for more than 100 years. Ed is the fifth generation to work the land located in LaFargeville, New York, about 100 miles north of Syracuse. LaFargeville is ten miles from the St. Lawrence River and the historic 1,000 Islands recreational area.

During the 1970’s Ed’s parents ran a 200-cow dairy, a 1,500-acre crop operation, and a farm equipment business with Ed, his five brothers, and a brother-in-law. Ed primarily managed the dairy.

After 20 years of doing business together, the family decided to sell the dairy, move the equipment business to Watertown, and exit the cash-crop business. In 1985, Ed and his wife Anne decided to buy the dairy from the other family members. At this time, they also decided to sell their share of the family’s equipment business.

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2017 crop of peas, oats, and triticale

Ed is 64. He joked that his three kids keep telling him, “Dad, you have to grow up.” Joking aside, he is grateful that all three kids have settled on the farm. “From the window, I look out and see all of their houses. On any given day, I might see two of my grandchildren walking down the road.”
His oldest daughter, Maria is an art teacher. Ben, second born, is an engineer. Monica, third born, is an ICU nurse and married Jason Schnauber. Formally a contractor, Jason farms full-time with his father-in-law and is becoming a partner in the dairy. Anne, his wife, works off-farm as a hospital administrator. The farm also employs one full-time and one part-time employee.

They have 130 milk cows and about 80 head of young stock. When Anne and Ed bought the farm, they were milking Holsteins and trying to establish a rotational grazing system. “I got so frustrated with trying to pasture Holsteins,” Ed said, and so he began cross-breeding with Jersey and Brown Swiss. Currently, Ed is leaning towards the Brown Swiss/Holstein crosses.

Ed has invested $100,000 in the last two years rehabilitating the 1970’s free stall; a three-row barn with a 14-feet wide feed alley. The barn is equipped with an in-ground manure system that holds a week’s worth of manure and milk room discharge. Once a week it is pumped into the earthen lagoon. They milk in a swing-7 parlor with a high line.

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Rebuilding the 1970’s free stall

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Reconstructed free stall barn

“It’s a good design with a simple layout,” Ed said about the barn. With trusses beginning to sag and plates and poles deteriorating, Ed decided to rehabilitate the barn rather than invest in a new one. “We determined it didn’t make sense to abandon this facility since the foot print we have is a good one.” The first year they tore down 100’ of the 220’ by 80’ barn. Last year, they completed the other 100’.

“We own 450 acres,” Ed said, “and rent another 150 acres.” Soil types are heavy clays and clay loams, and Ed said, “I would like to find at a least a knob of ground somewhere that has a little sand, but good luck with that.”

“We have shallow soils, ranging from six inches of topsoil to five feet, over limestone bedrock,” Ed said. It is poorly drained and Ed has had little luck with tiling. “Inevitably, whenever I try to tile, I get to a lateral line somewhere and lose six to eight inches of elevation. Then I have to go in with an excavator and it becomes a colossal mess. I have basically given up on tiling.”

His new strategy is subsoiling; he recently purchased a Blu-Jet Sub Tiller. “I think I can take care of the water by sub-soiling. The Blu-Jet is a beast, but it’s the right machine for this job,” he said. Ed intends to pull 20 acres of pasture out of production per year, sub-soil and then re-seed. He also plans on using the machine to increase drainage on their hay ground.

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Subtiller 4

200 acres of their land base is reserved for pasture--roughly 110 acres are rotationally grazed for the herd of 130 milk cows. Dry matter intake from pasture during the main grazing season is 40%. The other 90 acres of pasture is grazed by young stock on two permanent pastures. Calves and heifers are raised without grain until they begin their first lactation.

“As a kid and young adult my family cash cropped about 1000 acres every year,” Ed said. With his cropping knowledge, coupled with the goals of buying less grain and meeting the energy demands of the cows, three years ago Ed started planting 100 acres of high-moisture shell corn.
“The first year (2015) we had a drought in July but we ended up with a decent crop. The second year was the driest year in 45 years and the crop was a near failure. We ended up chopping it for silage when it was four feet tall. It yielded 6 tons per acre. The corn was intended to be my emergency feed supply in an extreme year, and it really saved me during the drought of 2016. Last year, I set aside 100 acres and it was so wet that 40 never got planted.”

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Jason with the new farm pup, Oslo

At 110 bushels per acre, the yields on the 60 acres that did get planted were solid, but Ed said, “I was combining ten days before Christmas and it took me back to all those years messing around in the snow, working in the middle of the night. After that, I decided that I was done with corn.”
In 2018, Ed plans on growing 100-acres of BMR Sorghum sudan. He said, “I need energy no matter how good the haylage is.” By displacing the high-moisture shell corn with BMR Sorghum sudan, Ed hopes to reduce the amount of purchased protein that is needed for a 50-pound milk average per day. He sees growth in the all-grass milk market and is positioning the farm for a potential transition in the future. He also feels that diversifying into the BMR Sorghum sudan will help round out the stored forage supply during a drought.

Similar to his corn rotation, the BMR Sorghum sudan will be planted into freshly plowed sod. The following year, it will be re-seeded to a forage mix with a nurse crops of oats, peas, and triticale. When it comes time to see Ed said, “I just mix all the seed in one hopper and run it through the grain drill.” He uses an International 5100 13’ wide soybean planter with 21 runs. He has two Harvestores (one that is 25’x90’ and the other 20’x60’). The oats, peas, and triticale nurse crop are chopped and stored in the smaller Harvestore.

