Both James and Ida grew up on farms in Mennonite communities in rural Pennsylvania, but only got started on their current farm five years ago. The location of the new operation has brought them into contact with an opportunity that enabled them to make James’s interest in grazing a reality.
The Burkholder’s “new” 40-acre home farm, purchased initially for the couple by Ida’s father, borders the 333-acre research farm owned by the Rodale family, whose father was the founder of the Rodale Institute, a thriving non-profit organization “dedicated to pioneering organic farming through research and outreach”. http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/
One thing the research farm seems to have been missing over the past 65 plus years has been animals. Only crops have been grown and studied on the Rodale family acreage and they wanted to change that. A mutual friend of the Rodale’s and of the Burkholders’ had the idea to put them together. James wanted to graze his cows but didn’t have enough acreage, and the Rodales wanted cows grazing on pasture on their farm. After working out a mutually beneficial agreement, the Burkholders’ cows will graze pastures that James and others have worked hard to re-establish on both farms.
When James started dairying, his operation was fully conventional. The cows were confined to the barn and fed mostly grain and dried forages. His interest in organic developed as a result of what he learned about grazing, because grazing is a foundational principle of organic dairying.
The terrible milk prices of the conventional market in 2009 nearly wiped them out.
“I was frustrated by a pricing structure that did not take the farmer into account. Then I became aware of the steady pay price of organic. While our transition was financially motivated at first, we didn’t get very far into the transition before I noticed things that really got my attention. The major health improvements in our cows made us start thinking about our own health and the health of our growing family. We’re very concerned about that.
“Like a lot of people, I used to think of organic as a fad. I realize now it is definitely not a fad. It’s here for the long term. It’s good for the environment and it’s good for people and animals. It encompasses a whole way of respecting life. We’re very excited about this and our parents are also very supportive.”
As they work hard to improve the pastures over which their herd of approximately 60 Holsteins, Jerseys and Holstein-Jersey crossbred cows graze, they will ultimately re-establish over 200 acres of grazing ground, put in 10 ½ miles of high tensile fence, two miles of improved laneways, and 12,000 feet of water lines. The Burkholders will pay a per head/per day fee for the grazing rights to Rodale pastures, which is a lot less expensive than trying to buy the additional land they would have needed to graze their cows.
The Institute gains valuable, long-term research opportunities from the agreement, as well.
James explains, “There are endless things we can document and research. They’ll take rumen samples to see how cows digest and use different types of plants and different combinations of grasses. It’s a lot more work for us because any kind of research takes a lot of time and effort, but it’s good work. The organic industry needs hard numbers so that when we say ‘it works,’ we can also say ‘why’.”
The Burkholders’ four young children are thrilled by all the activity. “They’ll get a lot of education out of this, too,” James points out.