There’s nothing as heartbreaking as a young, motivated, organic farm family without a farm to call their own. Not that this has stopped Jim and Anne Phillips from doing what they love. They just have to farm rented land using rented facilities while they live in a rented house miles away from the dairy.
So what, you might wonder. Lots of folks have to rent places to live. But for farmers, renting land is a shaky proposition. For organic farmers, it’s doubly frustrating because the foundation of organic agriculture is about painstakingly building healthy soil from which all health on the farm flows.
“Farming is a long-term development process,” Jim says. “For the past eight years, we’ve been building the soils on our rented acreage, and they’re just now getting up to par. Learning the intricacies of the land takes years because every little patch is slightly different. When you rent the land, you do all that work and gain all that wisdom about something that could be gone tomorrow if the renters decide not to rent to you anymore. It’s very frustrating.”
But, Anne adds, “This is what Jim and I have chosen to do as a couple. This is what we love. This is how we want to raise our family. So while the renting part of it is often very stressful, raising the animals and the cycle and rhythm of the way we farm brings us great joy and is worth it.”
Jim and Anne met as students at Cornell University where they both studied dairy and animal science, but they came to their belief in organic, grass-based dairying from two different directions and sets of experience.
Jim grew up on his family’s conventional dairy farm where they were heavily in debt. “We were trying to follow university recommendations to get bigger and bigger, but that required more and more debt. Anne and I knew after graduating from Cornell that if we were going to farm, we wouldn’t and couldn’t follow that path. We started going to grazing meetings in the early ʼ90s because we saw it as a way to farm with low capital, low debt, and minimal infrastructure. As a young couple with little money, we felt grazing was the only way to go.”
Anne started practicing dairy nutrition on conventional farms when she got out of college, but she also had a veterinarian technician degree and background. “I went on many farm visits when I worked with a large animal veterinarian. The cow health problems I saw were because of cows being confined and pushed for high production. It seemed like a lot of the problems we saw were the same from farm to farm, and were closely tied to nutrition and animal stress. I thought that if we could feed cows differently and treat them differently, a lot of these health problems would go away. That’s why organic agriculture and pasturing work so well together. We just know it’s the right way to operate a dairy.”
For a few years, the Phillipses owned a very small farm in southeast Ohio. Jim even managed a 500-acre, 60-cow organic dairy in Virginia. Eight years ago they went back to New York State where Anne grew up to see if they could find a farm of their own again. So far, they have not found a place, even though they’ve spread their search across the country, yet they know that their chosen path is the right one, even if means in the short term they have to rent and not own their own farm.
So they continue to carefully steward land they don’t own and graze their growing herd of 105 cross-bred cows over healthy, organic pastures. Jim and Anne practice “managed intensive rotational grazing,” which means they move the cows twice and sometimes three times a day to the fresh, young pasture growth that cows love best and that gives them the most energy and nutrition.
Jim and Anne’s three children, Schyler, Rylee and Gus, help on the farm and contribute every day. The family joined the Organic Valley cooperative in 2007, and today fifteen-year-old Rylee is featured on the Organic Valley 2% Milk carton.
“Our ultimate goal is to work together on the farm raising our family. It seems like families are so distant from each other these days. We want to keep our family tight. One day, we hope to have our own farm, one that’s big enough so that when the kids are grown and they want to be on the farm, there will be a place for them.”