Amish Organic Dairyman Sees Bright Future for Small Farms

1/26/2013 7:00 AM
By Shannon Sollinger Virginia Correspondent

LEESBURG, Va. — “The future looks tremendously positive for small farms, “ said David Kline to a packed auditorium at the National Conference Center in Leesburg, Va. “We will supply the best, most nutritious food to the cities.”

Kline delivered the keynote address Jan 18 to the Future Harvest CASA “Farming for Profit and Sustainability” conference and turned his attention to both profit and sustainable farming.

Kline was born on his grandparents’ Larksong Farm in Mount Hope, Ohio, and has lived and farmed there for more than 60 years. He and his family today operate an organic dairy with 45 Jersey cows on 115 acres, and he is an editor with Farming Magazine, which he founded.

In the past, Kline said, Amish farmers like himself would maintain their land by rotating crops year to year — corn, then the next year oats, then wheat, then hay.

“Life in the soil is all in the top six inches,” Kline said. “All civilization depends on that six inches.”

He resisted change, he said, but today keeps 80 percent of his land in grass and hay and the other 20 percent is tilled.

“We grow enough to feed our own cows and spend $4,000 a year on minerals, twine” and other supplies.

And he accomplishes this in the Amish tradition — no tractors, no automobiles. The horses pull the plows and fertilize the fields.

“We are nonjudgmental,” Kline stressed. “We are not saying you should do this, but we think you can use some of this.”

The farm utilizes electricity but is not on the grid — it produces its own power from solar and wind — which can also keep overhead down.

And he doesn’t have to worry about being knocked off the grid in a windstorm or blizzard, “because we were never on the grid.”

The keys to getting young people into farming are two, Kline said: It has to be fun and it has to be profitable.

“You can farm for the fun of it, but it’s much more fun when you are making money. And you cannot be overwhelmed by work all the time.

Profit can come in many ways: Look for value added. Go into vegetables. Expand retail. He and his wife started a small, six to eight families, CSA last year, and laid produce and farm products out on a table for the city folks to pick from. Nearby, a group of 10 farm families banded together to form a CSA. In 2012, it signed up 950 members. In 2013, there are 1,250. They absorbed the growth not through adding acreage but by improving their soils and upping output.

In 1980 he converted the farm, which had always been natural and close to organic, to an organic blueprint.

“At the time, there was no organic dairy in Ohio. Today there are 150-200. That happened after Organic Valley came in.

“I’m a producer. Organic Valley does the marketing,” Kline said. “I cheered the first time an Organic Valley truck rolled out our lane.”

Organic Valley is a cooperative of organic family farmers. Its 1,677 member farms in 32 states and three Canadian provinces produce, distribute and market beef, pork, turkey, chicken, vegetables and dairy products. Organic Valley was a sponsor of the conference.

Kline concluded with a glance at the recent failure in California of a ballot item that would have required GMO labeling on food. The measure failed, he noted, 48.5 percent to 51.5 percent. That’s not a “huge margin” considering the large industrial producers spent $40 million to defeat it, he said, predicting labeling requirements will start to pass in California and elsewhere.

GMO corn, he alleged, is really tough. “It can penetrate a tractor tire.”

An audience member wondered if he looked to the stars and the moon when determining when to plant.

Some in his community equate planting by the moon with devil worship, he answered. But he has followed the advice to plant clover seed in March in the sign of Leo, and his planting has always been successful.

“In all the New Testament there is not a single instance of the Devil doing good.”

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