“If you’ve ever been to Shelburne Farms in Vermont,” Jerry says, “you’d know what we’re trying to do here on Sunny Cove Farm.” Shelburne Farms is a 1,400 acre working farm operated as a non-profit for the purposes of educating visitors about how to steward land in an environmentally, economically, and culturally sustainable way.
Jerry and Dotty and their eight children practice that ethic on this 400 acre grass-based dairy in Western New York State’s Allegany County. Sunny Cove has always been maintained organically though the farm wasn’t certified organic until 2002. “We never saw the necessity for chemicals,” Jerry says.“We grow grass and hay that we fertilize with manure. That’s all we need.”
“Besides,” Jerry points out, “we’re at an elevation of 2,200 feet on heavy, clay soils. With a short growing season and soils like that, it makes no sense to force the land to grow what it could not support naturally. What grows very well here is grass so that’s what we focus on. I’m only 5 foot 9 and 140 pounds and if I tried to muscle my way through life, I wouldn’t get very far. So I learned to use my head and work with the land. ”
Jerry learned this ethic from his dad, Frank, who farmed the land before him. “When I studied agriculture in college,” Jerry says, “they taught me a different paradigm: borrow more money, double your herd size, and plant corn and alfalfa. I wouldn’t be here today if I had tried to farm this land that way.”
“What saved me from actually trying to put that into practice was my dad. He’d lived here all his life and he knew what worked and what didn’t work. There was a specific day when I had to decide: am I going to try to impose what I learned, or am I going to learn from him and do it the way that works best for the land? I decided right then I would hold on to his shirt tails and learn everything I could from him. It was a good decision. My dad is the reason I am where I am today.”
And what a place to be! Along with the milk from 45 Holstein and Jersey crosses (Jerry calls them “Jersteins”), the Snyders cultivate an organic apple orchard and operate what’s known in New England as a “sugar bush”, a part of their wooded acreage in which sugar maple trees dominate. The kids hung 1,000 buckets last year alone. The sweet liquid they collect is then cooked down to maple syrup in their own sugar house, and they sell the syrup from their farm store where they also sell apples and the meat from the bull calves they raise to maturity for this purpose.
Every aspect of the farm is managed in such a way that is not only self-sustaining for the farm itself, but also benefits and supports the community and builds a future for the Snyder’s children. “This is the pure definition of sustainability,” Jerry says. “It’s not a lot of work because we do it together, as a team.”