“I like to tell folks that Shirley and I are a ‘running’ advertisement for Organic Valley,” says Rob. He means it literally in this case, since Rob and Shirley and their kids, Julia and Ryan, are marathon runners. “We love it. We always wear our Organic Valley tee shirts when we run. It is very rewarding when people cheer out in support of our milk when they see the OV logo.”
But, until 2006 when Hu-Hill Farm’s 450 acres were certified organic, the family’s farm was operated conventionally. The problems with that method of farming had been on Rob’s mind for a long time, even since he’d finished college in the early ’80’s.
“There was something about spraying the corn [with chemicals] that didn’t sit well with me, so I eliminated that practice on our farm in the late ’80’s. I’m really close to my land. I spend a lot of time in the woods and I know every tree. When you have that kind of a bond with your land, you have concern for everything out there. I don’t even grow corn anymore. I stopped growing it two years ago because corn is not the optimum food for cows. Going organic means wrapping your mind around the practice of feeding as little grain as possible. It goes against everything that’s been hammered into your head when you’ve farmed conventionally your whole life.”
Instead of corn, Rob now grows small grains for winter feed supplementation. They also grow approximately 145 acres of forages for the farm’s registered Holstein cows. Most of that is grazed in the summer and clipped and baled for winter feed.
“Our pastures improve every year. We reduced the paddock size so we can move the cows more frequently, which reduces the stress on the plants and provides the cows with fresh grass more often. As long as you have your soil balanced and healthy, the pasture improves and the plants stay healthy. That’s the key.”
While they stopped using chemicals on the farm in the late ’80’s, Rob says, “We pushed our cows hard for production. We fed tons of grain and we made a lot of milk. We milked three times a day for ten years. We set a lot of production records but, financially, it was getting us nowhere. The cost of producing all that milk and the cost of the cows’ health was not a cost we could continue to bear.”
Shirley and Rob talked about organic for a long time. “Our land was ready, but it was scary to make that next step, to stop using antibiotics and hormones. We were concerned for the overall health of our cows and young calves. For a long time we just didn’t have enough confidence to take that next step. I ordered the paperwork twice, looked it over and felt overwhelmed. Finally, I knew we just had to make it happen.”
By 2006, Hu-Hill Farm was certified organic. “It’s one of the greatest things we ever did. We feel organic is a concept where we work with the soil and Mother Nature. The practices we have learned along the way have been interesting and enjoyable.”
Though Rob and Shirley’s daughter and son, Julia and Ryan, are grown and on to other pursuits—Cornell grad Julia teaches ag science in a nearby school, and Ryan is still in school studying environmental science and outdoor recreation education—both Julia and Ryan have deep roots at the home and help out whenever possible. They are both part of the everyday decision making and contribute their knowledge regularly. “We could not be prouder of our children,” the Hudyncias say.
Shirley is happy with the changes. As the finance wizard in the family, she was crunching numbers all those years, and she knew better than anyone that what they were doing just wasn’t working. Shirley works at her sister’s insurance office, is a swim coach, and does all that on top of a regular running regimen.
Back in 2006 when Hu-Hill Farm was certified organic, Rob and Shirley had been contacted by a few organic milk companies. Meanwhile, another organic farmer in the area happened to stop by to talk to them about their transition to organic.
“He started talking about Organic Valley and how it operates,” Rob says, “and I knew right then that’s where I wanted to ship our milk, that they are the people we want to do business with. With OV we’re not working for some big company, we are the company. Communication’s wide open and it’s a wonderful organization. Who do you think is determining the milk price for the farmers? It’s OV. They’re blazing the path. Whenever George [Organic Valley CEIEIO George Siemon] talks about anything, it always ends with the question: “how’s this going to affect the farmers?”