It is hard for farmers to be “public friendly” because they work such long, hard hours, but Matt and Katherine Kuhlman make the extra effort.
“We feel it’s really important to educate people about what we do and how we handle the animals and why the equipment leaves a bit of dirt on the road sometimes.”
When Katherine and Matt first started out, they did farm tours for school kids. Katherine, a 7th grade English teacher in the local school system, decided they should host one or more classrooms every year to a day at the farm.
“Whether any of those kids ever drink a glass of milk because of it, is not the point,” Matt says. “The point is that they’ll have a day they won’t forget, and they’ll know a little bit about where their food comes from.”
The Kuhlmans have graduated from school tours to hosting an event that brought over 1,500 people to their farm. The brainchild of another long-time, organic farmer in the county and sponsored by the Tioga County Agricultural Resource Group and Senator Libous’ “Buy from the Backyard” initiative. “Sundaes on the Farm” provides free ice cream to the public as well as a unique opportunity to “savor the flavors of Tioga County while experiencing a behind the scenes look at a successful family farm”.
The event quickly became wildly popular. At the first “Sundaes on the Farm” three years ago, the Kuhlmans hosted 500 people. The next year the crowd swelled to 1,500.
County dairy princesses served ice cream and 4-H-ers sold hamburgers and hotdogs, but Matt and Katherine really put their all into educating their guests. “We had our nutritionist and vet here to answer questions and explain things to folks. We labeled every piece of equipment, noting what it was for, how much it cost when we got it, how much it would cost to replace it now, how much money we’ve put into it to keep it running, how much it costs to run, and so on. We showed how much the farm cost when we bought it and what that would translate to now. People’s jaws dropped. So many people came up to me and complimented me on the place and how we farm. They love that we’re organic.”
When Matt had shoulder surgery last winter, his physical therapist kept asking him where he could get their milk. “I’d say ‘you’ll have to buy Organic Valley to get our milk.’ My doctor’s wife was asking about some local, organic, grassfed beef she’d heard people talking about, and I told him that was my daughters’ project. We can’t keep it around it sells so fast. It’s that kind of feedback that makes us want to do “Sundaes on the Farm”, to show people what it takes and how good it can be.”
The Kuhlmans’ 400 acres and 100-plus Holstein-Jersey-Lineback crossbred cows were certified organic in 2007, but even a few years prior to that Matt had begun to scale into some organic practices. They grazed the cows, ceased pushing them for production, and practiced alternative methods to treat illness. “We don’t need to use anything now,” Matt says. “The less you stress the cows, the healthier they are. My vet says my cows look great.
Getting your whole system back in good, healthy working order—from the soil to the cows—doesn’t happen overnight when you go organic. It takes years for the system to cleanse itself. Society has come to expect instant gratification. But for farmers, it’s all about patience. When we went organic, we had the patience to wait for good things to happen, and they did.”
Matt’s dad and uncle bought the dairy in 1944 and worked hard to make it succeed. But the brothers vowed to each other they would at some point get out and see the world. In 1971, Matt’s dad signed the family up for a Peace Corp tour, and the whole family went to Ecuador to start a dairy. Matt was only seven but, “It was an experience that I’ll never forget. That’s kind of my dream, too. I’d like to go to a third world country and help people learn to farm. The stuff we did and learned there is priceless. My Dad’s 88 years old now. He absolutely loves to see how the farm’s thriving. He gets so much joy from walking around and seeing how we’ve kept his legacy. He knows how hard it’s been, and he couldn’t be more proud.”
Katherine has been right there every step of the way. “I’ve always said behind every successful man is a good woman. I would not be here today were it not for Katherine. We discuss everything.” Katherine didn’t grow up on a farm. Her father was a teacher. In fact, her father was Matt’s 6th grade teacher. Matt laughs, “One day, Katherine’s Dad went home and told her mom to straighten up her daughter because she was chasing some little farm boy. Obviously it didn’t work because we just had our 25th wedding anniversary this year.”
Matt and Katherine are motivated to farm the way they do for four other reasons very close to their hearts: Hannah, Lydia, Madeline and Peter. “Our kids love the farm, and I want to do everything in my power to make them want to be here. That’s why I’m trying to simplify the farm as much as possible. One of the hardest things about farming conventionally is the regulations. Being organic puts us way ahead of the game as far as that’s concerned. We don’t have to worry about contaminating people’s water. Going organic, honestly, is the best move we ever made.”