Darling Farm is the last working dairy farm in its western Catskill Mountain valley. The soil on their 85 acres is tough to work, Larry and his son Chris will tell you—more stones than soil, really. Trying to grow corn over the years has been tough. “But the grass roots work their way around the rocks, and the cows don’t mind it at all,” Larry says. “We’ve pastured all our ground here.”
In the classic paradigm facing most farmers today, trying to get additional acreage to work is very difficult. The Catskills are attractive to development, so land prices around the Darling Farm have skyrocketed. The family has to lease additional acreage up and down the valley from landowners, enough to keep their herd of 55 registered Holsteins knee deep in green. Some of the land pockets they use are up to 20 miles away.
It’s hard to farm that way. “Fortunately, a lot of folks are good about letting us use their land to farm,” Larry says, “but it’s not like owning your own. Using somebody else’s land, you never know if they’re going to continue to let you use it, or sell to somebody who won’t let you farm it. It’s hard to make a plan. But the land prices here are way beyond our ability.”
Why did they end up settling there to begin with? Larry’s grandpa farmed in Cattaraugus County, New York, and Larry grew up on his father’s farm in Chataqua County. Larry was lured to eastern Delaware County by a girl, Jeanne, whom he married. He knew he would stay in the area when he got a job with a guy he’d gone to Cornell Veterinary School with who had established a large animal, veterinary practice in the area. There were still enough farms in the county then, and Larry bought the land that is now Darling Farm. Over the course of 15 years, the farms went out and, with them, the need for the veterinary practice. After that, it was all about the farm, and the Darlings hung on with their kids, Jeff, Laurie and Chris.
Larry and Jeanne’s youngest son, Chris, works the home farm with them now, and thank goodness, Larry says. “I’ve got health problems and I couldn’t work the place on my own.”
Their oldest son, Jeff, has a place about 45 miles away in Schenevus, New York. Jeff is also an Organic Valley farmer.
In spite of the tough ground in their mountain valley, “This is where we are,” Chris says. “Pasture is what it’s best for. Some people would look at our situation and say, gee, you’re 140 miles from NYC and there’s a lot of business that drives up and down our main road every weekend. You could have some type of a retail farm market, especially since you’re organic. But we haven’t had the time or the desire to commit to that.”
The whole family transitioned to organic four years ago, Larry says. “Jeff wanted to switch to organic, and it took some convincing for him to get us to do it, but we thought it would be easier to both switch over at the same time—strength in numbers. You take a good bit of ribbing from the rest of the ag community when you do that. He led us to it, so we did it together.”
Chris says, “It wasn’t that much different for us than what we were doing before. When you’re connected to the animals, you don’t want to be in a situation where your animals are suffering, so the biggest fear for us was that we couldn’t take care of them if they got sick. Once we transitioned, we actually had less sickness. When we were conventional, we were pushing them for more production by feeding plenty of grain. When we transitioned, we cut the grain ration in half. The cows have been healthier.”
The only other change the Darling’s made was to switch all their land to pasture. “Now we’re grazing 60 acres and we rotate them through smaller paddocks. Our goal is to always have them on young growth, something they can pick that’s as close to prime as possible.”
The Darling’s joined Organic Valley because “it’s a farmer-owned cooperative,” Chris says. “They provide a consistent pay price for our work. That’s what we like the most.”