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The next generation of farmers is going organic

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HAMMOND — Elizabeth S. and Brian J. Bawden are full-time organic dairy farmers who are inspiring their son, Nathan E. Bawden, to follow in their farming footsteps.

When Nathan, 16, was a baby, the couple made sure to buy an old cab tractor with a backseat. Together, they plowed fields and worked the farm: mom in front, baby Nathan in back.

“The payments were cheaper than paying a babysitter,” Mrs. Bawden said.

All that time in the tractor seems to have rubbed off, and today, Nathan says he is proud to be an organic farmer who dreams of running the family farm and starting his own.

“I’ve never done anything else,” he said. “This is what I like to do. I like to be my own boss and work the land.”

Nathan says he believes that farming organically makes a difference and plans to continue the family tradition into the fourth generation.

The Next Generation

Cornell Cooperative Extension agriculture issue leader Brent A. Buchanan says Nathan is among the latest generation of farmers who is keeping family farms alive.

“We see there is a larger proportion of organic farmers whose next generation has an interest in farming,” he said. That is in contrast to conventional farming, Mr. Buchanan said, which is still losing farms.

“The ones that tend to fall out and that cease farming is on the conventional side — landlocked and can’t expand or they need to double in herd size,” he said.

The biggest problem facing most conventional farmers, Mr. Buchanan says, is the cost of milk is not increasing with the cost of other commodities.

“If you were to look at the cost of diesel fuel, grain or fertilizer — the basic inputs that farms actually need — they have all gone all up substantially along with property taxes.”

It’s that cost that has become a big deterrent to the next generation of farmers.

“They see their mom and dad struggle to pay bills and get up early and go to bed late in an occupation that is not easy by any stretch,” Mr. Buchanan said.

This decrease in conventional farms is especially visible in Hammond, Mrs. Bawden said.

“That was the biggest thing in town was agriculture, and you don’t have to look very far to see that, the amount of barns that are falling down, burnt down and gone,” Mrs. Bawden said. “I think it was just two years ago when someone said there were 14 farms left in the town of Hammond. I would say that now there is several less.”

Organic Salvation

But like many small-time dairy farms, Mr. and Mrs. Bawden have found a sustainable resource: organic milk.

The farm, which was certified organic in 2000, ships its organic milk to Horizon Organic. Going organic has been a huge vehicle in helping the Bawden family farm stay viable.

“Organic is truly is one of the ways small farms are able to survive,” Mrs. Bawden said. “The classic way is the wife goes out and gets two or three jobs. It’s kept us on the farm, and allowed us to be a small, family operation.”

For the Bawdens, the switch from conventional farming to organic over 13 years ago was an easy one.

“The way that we farmed before was really similar to the organic standards,” she said. “We didn’t have a lot of changes to make. For us it was a really good switch. But it is a big deal. It’s not for everybody. I would never want to say it’s for every farm or every farmer.”

The farm of 119 acres is almost entirely pasture and raises 50 cows for milking. The family also rents about 500 acres from other farms to raise organic hayseed.

“We had always grazed the cows anyways, because we thought that was just good for the health of the cows. It got them outside,” she said. “It also lessened our work load in the time of the year that we had more field work. That’s the cornerstone of being organic. We always had a real minimalist approach to chemicals and sprays. We felt the less we used of those, the better.”

Going organic was also safer for the family.

As an organic dairy farmer, Mrs. Bawden doesn’t use toxic pesticides, and her family’s 50 cows are not given growth hormones or antibiotics and freely graze.

“When you raise kids and are on the farm you’re concerned about products that they come in contact with — you don’t want herbicides and pesticides kicking around or sprayed too close to the house,” she said.

The Organic Challenge

But organic dairy farming is not without its struggles. The family must consistently find ways to treat cow ailments such as mastitis, or an infection of the udder, without the use of penicillin and other drugs.

“We’ll use a variety of applications that are botanical in nature,” Mrs. Bawden said. “It might be we’ll treat the cow’s immune system with garlic tincture. We’ll rub on oregano and teatree oil onto her udder. But that’s the big stress for farmers — discovering new ways how to do things that you already knew how to do. Go back 13 years ago, there were only a couple of veterinarians in the whole country that you could talk to. Before it was a lot of farmer-to-farmer discussion.”

Mrs. Bawden is now creating her own remedies through experimentation and advice she finds online.

“Every time we have a problem and we learn how to deal with it, it’s just another tool in our tool belt, another thing you know how to do,” Mrs. Bawden said.

But as organic farmers, the Bawdens don’t withhold drugs if animal’s life is at stake.

“What we try to do is deal with problems early on so that problems aren’t major,” she said. “However, if an animal absolutely needs the remedy, we will give them the penicillin or other heavy-handed drugs.”

But saving the animal’s life with non-organic remedies also means they can’t be milked again. When it is well enough, the cow will be auctioned off or sold to a neighbor.

“The guidelines are very strict,” Mrs. Bawden said. “Each year, we have an inspector visit our house and we sit down and go over every receipt.”

But it’s well worth the extra effort, Mrs. Bawden said. And her customers don’t mind paying a little extra to know their milk is organic.

“Organic is a consumer-driven idea,” she said. “We and the customers are willing to pay more for that if it means a safer, healthier product. As farmers we can choose to fill that need or not.”

Looking Ahead

As for Nathan, in a few months, he’ll be starting 11th grade and taking mechanics classes offered by the St. Lawrence-Lewis Board Of Cooperative Educational Services. He’s already taught himself how to refurbish tractors. He sold his first tractor a few weeks ago.

But whether Nathan decides to stay in the family business nor not, or stay organic, his mother will not be heartbroken.

“I would never push a child into farming if that’s not what they wanted to do,” Mrs. Bawden said. “Farming is a lifestyle, not a career choice because you’re not going to have vacations and weekends off. It has a different set of rewards and that has to fit what you want in life, because if it doesn’t, then you won’t be happy.”

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