Before the 1970s and 1980s, Yates County and much of the Finger Lakes region of New York State was dotted with small, family dairy farms. But the farm crisis swept into the region in the 1970s and wiped them out, one by one.
Because so much land lay vacant, prices were fairly low in the area, and in 1987, Edwin and Lucille Horst were able to start Wincille Farm. They wouldn’t have been able to do that back in Pennsylvania where land prices prohibited young farmers from acquiring land. Because of that, many old order Mennonite families migrated to the Finger Lakes region and put down stakes. Lucille’s parents had moved there in the 1970s, and Ed had come there to help out on his brother’s dairy. Ed and Lucille were married in 1987 and were ready to farm on their own.
When the Horsts started out with eighty-five acres, they farmed conventionally, just as their parents had done, and confined their animals to the barn.
But Ed remembered something from childhood, the image of his dad’s cows out on pasture. When he attended a presentation by Sonny Golden, a dairy nutritionist from Pennsylvania, he was reminded of cows on pasture all over again because Mr. Golden was a grazing advocate.
Ed might not have attended the talk but for the fact it was raining that day and he could not plant corn as he had planned to do. For once, bad weather was providential. “I was sold on grazing because of that talk,” Ed says. “Lucille and I talked about it a lot, and then we started building fences that spring. It just seemed right to have the cattle out in the sunshine and on the grass instead of the heavy corn silage diet we used to feed.”
And Ed feels there were changes for the family, as well. “It’s a lifestyle for us, too. The work is so different compared to when we were a confinement dairy. With the cattle outdoors, there’s less to clean up and less feed to move every day. Once we were into grazing fully, making the step to organic was easy. Grazing just fits together with organic.”
In 1997, three years after shifting to grazing, the Horst’s farm was certified organic. The inspiration to go organic came from an organic crop farmer in the area. He needed a market for his grain so he pushed organic to the growing farm community in the area. “He was the first organic farmer I’d heard of,” Ed says. “He convinced us that it was possible to grow without chemicals because he was doing it successfully. Going organic is just a matter of learning a different method. Farming became a lot less stressful. For me, it’s more interesting and enjoyable.
We noticed health improvements in our animals right away. We came up with a phrase for the health improvements around here. We call it giving the cows ‘Dr. Green.’” The Horst’s herd of forty predominately Holstein cows stay out on ‘Dr. Green’ night and day if weather permits. “If it gets too muddy and cool, we bring them in for the night. If it gets too warm during the day, we bring them in after lunch and keep them in until it cools off in the evening. We just go by the weather and what’s best for the cows.”
The Horsts were the first dairy in the area to transition to organic but, Ed says, “The whole outlook on it is a lot different now than it was twelve years ago. Many more farms have transitioned to organic. The farm papers have a lot of good articles promoting it now.”
The Finger Lakes region is the number one tourist destination in the state. Drawn by the unusual configuration of glacially formed lakes that spoke out from an invisible hand like “fingers,” the huge bodies of water provide great recreation for tourists. Because of the attraction of the lakes and the gently rolling hills around them, land prices have risen dramatically, making it difficult for the next generation to come into or stay in farming.
The youngest of the Horst’s nine children will feel the pinch. Their oldest daughter is already married and on her own farm. Their oldest son, Ethan, is presently working with an uncle on his farm. So Ed and Lucille are trying to find ways to make their one hundred and sixty acres able to accommodate another family when that time comes.