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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., to follow in their 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 and dreams of running his own operation.

“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 he plans to continue the family tradition into the fourth generation. And he is part of a trend, according to Cornell Cooperative Extension agriculture issue leader Brent A. Buchanan.

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

“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 is that the cost of milk is not increasing with the cost of other commodities, Mr. Buchanan said.

“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,” he said.

That cost has become a big deterrent to some in the next generation.

“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, 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.”

But like many small dairy farms, the Bawdens have found a sustainable resource: organic milk.

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

“Organic 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 more than 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, she believed.

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.

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 to do things that you already knew how to do.”

The Bawdens will resort to non-organic remedies if necessary for the animal, but that means it can’t be milked again. The cow would 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.

“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.”

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 and the kind. 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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