cows in field

Liz Bawden, NOFA-NY Farmer of the Year Address, January 20, 2024

By Liz Bawden, NODPA Board member and Past President and Co-President

Liz Bawden with her husband Brian, her son Nathan and daughter-in-law, Courtney

I am so grateful, and humbled, and quite frankly, stunned to receive this award. I find myself thinking of some of the great farmers that have done exciting, new and thoughtful things who have graced this platform at previous Winter Conferences and in other conferences like this. I know how much I learned from those early movers and shakers in organic farming and I am so grateful for the farmers in this sharing community that helped us all learn and grow to be better stewards of the land and caretakers of our animal partners. I sure don’t feel like I measure up to some of these folks, but I will try and give you an idea of how we got here and what we learned along the way.

To be honest, farming wasn’t my first choice as a career option. As a suburban kid from western Massachusetts, I grew up rambling over the hills and valleys, mountains and swamps. I was bound for a career as a naturalist. And that’s exactly what happened. After a degree from UMass in Amherst, I moved around for the next decade or so from a Children’s Museum in Connecticut to the Dallas Nature Center in Texas, to the Conservation Authority in Toronto, teaching school kids and park visitors. I bought my first farm in Canada – it was just 50 acres, had a small barn, and a couple of terribly neglected hayfields. It was all I could afford, and it was really far from my job, but I had this dream to raise cashmere goats and Shetland sheep. A footnote here: by this time in my life, I had become quite a textile geek – sheared sheep, spun my own yarn, kitted my own sweaters and socks and everything, and had a really big weaving loom in my really small living room. My Dad just said, “Do you have any idea how hard your grandparents worked to get off of the farm?”

So, honestly, I became a dairy farmer when I married one. Brian was a nice Canadian guy, a third-generation dairy farmer going it on his own. We pooled our minimal resources and moved to a farm at Conn in Ontario where we stayed for three years, starving to death because we didn’t have Canadian milk quota, so were selling milk from our 20 or so cows on the world market. By the time we left Canada, we were getting about $5 per cwt. And so we made the decision to move to New York because we could not see a future for us in Canada. Brian visited over 40 farms in the north country, and we chose this one. It was the cheapest one, and had been vacant for 26 years, rented out to neighboring farms as extra pasture and hay land. After a year, we were just beginning to get our feet under us when Brian unearthed an old brochure on what was called “ecological farming”. That’s what they called organic back then. The milk coop’s field rep happened to be at the farm that day, and we asked if there was such a thing as an organic milk market. Well, a representative from Horizon Organics appeared in the driveway the very next day, and we began our journey into organic dairying. That was 24 years ago. Our neighbors thought we were nuts.

The tie-stall barn on the farm was built in 1900 and it needed work: over the next few years we gutted the barn, replacing the stalls and improving cow comfort; we replaced the walls and windows of the stable; replaced most of the roof; poured a concrete barnyard. The fields had been neglected for years as well. We grew and harvested all the forages for the cows, but bought an organic grain mix. Brian had always grown small grains like oats and barley back in Canada, so we tried that for years here. The heavy clay, often shallow over the flat rock, was not very forgiving if weather conditions were not exactly right for the planting of small grains in the spring. Every year we were convinced that if we only found the right crop variety (and sure, some were better suited to our area than others) or if we could only get a better grain drill or combine or swather…. Then our goal of becoming self-sufficient in feeding our cows would come true. But it never really worked out that way. We continued our grain mixes, blending together oats, barley, buckwheat in the grain drill, sometimes with wheat and peas or soybeans. And we grew corn for silage. Growing the corn was easy; getting it off in October was not. Clay soil takes a long time to dry out enough to be worked and fitted to plant in the spring, and early fall rains can saturate them again. Some years we had a wonderful crop but couldn’t get it off. Other years, poor germination let in the ragweed. So one year we just stopped planting crops. Because we finally learned the one thing that this land likes to do is to grow grass. That was the first big thing we learned.

