“If you’ve ever been to Shelburne Farms in Vermont,” Jerry says, “you’d know what we’re trying to do here on Sunny Cove Farm.” Shelburne Farms is a 1,400 acre working farm operated as a non-profit for the purposes of educating visitors about how to steward land in an environmentally, economically, and culturally sustainable way.
Jerry and Dotty and their eight children practice that ethic on this 400 acre grass-based dairy in Western New York State’s Allegany County. Sunny Cove has always been maintained organically though the farm wasn’t certified organic until 2002. “We never saw the necessity for chemicals,” Jerry says.“We grow grass and hay that we fertilize with manure. That’s all we need.”
“Besides,” Jerry points out, “we’re at an elevation of 2,200 feet on heavy, clay soils. With a short growing season and soils like that, it makes no sense to force the land to grow what it could not support naturally. What grows very well here is grass so that’s what we focus on. I’m only 5 foot 9 and 140 pounds and if I tried to muscle my way through life, I wouldn’t get very far. So I learned to use my head and work with the land. ”
Jerry learned this ethic from his dad, Frank, who farmed the land before him. “When I studied agriculture in college,” Jerry says, “they taught me a different paradigm: borrow more money, double your herd size, and plant corn and alfalfa. I wouldn’t be here today if I had tried to farm this land that way.”
“What saved me from actually trying to put that into practice was my dad. He’d lived here all his life and he knew what worked and what didn’t work. There was a specific day when I had to decide: am I going to try to impose what I learned, or am I going to learn from him and do it the way that works best for the land? I decided right then I would hold on to his shirt tails and learn everything I could from him. It was a good decision. My dad is the reason I am where I am today.”
And what a place to be! Along with the milk from 45 Holstein and Jersey crosses (Jerry calls them “Jersteins”), the Snyders cultivate an organic apple orchard and operate what’s known in New England as a “sugar bush”, a part of their wooded acreage in which sugar maple trees dominate. The kids hung 1,000 buckets last year alone. The sweet liquid they collect is then cooked down to maple syrup in their own sugar house, and they sell the syrup from their farm store where they also sell apples and the meat from the bull calves they raise to maturity for this purpose.
Every aspect of the farm is managed in such a way that is not only self-sustaining for the farm itself, but also benefits and supports the community and builds a future for the Snyder’s children. “This is the pure definition of sustainability,” Jerry says. “It’s not a lot of work because we do it together, as a team.”
The Synder’s oldest son, Matthew, is recently engaged and bought 3 acres of the farm where he’ll build a home for his future family. He has his own lawn care and small engine repair business in the summer, and works for a local heating and plumbing contractor in winter.
Their second oldest son, Kelby, works full time on the farm and will be the one to take over the farm. He’s already begun to buy the herd as new calves come on, just one of the traditional ways a father transitions a farm to his children.
Their third oldest child and only daughter, Meghan, just graduated college with a vet tech degree. On farm, she keeps all the herd records and delivers all the calves.
Then there’s Kevin, the family’s high tech guru, who builds and services computers; Isaac, a star soccer player and voracious reader; Joseph and John, who help out on the farm; and finally, Brian, the most recent addition to the family.
All the children rotate milking with Jerry in the evening, except for Matthew who has his own business. Kelby milks with his dad every morning. “The age level determines how much they can do. They only engage in age-appropriate chores.”
Sound thinking is a critical component of good farm management, as well as a hallmark of good stewardship, and the Snyder’s have this ability in spades. Thinking back to the comparison to Shelburne farms, several seemingly disparate projects on farm have been linked together to spectacular effect.
Spruce trees that Jerry planted with his dad when he was five years old were ready to harvest when it came time to build a new pole barn.
The trees were milled into the needed lumber by a local miller who Jerry went to school with, keeping the local economy humming. In return for the milling work, the miller needed some ash trees for a job, so Jerry had him harvest some ash from the Snyder’s wood lot. The ash tree tops left behind became a thriving firewood business for second oldest son Kelby and some of his friends. Plus, harvesting the ash opened up more space in the woods for sugar maple saplings to grow.
The land that was opened up by the spruce tree harvest is very wet, and drains neighboring land. It turns out to be the very top source of three watersheds in the area, one of which is a creek that runs through Sunny Cove Farm.
The cleared land will be put to pasture, and the drainage captured in a pond that will be dug and built by Kelby.
Because that spot is one of the highest on the farm, water from the pond can be used in a gravity flow system to both water the cows and create energy on the farm.
Everything works in synchronous fashion on Sunny Cove Farm. “We produce less milk because we don’t feed grain, but our milk is high quality and we are paid appropriately for it. The cows are healthy so we don’t have a vet bill, and they’re healthy because they’re eating food we raise right here on the farm. I know the industrial paradigm I was taught is useless.
“Everything we do here begins with asking the question: What can we do to make this last for generations? It’s the same question George and the guys at Organic Valley asked of themselves when they started our farmer-owned co-op.”