CATSKILL, N.Y. — In an area once populated with small dairies, Jim Van Orden is one of the last men standing.
He and his son, Bill, are the eighth and ninth generations of this bicentennial farm — aptly named Riverview — that their earliest known ancestor, William, founded in 1712 on the west shore of the Hudson River, with breathtaking views of the nearby Catskill Mountains.
During the American Revolution, another ancestor fought at the 1777 Battles of Saratoga, one of the world’s most famous engagements where rag-tag Americans defeated the powerful British army in what proved to be the war’s turning point. Perhaps out of retribution, the British later shelled the patriot Van Ordens’ original stone homestead during an advance up the Hudson River before heading back to New York City.
When the house was torn down many years later, four cannon balls were found in the walls, with one side flattened from the impact of hitting the stone structure.
Jim Van Orden’s father, 94-year-old Sam, “would play with them when he was a little kid,” Jim Van Orden said. “During World War II, they got sold for scrap iron. I don’t know where or who, but they got fired back at somebody.”
Today, like many dairy farmers, Jim Van Orden is fighting his own war for survival, with a daily battle against skyrocketing property taxes, rising fuel, feed and machinery costs, and a declining farm infrastructure network that makes it difficult to get things such as parts for his equipment.
“Because there are fewer and fewer farms, suppliers are getting farther and farther apart,” he said. “We had to go to Pine Plains, more than hour away, to get something the other day. When I was a kid there were five farms on this road alone.”
Now, Riverview and the family-run Story Farm are the town’s only two dairies, with fewer than a dozen left in all of Greene County.
The Van Ordens milk 40 Holsteins and sell to Dairy Farmers of America, or DFA. At one time, dairy represented a much smaller percentage of the farm’s income.Hay sales used to give them substantial business from the region’s numerous horse owners, who mostly kept horses for riding and hobby purposes.
“We used to turn down people because we couldn’t supply everybody,” he said. “When the economy went bad, Little Susie couldn’t afford to keep her horse any more. They’re an expensive luxury.”
Hay sales have since plummeted.
Now, Jim Van Orden is considering a slight dairy herd expansion, while staying diversified with the remaining hay sales and corn. They also distribute bagged wood shavings from a lumber company that are used for animal bedding.
In addition, the Van Ordens have 12 to 14 sow hogs, whose offspring get sold after seven weeks when they reach 40 pounds. There’s growing demand from other farms that raise pigs to maturity, so the Van Ordens might add more swine, too.
As a longtime past Greene County Farm Bureau president, the 59-year-old Jim Van Orden is keenly aware of most issues facing New York dairy farmers. He’s also a farmland protection board member.
The Greek yogurt industry is booming in upstate New York, with several new plants recently opening and more still to come. While there are definite benefits, dairy farmers continue to struggle.
“It’s very good for the economy and is creating jobs,” he said. “But it hasn’t helped the milk price because that’s set by the federal government. Pricing has stayed about the same the last 15 years and costs keep going up. Something’s got to be changed. If you can’t make money with 50 cows, you can’t make it with 100. Until the federal government changes the way milk is priced, it’s a lose-lose situation.”
His wife, Donna, is an integral part of the operation and is also active with the Greene County Agricultural Society and Greene County Youth Fair.
In addition to staying diversified, Jim Van Orden said increased direct marketing of products is key to staying in business.
Aside from his simple love of farming, he bears the responsibility of passing his family’s legacy on to future generations.
“It’s in your blood,” he said. “Hopefully we can make enough to keep going.”