I believe that the biggest hurdle for livestock farmers transitioning to organic is learning to adopt organic health care treatments. It’s a whole new set of protocols and products and strategies to learn, and it’s extremely stressful along the way since you don’t yet have the same level of confidence in the new strategies. Over the years, we experimented with what worked, what didn’t work, and (perhaps the hardest part) determining the line when an animal requires the prohibited drugs, and you’re just saving a life at that point. I remember some great advice from Dr Hue Karreman who told me if I’m treating a calf with pneumonia that still gets up to drink its milk – you’ll be able to bring that calf around with the usual nasal vaccine, vitamin C, garlic tincture and TLC. But if the calf remains lying down when you are trying to feed it, you will need to get in the vet for more serious treatments, and just accept the animal will likely end up having to leave the farm. We learned to make many of the remedies we use, making herbal tinctures and salves from a variety of plants. One of the things we found critically important was the community of other organic dairy farmers and vets we could access online through the ODairy email group. I could lay out a set of symptoms and ask the group what they recommend. Other farmers offered advice. Organic vets chimed in. By the end of the day, I would have a treatment plan. That was my introduction to NODPA, the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance. They ran the online listserv, and I became involved with them first as a member, then as a state rep, then as a board member and then as president for over a decade. Through that connection, I met a lot of great farmers, helped to draft organic dairy policies and even did some lobbying in Washington DC. That’s the second big thing we learned: organic dairy farmers can’t exist in a vacuum; we need the support of the community. Because that’s how farmers learn (no offense to Cornell), but we learn best from each other.

Another battle that was taking place during the same decade as all this was in the vegetable garden. My younger self had the philosophy that in the game of life, the “woman who doesn’t have to go to the grocery store wins”, I grew a large variety of garden produce to can, freeze and store in the cellar. My husband was very supportive, as long as he remained firmly in the tractor seat. He would plow, spread manure, run the field cultivator over it. The rest was up to me. In the early days, I ran the rototiller over the prepared ground to loosen it up. It took the big balls of clay and made them into smaller balls of clay, not the nice loamy garden soil of my youth. I remember one spring when my garden bed looked like a sea of marbles – how was anything going to grow in that? But it did. Because it was hard for me to keep a large garden free of weeds, I mulched it with whatever was at hand – a lot. Between the plants and down the rows, in an initial layer that was 6 to 8 inches deep. I used old hay or straw; sometimes it was a moldy bale that unrolled like a carpet. Whatever was left got plowed down at the end of the growing season. So fast forward a decade or so, and Nathan and I were standing in the garden in the spring. He reached down and grabbed a handful of dark, rich dirt. “Mom, why doesn’t the rest of the farm have soil like this?” Well, the answer was simply that we had been adding organic matter to the soil every year – lots of it. We saw that it changed the texture of the soil, and totally changed its water holding capacity. This was a watershed moment. What if we could do this with the whole farm?

We had always spread our manure back on the fields, and when you are cleaning up after them, it seems that cows produce a vast amount of manure. But there’s a rough rule of thumb that Brian quotes back to me that it “takes 3 acres to feed a cow, but she only has enough manure to fertilizer 1 acre”. I’m not really sure if that is entirely true, and I wonder who actually measured it. But if I just take it at face value, we can say that your soil health plan needs to rely on more than just your farm’s manure. We added more legumes to our hay mixes when we seeded down, and spread some chicken manure and soft rock phosphate, but those purchased fertilizers were so expensive, we could only do a couple fields a year. Over the years, we rented an increasing amount of land as there were so many vacant farms in our area. And so we made hay – lots of it. We sold hay to other organic farms and began to see a market for what was called bedding hay – over mature hay that had passed its nutritional prime that was cut and processed in a roto-cut round baler. Chopping the hay up is critical to make the hay an absorbent effective material for animal bedding.

And we had this idea of putting some of this organic matter back into the land here. So in 2019, we built a bedded pack barn. Now it’s not a compost barn – where the pack gets tilled every day, but more a lasagna-style pack where we layer fresh chopped hay over the surface every day. It takes a lot of bedding – at least 3 4X5 round bales a day for our barn that houses roughly 100 cows. So we went from tie-stall housing to a free-housing system. And once they got used to the new milking parlor, the cows were impressed. They got to decide if they wanted to be outside or in, they decided who they wanted to hang out with at the feeders (cows have friends, you know), and in cold weather they like the electric blanket-like effect of the heat radiating up from the decomposing pack beneath them. The pack will be at least 5 feet deep when we clean it out of the barn and is mostly decomposed when we spread it over the fields. Now these are not soil types that you’ll see listed as top producers; these are soil types with names like Muskellunge, Mattoon, and Adjidaumo. There is a lot of room for improvement. So what did we see over the last few years? We pulled soil samples the summer before the barn was built in 2019, and then again, this past summer in 2023. And as we had hoped, soil organic matter was up by a full 3 to 5 points on the fields where we spread heavily. And not only did we see a yield increase, but unexpectedly, we have some fields producing an entire extra cutting of hay when the rainfall hits just right. It was definitely possible to increase soil organic matter over large acreage; it just takes time. That was the third thing we learned.

