Ten years ago, the Andra Benson and her husband, farmers in Lansing, decided to convert their conventional dairy to organic. They joined the Organic Valley Co-op, which offered more consistent payment for milk, regional loan assistance, and other benefits, which Andra explained at a recent event, “The Co-op Opportunity,” hosted by GreenStar Community Projects.
Benson Family Profile courtesy of Organic Valley:
By the southeastern fingertip of New York State’s Cayuga Lake lies an idyllic 1,000-acre farm owned by the Benson family.
Chandler Benson is the third generation of his family to work this land. Through the combined efforts of the family—Chandler, his wife, Aziza, their three (count ‘em!) sets of twins, and Chandler’s parents—this farm in New York’s coveted Finger Lakes region will be carefully stewarded to enhance and protect this landscape for generations to come.
Chandler and Aziza met as students at the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut. Chandler transferred to Cornell to finish his college degree and then got a job as an insurance actuary in Chicago. Aziza had a 5-year commitment to the military to fulfill. They got married shortly after they graduated from college, but they couldn’t come back to the farm straight away. Chandler wanted to make sure he had a career to fall back on in case the farm couldn’t support the extended family that depended on it. But he knew in his bones that he wanted to be on the farm.
“Within six months of sitting in a cubicle on the 32nd floor of a 44-story building, I decided that I would go home and take over the family farm.” Chandler and Aziza made a plan to return in five years, and they stuck with it. Aziza laughs as she explains, “We gave up our salaries for kids covered in manure from helping Daddy in the barn and feeding the calves with Grandma.”
Years before their return, Chandler’s parents, Chuck and Andra, had made a couple of decisions about how they were farming that proved significant for the farm and the family.
Back in the 1990s, when many farms in the Finger Lakes region were expanding into thousand-cow dairies, the Bensons chose to stay small. They down-sized their herd of Holstein-Shorthorn crossbred cows to 300. With that size herd, they had enough land to grow all the feed necessary for the cows in the form of fresh pasture in the growing season (350 acres), hay to harvest for winter (450 acres), and about 200 acres for grain.
These days the cows move three times a day during the growing season to pastures lush with white and red clovers, Kentucky bluegrass and orchard grass. A small stream runs through the farm and the family created a two million-gallon pong from that for emergency irrigation purposes if the pastures get too dry.
“Transitioning to organic was really my Mom’s idea,” Chandler says. “For the most part, the way my parents farmed was already so close to organic, the transition wasn’t very hard for them. When we came back to the farm, they were just about finished with the transition.”
While Chuck and Andra always pastured, Chandler was surprised to see how much healthier the cows were after transitioning to organic. “In spite of being able to use all the antibiotics and drugs when we were conventional, it was a struggle to keep our herd size up. Cows just don’t get sick as much now.”
Chandler adds, “Organic farming in general, and Organic Valley in particular, has changed the paradigm for family farms. Where once the future looked like a struggle, our farm now has the chance to thrive.”
Chandler’s youngest brother, Tyson, graduated from Cornell University’s veterinary program and has moved back home to set up his own large animal veterinary practice. He lives just down the road from the farm with his family and is the farm’s regular veterinarian.
Leaving the big farmhouse for the kids, Chuck and Andra built their own house on the farm. Chuck had become a big fan of green building principles, so they worked with a green design company to design a straw bale house. Thick walls made of straw are covered with plaster and topped with a “living” roof that includes 12 inches of soil. The house is so well insulated that it stays at a comfortable temperature year-round with a minimal use of fossil fuel energy.
Chuck and Andra are semi-retired from farm work now that Chandler is there full time. Aziza says, “We have such a young family, it’s been wonderful to have the extended family together on the farm. To have access to their knowledge and have the gift of their time with us has been fantastic.”
Image credit: “The Chandler & Aziza Benson Family,” Photo by David Nevala, ©2013 Organic Valley, used with permission.