“Getting the dairy started was a struggle, but it’s the answer to having faith in something. There are many paths in life, but I believe there’s no better teacher than nature. I have learned that through organic farming.” When Terry says this in his beautiful, old-world Virginia accent, you think it should be etched into the side of a mountain, except that wouldn’t be very, well, natural.
Terry and his wife, Alyson, their two small children, Terry’s parents, and his brother, live on and work the farm where Terry was born and raised.
“My grandfather was an innovative farmer who worked very hard,” Terry says. “He was charismatic and generous to a fault.” And so were many of the farmers who lost their farms to the agricultural policy of the 1980s that favored corporate farming, not family farming. Terry was about 13 when they had to sell their cows. In spite of substantial remaining debt, Terry's mother and brother made an all out effort to save the farm. After graduating college and joining the work force, Terry was able to contribute to their efforts. Ultimately the debt was paid off, and the land was put in a conservation easement “I certainly wouldn’t have been able to afford a farm like this if I had to buy it all over again.”
Back then Terry had a normal farm-kid life, but he had other interests. “I didn’t really know I had a deep respect for farming in my heart, or that I wouldn’t be able to get away from it.”
He eventually graduated from Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and went to work in the corporate world where he was groomed for management. On weekends, though, he went home and helped out on other dairy farms. “I guess that was my ‘golf,’” Terry says. “I never thought I could make a living at it, much less support a family.”
And then he got interested in grazing.
“I didn’t know anything about organic farming at that time. I was helping farmers on the weekend and I had met farmers who were doing some grazing. It just seemed right.” In 2002, he visited the American Farmland Trust demo farm in Pennsylvania, which is a grass-based operation, and that’s when the spark really took hold.
Terry left the corporate world and hired on as herdsman to another dairy farmer, and started helping an older couple in the next county over who bred their herd seasonally. “Every year I’d go over and help them with the breeding. That was where I learned how they farm in New Zealand, where most of the dairies are 100% grass-based.”
From those experiences and more, Terry gained the confidence to think he could start a dairy from scratch. He had taken over management of his home farm in 2003, but they were leasing the cropland to another farmer, and he hadn’t really done much with the farm. He wasn’t sure which way to jump. Then he got a call from the couple he used to help seasonally. “They called me the day before Christmas to say they were going to retire and did I want to buy their herd? They had really nice Jerseys and an open, New Zealand-style parlor, so I agreed to lease their farm for a year. They gave me a lot of guidance and confidence.”
A year later, Terry came back to the home farm and built a new milking parlor to accommodate the herd of Jerseys he brought home with him. He had a lot of work to do to turn the place into the grazing operation he imagined.
“With help from NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service), we put in fencing, several thousand feet of laneways so the cows can walk from paddock to paddock, and ran water lines to every paddock. A neighboring farmer was nice enough to rent us some land that was contiguous to our property so I could put together a grazing platform of about 500 acres right around the dairy. We work another 300 acres on that same farm for hay and bale-age. I’m proud to say that today we are a 100% grass-fed, organic dairy. We don’t feed any grains.”
At any given time the Ingrams milk about 220 cows. The herd genetics are still predominately Jerseys, but they’re crossing in Shorthorns, Holstein and Swedish Red. “We want cows that can maintain good body condition on 100% grass. The cows are looking better and better. I have gotten much more in tune with feeding the soil, and I can actually see the return on that effort. I have grass when other people don’t, because healthy soil retains water so much better.”
Another management choice the Ingrams have adopted is to leave the calves with their moms for six months instead of three months.
“When calves were born outside the window of the other births in the herd, I left them on the mothers since we were seasonal and pretty much shutting everything down anyway. I saw how well those calves did. They were just the prettiest, healthiest calves and had almost caught up to the spring-born calves that I had weaned at 3 months. I did a good job of raising the calves I’d weaned at 3 months, but the momma cows did a lot better job than I could ever do, and it was a lot less work for me. Leaving them on their mothers longer resulted in a very nice heifer. They’re better, healthier animals. You can’t do this kind of thing if you’re focused purely on production and getting more, more, more all the time. My payoff takes longer, but my investment certainly pays off.”
A smart man learns from his mistakes, Terry likes to say, but a wise man learns from the mistakes of others. “I’ll never claim to be a wise man, but I’m at least a smart man. Once you experience what it’s like to farm organic, your eyes open to how abundant nature is. I am blessed to see it every day. I am in total awe of it. To me it’s just…well, I feel privileged to be able to farm this way.”
Terry owes a lot of the farm’s success to his mother, Boo, and his brother, Rush. “They’ve supported my efforts, and we all live right here on the farm. It’s great to raise my kids like this with their grandparents and uncle around them. My brother and my best friend are both Merchant Marines. When they come home from their tours of duty, they’re ready to have fun, and the kids get the best of that.”