Neill and Cori met in college, and Cori laughs when she reminisces about the first time Neill took her home to the farm to meet his family. "I was a city girl, you know, and I remember we just kept driving and driving out to the middle of nowhere and I wondered where the heck he was taking me." Finally they arrived at the farm and drove up to the house built in 1890 by Neill's great grandfather, fronted by a century oak tree, flanked by a granary and backed by the gambrel roofed barn. "I loved it all," she says.
Other than the fact that the house has been added onto and impeccably restored under Cori's tasteful supervision—she is a professional corporate designer—the Lindley's farm looks pretty much the same, right down to the "grove" of dried white and purple painted gourd bird houses on poles that attract the farm's only pesticide: purple martins. The idea had actually come from Neill's grandfather. "After he died, we realized something was missing besides my grandfather," Neill says. So he mounted the gourds on poles and the birds returned. "We love to watch them in the evening as they put on a show."
Until a few years ago, Lindale Farms was a 500 acre conventional dairy and crop operation. It was Neill Lindley's cousin, Sammy, who farmed nearby, who introduced him to the good things that were going on in organic agriculture, things Sammy had learned after touring organic farms with another North Carolina Organic Valley farmer, George Teague. Sammy was dying of cancer at the time, but as sick as he was, he felt it was important to tell Neill everything he'd seen and learned about this "new" kind of farming. Neill was worried about how to grow crops without chemical inputs, though he'd become less comfortable using them over the years.
Sammy's legacy stuck. "I wanted to learn more," Neill says. "I started going to conferences and talking with other organic farmers. The more I learned, the more I knew there was no going back. I just put the hammer down." He had to sell half of his Holstein dairy cows to finance the transition from conventional to organic, the best half. It was one of the hardest things he's ever had to do, Neill says, "but the amazing thing is that after three years of grazing on healthy pastures, what was the bottom half of my herd now looks as good as the top half I sold."
The remaining 100 cows are not the only ones who've benefitted from the change, Cori says. Their oldest child, Neill II, is in college now and hasn't yet decided what he wants to do, but says that when he does decide, he hopes he's as passionate about it as his Dad is about organic agriculture. Their oldest daughter, Morgan, did a high school biology project on sugar content in legumes using the measuring tools and parameters her Dad had only recently learned to use on the farm. And two of the top cows that were not sold belonged to their second daughter, Alison, the family Animal Whisperer. One of those cows, Sweetheart, went all the way to State Fair under Alison's capable care. Alison's focus extends beyond the animals, too. She's been the one to spearhead the family recycling program.
As for Neill, Cori says, "he was always pushing to increase production because that's what the conventional model of agriculture preaches. No matter what he did, he was never satisfied." Recently, the Lindley's hosted over 400 visitors on a farm tour organized by the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. As Cori watched him talking to the various groups, "I noticed how happy he is, how satisfied." Neill adds, "I have so much more energy now. This has opened so many doors."
Neill took over the farm from his father, Darryle, in 1982 when he was in his early 20's. His dad, however, continued to work the farm with him. As a 4th generation Carolina farmer and a gentleman, Neill doesn't worry much about folks in the community who look at his farming methods with a skeptical eye, but he did worry about how his dad would handle Neill's decision to transition from conventional to organic. "I didn't want my Dad to feel like the farm was going backward when we were building up the soil and trying to restore balance and the crops were weedier than he was used to. The first year we couldn't afford to do much other than apply lime to our pastures, but I remember reading that if at first you can't afford to do anything, just the fact that you're not putting out the bad stuff means that your healing process has already begun." They kept talking about what they were doing, and they got through it.
"Each day we see a new blessing in working with nature instead of against it," Neill says. And the natural balance of things is certainly evident on the Lindley's farm. Their wheat is looking better than any crop they've had yet. In establishing more diversity in the pastures that the Holsteins graze, Neill decided to interseed alfalfa, a legume that typically will not thrive in Carolina pastures because of pests, but that is thriving in the rejuvenated soils Neill has so carefully nurtured. Their crop yields are comparable, as well. "We're actually growing more nutritious crops for our cows without all those inputs."
Being exposed to other Organic Valley farmers before they even joined the cooperative really helped to smooth the way. "We kept meeting more farmers from the cooperative and I couldn't help being struck by their willingness to share notes and help their fellow farmer. When we decided to join the co-op, folks came to our farm and sat with us in our kitchen totalk about it. It's been amazing."
The Lindley's next goal is to close the feed loop by raising all of the supplemental grains (barley, oats, wheat, corn and soy) the cows need when the pastures lose nutritional value over the winter months. Their sustainability goals continue to grow as they explore ways to meet on-farm energy needs. "Our minds are completely open to it," Neill says. "And I can see a lot more farmers coming around. Nature speaks for itself."