I Love It Every Day’

12/8/2012 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

Despite Obstacles, Young NY Dairy Farmer Living His Dream

ARGYLE, N.Y. — Dan Richards didn't grow up around cows and nobody would give him the financing he sought to purchase the farm he wanted.

This year, however, his Richview Farm was named a Dairy of Distinction, one of several awards that his certified organic Holstein herd has won for this agricultural entrepreneur.

Richards, 31, and his wife, Erin, are one of the young couples in Argyle, Washington County, N.Y., who are making a go of things at a time when many sons and daughters are leaving family farms for better-paying, less time-consuming jobs.

"I've been organic since 2006," he said. "One of the biggest differences is that you get paid twice as much as do you for processed milk. I have a two-year contract and the price, $35-per-hundredweight, doesn't fluctuate. So I know exactly what I'm going to be getting two years from now."

His Route 40 farm is almost paid for, as is all of his machinery except for a new tractor that he purchased this year. In fact, he's negotiating to buy another nearby farm where he could house young stock, freeing up space at the main farm to expand his herd from 80 to 110 milk cows.

“We're restricted by space limitations right now," Richards said.

The downside to organic farming, which he readily admits, is the extra work involved — both in the field and behind an office desk.

"There's a lot of paperwork," Erin said. "The documents you have to keep on every cow is unbelievable."

As organic farmers, they use no pesticides, commercial fertilizers or antibiotics.

"It's a lot harder to grow crops," Richards said. "We feed the soil with cover crops and I have to cultivate the corn every week. There is a lot more work. It's a whole different way of thinking. But until they find a good way of pricing conventional milk that's fair to the farmer, we'll stay organic."

He sells to Horizon Milk, a subsidiary of Dean Foods.

Richards got his first taste of farming from his grandfather, who owned a few heifers. While still in high school, he went to work at a local farm and by his senior year had a few cows of his own. Before class, he'd get up early for chores and right after school when most kids were playing sports, he'd go right back to work.

At 19, he rented a farm in Granville, N.Y., that Erin's family used to run. That's how they met. They were both at the same auction where Richards was buying cows to expand his herd.

He couldn't have been a more perfect match for her. Having grown up on a farm, she couldn't imagine a better lifestyle.

"I always told my father, 'I'm going to marry a dairy farmer and own my own farm some day,' " she said. "He told me, 'You're going to college.' I said, 'OK, but that's what I'm going to do.' "

Her sister and brother-in-law, Shanna and Kyle Reid, are also farming in Argyle, while Erin's brother, Justin Wilson, has revived her family's Granville farm with her parents. "We've all stayed with it and have our own farms," she said.

After renting from Erin's father for five years, 2003-08, Dan began looking for a place of his own and found a 110-acre site where he's located now. However, he said that neither Farm Credit nor a bank, MBT, would give him a loan.

“I didn't have enough equity at the time," he said. "But I just knew I could do it."

Instead, the farm's former owners, Paul and Ray McGeoch, held the mortgage and Richards began paying them off little by little.

"I started with one heifer calf when I was still in school," he said. "Now I own two houses, have 110 acres and rent 300 more. It hasn't been easy by any means. But I love cows, I love tractors. I work 13 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week for not much money. But I love it every day."

Dan manages the milk cows and crops, while Erin handles the calf and young heifer program.

The farm also has two full-time employees — Gary Wilson and Kelly Freeguard.

"They do a super job," Richards said. "We're so grateful to have them."

Richards said his herd's milk has 4 percent butterfat and 3.3 percent protein with a somatic cell count in the 120,000 to 140,000 range. In addition to being a Dairy of Distinction, the herd has won a Super Milk Award and high-quality awards through Horizon.

Also, he said that his cows average 60 pounds of milk per day, about 20 pounds higher than most organic herds, which he attributes to high-quality feed and keeping cows comfortable.

"We give them the best forage we can possibly put up, and keep cows as happy as possible," Richards said. "If it's in you and it's something you love, you make it work, one way or another. It's all I know."

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