Since 1995, Ron and Kathy Holter have made major changes on their 207 acres in the rolling Appalachian foothills of west-central Maryland, land that has been farmed by six generations of Holters. “If the Lord had thrown all of it at me at once, I would have said ‘no way,’” Ron says. The way Ron tells it, though, the saga unfolded as naturally as could be.
It started in the winter of ’95 when Ron took a farm management class sponsored by the county extension service. “They said farmers aren’t thinking anymore. We’re just doing what the industry tells us to do. The only way to get out of that is to start thinking outside the box.” The extension agent who taught the class was a big supporter of pasture based farming. He talked about grazing and showed some slides. “I thought it was too good to be true,” Ron says, “but I also thought it seemed right. I wanted that for my farm.”
Come spring of ’95, all the acreage that was not in small grain or hay was transitioned to pasture.
Ron makes no bones about the difficulty transitioning land from row crops to pasture. “Even though our land had been farmed in contour strips and still had high fertility, the soil had been pillaged by the growing of row crops.” It took about 5 years to get the grass established.
“Once we started grazing, I was able to spend more time with my family.” And personally, Ron feels healthier, too. “I walk a lot out in the pastures when moving the cows around and get a chance to really see my land and all that’s beautiful about it. It makes farming fun again.”
In 2000, they started thinking about going organic. They had already stopped using herbicides, pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. “It just seemed like the right thing to do. Before World War II, we didn’t have herbicides and synthetic fertilizers and farmers were doing a lot better than they are now.”
But there was no market for organic milk in Maryland until the spring of 2005. Ron went to a meeting sponsored by a large organic dairy company who had come in looking for milk. He knew he wanted to sell his organic milk, but he didn’t want to be involved with a big, impersonal corporation. He asked around and found out about Organic Valley. “So I called them up and asked if they needed milk from this area and they said yes, and I said ‘I’d like to go with you because you’re a cooperative, and farmer-owned and family-oriented.’”
Ron’s son, Adam, was only four when the Holters started making changes on their farm. Adam is in his mid-20s now and recently married to Kristin. He has joined Ron in the farm partnership, making him the sixth generation on the farm. A while ago, Ron asked Adam if he would have come back to the farm if they were still a confinement dairy. Adam said no. “Adam is really good with the cows. The way we handle and deal with the animals is much more calm and relaxed in this way of farming because the animals are healthier and more relaxed.” The 110 Jerseys the Holters milk today couldn’t agree more.
How did Ron’s dad feel about all the changes on the farm? “The first year he was very cool and let me have the reins,” says Ron. “The next year, he went on a pasture walk with me and someone asked him that question and he said, ‘At first I thought we were going backwards, but it only took me one year to realize that Ron’s going about things the right way. I wish we’d done this a long time ago.’”