Sitting on the back burner for a few years was our interest in switching to a grassfed system for the cows. It was pretty scary. We worried that our feed wouldn’t be good enough to sustain our cows happily without the extra energy that their scoop of grain provided. Different cows have very different energy needs depending on their age, stage of lactation, and genetics. Organic cows are mostly grassfed since they eat mostly pasture and harvested hay. But organic 100% grassfed means that they get all their nutrition from the forages harvested for them. No supplemental grain is allowed to be fed. Sure, we can supplement minerals and vitamins, but no grains or corn silage. From the consumer’s perspective, the lack of starchy grains changes a cow’s digestion, and changes the character and proportions of the fatty acids in the milk. Why do consumers buy grassfed milk? Because they want the health benefits of the increased Omega-3 fatty acids, CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), and decreased Omega-6 fatty acids. Cows in a grassfed system produce less milk, but the premium milk price received for the milk means that most farms come out more profitable despite the lower production. To be completely honest, we had tapered off and stopped feeding grain months before we switched to a grassfed market. I remember the last load of 16% dairy ration we fed – the price came in at over $800 per ton. We could no longer see our way to keep feeding grain, so reduced the grain given to the cows over the next month until it was gone. An old farmer friend thought (again) we were nuts – “they’ll dry up and blow away without grain”. We learned that cows would definitely need to be fed more forage when the grain is taken away and will need more high-quality minerals and vitamins and kelp. So absolutely continue to feed grain if that’s your preferred system, but if you choose not to feed grain, you will learn what we did: Feed your cows as much as they will eat of the best quality forage you can make, and the cows will not dry up and blow away.

Liz Bawden at North Country Public Radio's Storytelling event, 2018

We’ve seen a lot of changes in the organic dairy industry over the last few decades, not all of them are good. But we are more mainstream now--I remember the Extension guy from the Canton office laughed at us and got back in his car and drove away when we told him we were going organic. Other farmers thought we were too weird. But as the conventional milk market became more and more untenable for smaller producers, it has now become the accepted, new normal that to ship conventional milk, you have to go really big. If you want to be a smaller farm, you have to go organic. Organic dairy has become a commodity, like any other--mostly owned by corporations that are in business to make money for their shareholders, not necessarily for their producers. Margins are tighter these days, making it more likely that young and transitioning farmers will not have much room for error. And this is what I worry about. I worry about the next generation, and the hurdles they will face. Brian and I are so fortunate that we have a next generation; our son Nathan has never wanted to do anything else, and his wife Courtney is a blessing and a committed partner.

For a young person to get started farming, it has always been hard. Kids born and raised on a farm grow up immersed in daily chores, decision making, and problem solving. So they have an advantage over new farmers like I was. I would challenge those would-be farmers to read everything they can get their hands on, watch all those YouTube videos on different ways and methods to farm, and to get as much experience on different farms as they can to prepare them for eventually farming on their own. And find yourself a mentor, or better yet, pull together a team of mentors. Run your big decisions by them, ask for their contacts – do they know people with a farm for sale or rent, ask who they trust for a banker or feed mill or machinery dealer. And be honest and honorable in your dealings with them. And follow through. For the farmers with graying hair like me, I challenge you to be a mentor to a young farmer; they need the benefit of your experience. Some things are rooted down so deep you don’t even know that it’s there until someone goes looking for it. A number of years ago we were helping a couple that needed to put a used pipeline into their rented barn – that fell squarely into Brian’s wheelhouse. The young farmer was working out a long paper with calculations on how to get the pipeline sloped correctly so the milk would travel to the milkhouse. Brian just taped a penny, a nickel, and a dime onto the end of the level. He knew from experience that that gave the correct pitch. Let’s be that farmer who can offer simple ways to achieve great results.

Even in rural areas of the state like ours, people are beginning to lose their connection with the land and agriculture. Last spring, an elementary class from Hammond came to the farm to see what a dairy farm is like, and they gave me hope. A friend’s daughter was in the class, and she was obviously so happy to be there. During the tour and the activities we planned for them, she talked about the animals that had been on her family’s farm. Now this is Hammond, a really small town. So I know her parents quite well, and her grandmother is a close friend; I know the farm where her Scottish great-grandfather raised sheep. And other than a few 4-H lambs that her mom had growing up, he was the last actual farmer in her family. But this family had a strong oral tradition; the telling of family stories that has kept the young people still feeling like they are rooted to the land. She tells me how much she loves cows, and I tell her that I do too, and I point out a couple of my favorites in the herd for her and tell her who their mothers and grandmothers are. She’s only twelve, but I wonder if she’ll choose a life back on the farm one day. And if she does, I hope that there will be a community of farmers there to help her. I know that I will be. And I want to thank all of you for being part of my community.

Liz Bawden can be reached by phone, 315-324-6926 or by email,