Ed said they just used up the last of the oats, peas, and triticale mix. The current milk cow TMR is haylage, high moisture shell corn, and purchased soybean meal. Ed said, “Our round bales are running about 1200 pounds. To that we add 1200 pounds of haylage, 10 pounds of high moisture shell corn per cow, and 4 pounds of soybean meal per cow.” The majority of the haylage is stored in the Harvestores but some is in the form of in-line wrapped baleage. In 2018, he hopes to store all the haylage in the Harvestores and will bale and wrap the BMR Sorghum sudan.

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Spring fever

Ed said that he “ought to be able to hit the 14% protein mark with the BMR Sorghum sudan,” and is hoping that the crop will displace the soybean meal that is in the current ration. This is one reason why he sees it as more advantageous than growing corn silage. He said, “Corn silage will never test more than 9% protein. Corn silage is a high-energy low-protein crop.” He also said one goal is to simplify the feeding process and corn silage would involve ag-bags, adding an additional layer of handling and processing.

The other advantage of the BMR Sorghum sudan is that it can be planted in the middle of June, after first crop has been harvested. He anticipates that he will harvest the BMR Sorghum sudan 30 days after it is planted with a second cutting in another 30 days. “Then, you’re pretty much done and wrapped up with it by the first part of September,” he said.

Another driver in changing his cropping strategy are the extreme weather changes that Ed has observed. “We’re in what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) considers a fringe weather area.” In these fridge areas, NOAA models predict that these areas may have a stronger response to climate change. “This winter has been a bit more old-fashioned,” Ed said, “but the last 6-7 winters have been very mild compared to 30 years ago.” About heavier rainfalls, Ed said, “We used to measure rain in tenths of inches and now we measure it in inches.”

Building climate change resilience into the farm requires foresight as does a willingness to adapt to market changes. Homestead Fields was certified organic in 2007; the last year the 80/20 rule was allowed. A CROPP member for eight years, two years ago Ed changed his contract and went with Upstate Niagara Cooperative. Wegmans (a privately held American supermarket chain headquartered in Rochester, NY) was looking to start an organic yogurt line and approached Upstate Niagara to find an organic milk supply.

“Upstate Niagara basically decided overnight not to let that one slip away,” Ed explained. “They needed a milk supply quickly.” Upstate offered producers $4/cwt above CROPP’s pay price, an offer that Ed found too good to refuse. “It was about money but it was also about looking down the road. Upstate is in the position to hang onto their unique piece of the pie due to their relationship with Wegmans.”

Although Upstate’s organic producers have been affected by recent pay price cuts (Ed has lost $3/cwt), the cuts have not been as severe as other processors. At 4.2 butterfat and 3.3 protein, the farm is averaging $37.10/cwt. Ed pointed out that this includes a $2/cwt seasonal incentive that will end beginning with May milk.

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Cheese maker David Van Pelt in the Heritage Homestead Cheese creamery

In addition to changing processors, Ed and his other son-in-law, David Van Pelt (Maria’s husband) are establishing a new branch to the farm named Homestead Heritage Cheese. A 25’ by 30’ addition was added to their current milk house and they purchased a 250-gallon C van’t Riet cheese vat build in the Netherlands. The cheesemaking equipment was bought with a $12,000 loan from the Development Authority of North Country’s value-added agriculture loan fund and a $48,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Business Enterprise program.
“For people who want to pursue niche marketing, I think there is a lot of opportunity in cheese making,” Ed said. For potential cheese makers, his advice was to not invest too heavily in an expensive state-of- the-art facility. “Go small and find your market niche and your dedicated customers. The best avenue is direct sales.”

Fresh cheese curds are the primary product at this point although they just completed an aging room and plan to begin a line of hard cheeses. David completed a course at the University of Vermont’s Institute of Artisan cheese. Currently, he is producing about 50 pounds of cheese curds per week, sold at local festivals and a few retail stores.

At this point, the creamery will remain a one-man show with David at the helm. They hope to begin producing about 200 pounds of a cheddar-style cheese and have teamed up with Zenda Farm (owned and operated by the Thousand Island Land Trust). Homestead Heritage Cheese will produce the cheese but it will be sold with the Zenda Farm label.

Zenda Farm and Homestead Heritage Cheese recently finished constructing an aging room. Ed said, “It’s in the corner of an abandoned creamery that was built 50 years ago along the banks of the St. Lawrence River. Environmentally, it is a perfect spot to age cheese. Because it is so close to the river, there are geothermal characteristics that will carry through to the aging room. I am just finishing up the heating controls at Zenda and I figure that it will take very little supplemental heating or cooling to maintain the aging room at 50 degrees.”

Despite his optimism for the new cheese making endeavor, Ed warned, “Be ready to compete with the Europeans. We’re starting to see small European companies jump into the market, producing high quality mozzarellas, goudas, and cheddars. They are more old-school and very cost effective. They scare me as far as competing.”

“The creamery hasn’t made us any money yet,” Ed said, “but we’ve been able to cover overhead costs.” The milk check provides “the bread and butter,” but he is confident in their product and the growth potential of the creamery.

Despite recent pay cuts and what Ed referred to as an “austerity” budget for the rest of the year, Ed is confident about the future of organic dairy. “Organic is going to continue to grow, even though we’re in a little slump right now,” Ed said.

“With lower prices in place, the goal is that we have to make 50-60 pound of milk per cow and do it with minimal grain. That is the whole game plan with the idea that in the future, if the grain free diets are going to be supported in the market place, I want to be in a position where it might be an option. If the organic price continues to erode, grain-free may be the new niche.”

Ed Walldroff can be reached at homesteadfields@gmail.com.