11/10/2012 6:59 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent
HARTFORD, N.Y. — The sign outside Duane Burch’s farm tells his entire life’s story.
The picture of a horse shows where he is now, the plow is a universal symbol for agriculture and a cow represents where he came from.
Together they form a handsome logo for his Hartford business, Burchland Country Experience, in rural Washington County not far from the Vermont border.
“I’m trying to keep the core part of the farm,” Burch said. “I’ve already sold some acreage. There are only two dairy farms left around here. When I was a kid there were at least 14. Every little farm had 10 cows or so. We had a strong country when we had small farms on every corner. We’ve run our small farms out the same way we’ve run our small businesses out. It makes me feel terrible.”
Burch, 63, sold his herd of 185 Holsteins in 2003, after it became clear that neither of his two sons wanted to be dairy farmers.
“I wasn’t going to fight this battle on my own,” he said matter-of-factly. “There was no choice for me.”
He misses the animals, but is committed to keeping whatever he can of the farm’s most important asset — its land.
In 2006, he built a “cover-all” horse arena, which he made available for a variety of programs such as riding lessons, 4-H classes, youth and adult equine drill teams and ranch horse training.
Connie Liebig, whose family owns a large nearby strawberry farm, is Burchland’s lead trainer and instructor.
The newest venture, launched in August, is Nipper Knolls Therapeutic Riding Program, run by physical therapist Cathy Lamando.
“It’s for kids with special needs such as learning disabilities and autism,” she said. “There are things they can’t do on a team that they can do one-on-one with a horse. Instead of football or soccer, this can be their sport.”
The program has already produced incredible results in just its first couple of months of existence. Kids who balked and refused to take part during their first trip to the farm, can’t wait to get there now.
“The difference is amazing,” said Lamando’s husband, Dave. “It really helps them build self-confidence.”
Lamando grew up on her father’s Orange County, N.Y., dairy farm, near Newburgh, so she’s been acquainted with horses and farm animals her entire life. Her new therapeutic riding program is a natural extension of that.
In September, Burchland hosted an open house to welcome prospective clients and she’s been getting the word out however she can, from county fairs to chamber of commerce events. The program is certified by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsepeople International.
“It kind of sets standards,” she said.
For kids, the program is an ongoing activity they look forward to each week. They start out by learning basic horsemanship that includes lessons in tack, safety, equine body parts and riding skills.
However, Lamando has other types of clients, too, people with specific short-term physical therapy needs. For them, the horse is simply another vehicle for helping them get better.
Equine programs don’t generate the same level of income that Burch’s dairy enjoyed during more prosperous times. But he’s using them to carve out a niche that he hopes will enable him to maintain the rural lifestyle he’s known his entire life.
Some of the obstacles he’s faced with haven’t changed at all.
“It doesn’t matter whether or not you like taxes, you have to pay them,” Burch said. “Insurance is quite high, too, with riding programs. Those are the biggest struggles.”
However, he’s no stranger to adversity. On July 10, 1978, a barn fire destroyed the entire building and all the milking equipment it housed, although no animals were lost. For several months, neighboring farms housed Burch’s cows. On Dec. 5 of that same year they came home.
Burch said another big setback came in the mid-1980s, when the Reagan administration lowered dairy price support levels to below the cost of production.
“I lost almost one-third of my milk check in 1984,” he said. “Dairy farmers are an optimistic bunch. You always say, ‘Next year’s going to be better.’ So you borrow money to keep going. I incurred a lot of debt.”
That was another big factor behind his decision to sell the herd.
“Milk prices had a tremendous amount to do with everything,” Burch said.
His family has been farming in his corner of the world, called Burch Hill, since the early 19th century, perhaps longer.
“There’s a Burch in the North Hebron cemetery who died in 1826,” he said. “Basically everybody was a farmer back then.”
The cows might be gone, but the dairy business will always be in his blood.
“I love animal husbandry, I love working with animals,” Burch said. “Most dairy farmers say the thing they like least is milking cows. I loved milking, and I loved doctoring cows.”
He’s also got a big place in his heart for children. Somehow, he’s trying to find a way to make them all fit together in a way that will keep his farm intact.
“You’ve got to be really creative,” Burch said. “I go day by day.”