Machais, NY, in western New York State is just a few miles south of the long east-west stretch of limestone-based upland soils that supports abundant crops and runs along central New York from Schenectady to Buffalo. When it comes to soils, however, even a few miles is a miss and the Machais region developed small dairy operations when farming spread there two hundred years ago.
Now the dairy squeeze, driven by a long-term drop in the price of milk, has forced out all others and the only remaining dairy farm in town shipping milk is Perry-Dice Organics, owned by Bernard Perry.
“I grew up helping my parents and my siblings on the homestead,” says Perry, who comes from a long line of dairymen. “There were fifteen of us siblings. I am the twelfth child — ten boys and five girls, and each and every one of us helped on the farm. We considered it life. What could ever be better — one family pulling for one another?”
At one time there were nine dairy farms in the area that were operated by Bernard’s father’s sons and grandsons.
Bernard bought his farm at the age of twenty three, in 1984. It is 91 acres (although he points out that the power company has a lien on 7, so it is 84, really). Of those, 54 acres are productive land in hay and crops, and the rest is split between pasture and woods. Perry raises his cows on corn silage, ensiled the old-fashioned way in old tall silos. The farm ships their milk to Horizon and is certified by New York NOFA.
At the time he bought the farm, of course, it wasn’t organic and neither was Bernard. Due to a number of available farm chemicals, dairying in this country had developed an addiction. One chemical was particularly beguiling!
“Roundup!” recalls Bernard, “the great all around spray of all sprays! It sure is easy to use — basically anyone can use it. You spray it on once a year, and the weeds are gone for 90 days or longer, with beautiful brown spots wherever it is used, as in barren-looking. It sure is easy to tell where it has been used. It kills the weeds and leaves the fields free of them, so the only plant that grows is the one that is desired. One can’t fault any agricultural producer for using it. Especially in today’s economy.”
When Bernard bought his farm, of course, Roundup was used before planting, to clean up any unwanted plants in the fields by tying up the nutrients they needed. The compound was considered completely safe to use. One could even buy it in a grocery store. Supposedly if one used it according to the label it was considered completely harmless.
Once GMO’s were introduced, starting in about 1992, Roundup could be used not only before planting, but after planting as well. So long as you planted ‘Roundup Ready’ crops, or those which had been engineered to tolerate glyphosate, Roundup’s active ingredient, then you could continue to spray after planting and continue to kill weeds and any other non-Roundup Ready plants. The crops themselves had been engineered to include a pathway to survival despite Roundup being sprayed and denying them the normal nutrients they needed.
“Originally,” recalls Perry, “one was not supposed to use it 2 years in a row in the same field. And with other sprays one needs a permit to spray them on, which I have never had. So when the GMO technology came about I could spray my fields myself, which made for quite a savings. With the GMO technology I had tremendous yields of only the plants that one truly wants — regardless of whether one grows conventional or organic, nobody wants to see or deal with weeds”.
But despite these advantages, in 2007 Bernard decided to turn his conventional dairy farm into an organic one. He has always had an interest in how Mother Nature works, but until 2007 there just wasn’t any opportunity to go with the Natural approach.
“That’s when I knew things had to change!” he says. “It became quite clear that the issues that I was having with the cows was coming from Roundup and GMO’s. It was quite obvious, There were constant digestive issues, such as nausea, headaches, excessive saliva, gastrointestinal issues, such as cows would fill up with gas (known as bloat), diarrhea, cows became miserable to work with, they were aggressive as in super Bitches.”
“What most people don’t realize,” he continues, “is that cows have the same basic needs as humans do. Speaking of just necessities, they want a diet that keeps them healthy, full, and comfortable.”
When Bernard started to transition into organic he got very little support, he says.
“For one, I was the only one in this area going this route”, he explains. “A high percentage of producers who have gone into the organic world have dealt with this also. I was able to handle the negativity from the farmers in the area. But I had expected to get some support from my siblings. That didn’t happen either. Which made the struggles that much worse. It was difficult enough not being able to share your findings, within the area, but when family wouldn’t give any support, it stung. I don’t want to share negativity, but sometimes it happens.”
When he was conventional Perry strived to keep 40 cows in milk production at all times. Now that he is organic he strives to keep 30 cows in milk production at all times. Not because of the difference in the milk pricing, he says, but more for the ability to do a better job of taking care of the cows, as in not being so excessively busy that one can hardly keep pace.
“By taking care of fewer cows I have to be more observant”, he admits, “but I have more of an opportunity to re-act, I should probably say that I have a better opportunity to be pro-active. By being pro active I have more time to pay attention to Mother Nature, and what she is trying to show me.”
Perry will be 59 shortly, he says, and there is no sense in working 7 days a week forever!
Asked whether he is glad to have gone organic and ditched the chemicals, he answers a loud “yes”!
“I’m tickled to have changed to organic”, he asserts. “I understand, Roundup was great on weeds. You can’t fault farmers who use it. When we converted neighbors thought we were cookoo and going back to horse farming.”
“But our going organic was driven by health needs”, he explains. “I had a wife with asthma and cattle with all sorts of problems. It took us several years on organic feed to correct these – not till 2010 or 2011, really. I’m told that a typical dairy farm takes 7 years to convert to organic, and for several of those you will lose money.”
There were signs that Bernard had made the right move, though. The weed pressure gradually improved as the soil health got better, confirming Jerry Brunnetti’s statement that every weed brings some balance back to the soil. And if you see the cows today, he asserts, you would say they are as peaceful a group of cows as you have ever seen. Kevin and Lisa Englebert, long-term New York organic dairy farmers, have been a continuing inspiration to him.
Perry married a year after buying the farm, and had two sons shortly thereafter. They both farm, one with his own three kids (3, 9, and 11 years old) on an organic diary farm 20 miles away. He has 70 head and ships milk with Horizon. The other son grows organic grains on a portion of his dad’s farm.
Bernard is fully aware of the dire straits of the organic dairying industry. He is not at all sure he will be able to continue shipping milk at current prices.
“Yes, I am thinking about transitioning out of the cows”, he nods, “and into a crop operation. Especially as I age. I may not be able to stay organic unless prices improve, but there is a good market for non-GMO grains. If I gave up dairying I’d do corn, soy, wheat, and oats and maybe after 5 years move into vegetables. I already do some of the grains now.
“When I started on this farm 35 years ago”, he continues, “there were for the most part cows on all the farms in the road that I live on, and predominately every farm in this town. Now 35 years later I am the only one left shipping milk! With that said the farm land is pretty much still in production. Either grain crops, hay fields, or in gravel mining.
“The sad part of this”, he concludes, “is that there is not enough reason for the youth to want to stay in the area. It’s like most small towns USA: dissolving daily. I’d like my grandkids to farm. I hope they will. Once it is in your blood it is hard to get rid of. But farming is much more of a cut-throat business than it was when I started. You used to get farmers to work together. That is harder now. They have been forced to focus on economics.”