Brian Ziehm sits across the table from me at a local bar and squirms. He is seriously uncomfortable with the question I’ve just asked and the usually talkative farmer can’t quite find the words to answer, so I give him a break and say we’ll come back to this particular question at the end.
Brian, a 36-year old fourth generation dairy farmer from Washington County, New York, runs Tiashoke Farms alongside his younger brothers Eric and Stuart, and their parents Frank and Terry. The family-run operation employs sixteen people, consists of two farms in the towns of Easton and Buskirk and approximately 1,500 acres of cropland, half of which is rented from surrounding landowners. The Ziehms milk 700 dairy cows and have close to 1,500 animals in total under their care. This is, by no means, a small farm, but it is undoubtedly a family farm.
After graduating Cornell University, Brian returned to the family farm to create a business structure his family felt would best accommodate both their financial and personal needs. He admits that the decision was in part made because he wanted to have money, time off, the security and retirement fund such a large operation provided him with, or will, once he reaches a certain age. But money isn’t everything. The animals under his care, the people he employs, and the land he works, create fundamental pillars upon which the business is built.
But he also realizes that not every family farm transition goes as easy as his. “The reality is that in most cases a 24 year old can walk into a barn and say that they want to be a farmer ,” says Brian, “but the older generation tends to look at them and say they must have 20 years of experience and farm the way that they do before anything can happen. It stacks the deck against you again and again.” No matter what sort of situation a young farmer walks into, either a family transition or starting up their own farm, Brian suggests having a blue-print for your life and not just a business plan. “Figure out your life goals, what you want your days to look like, what your future will look like and then build the business plan around that, putting everything in place to accomplish those goals.” Grunt work, however is always necessary.
For Brian, his blueprint held well-rounded daily activities that would benefit his lifestyle. On any given day he can be an accountant, manager, work the fields or take care of animals, never doing the same thing twice. “You never have a standard day,” says Brian. But living a life in agriculture is different than agriculture being one’s life and Brian works to maintain a balance between his life on the farm and off of it.
Tiashoke employs sixteen people on a regular basis whose roles range from herdsmen to field operators and labor management takes up a majority of his daily work. The farm plants and harvests crops from fields throughout the area with the farthest being over eleven miles from the home-farm; this means moving large pieces of equipment with as little disturbance to the communities in which they travel and the environment in which they work. It also means being cautious of drivers who are in a rush and being proactive when concerns are raised. “The public has a better impression about the small tractor spraying something unknown than the ultra-large equipment like ours moving at a faster speed. When I see worried looks I always take the time to walk over and explain what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”
You cannot build such a large dairy farm without taking animals into account and for Brian, their care and comfort are major priorities. Years ago, when the farm was smaller, the family would take care of the cows and then head off to do field work. In cases such as that, it would be easy to miss a calving problem until it was too late and either (or both) the mother and child would be in serious jeopardy. Today, Tiashoke employs a herdsman whose job it is to keep an eye on the cows at all times, ensuring the highest quality of care and quick intervention should any problems arise. But regardless of safety measures, things still happen. “If I cared only about the money,” Brian says, “I wouldn’t find myself in the gutter of the barn at 2 am waiting for the vet.” This statement alludes to an incident when a cow encountered serious complications resulting from childbirth, a prolapsed uterus (a common condition when the uterus detaches and is expelled from the body). “Instead, I would have cut my losses and shot the cow, but there I was holding the uterus waiting for the vet to come and stitch her up. You don’t do things like that if you aren’t invested in the animals.”
Brian continued, “I could cut practices to get more milk out of the cows for a dollar, I could take shortcuts when I plant my corn and damage the environment, I could pound my employees into the ground all for a dollar. I could do all those things if money was most important, but the three pillars my success is built upon, the animals, environment, and labor are the highest priority and every day I make sure that everything is in place so that we can make the best milk we can.”
Brian feels that he does face some prejudice because of the work that he does. In smaller communities this is not felt as much as when he is exposed to people who do not work in agriculturally related fields. Often he hears conclusions based on the size of his family’s farm, that they must mistreat their animals, exploit their employees and use unsafe chemicals on the land. When asked if such misconceptions are directed to all farmers, Brian believed that conventional agriculture (versus sustainable/organic) gets the brunt of it because people don’t really know the level of food safety that his milk goes through. But also, the size and scope of his family’s farm is counter to the ideal image many people have of what a farm should look like. “We may scare of lot of consumers because (our size) isn’t the ‘wholesome’ picture of a farmer – 50 cows, working from a single home-farm. When people see me with a smart phone and using a laptop in the field with GPS equipped tractors they pin me in the ‘factory farm’ category,” Brian says.
This brings me back to my initial questions, the one that made Brian squirm: does he consider himself to be a factory farmer and how would he define a factory farm?
To the first question, Brian is adamant; they are not a factory farm despite their size. “We are still a family farm because not only are we run by family, but because all of our employees support their families through the work that they do. Our animal management and land use practices may not be the same as they were twenty years ago when we were smaller, but I want to make this point, they are in fact better than they were. The bedding we use for the cows, the temperature control measures we have in the barn, the ease with which the animals can get up and down provide a level of comfort that is beyond what it was. We use fewer chemicals on crops than we did twenty years ago, and our operation is more energy efficient and environmentally sound than it was back then as well.”
But when it comes to defining a factory farm, Brian is much more hesitant. If Brian can’t quite come to terms with the definition, many others are all too willing to do so. Farm Sanctuary defines a factory farm as “an attitude that regards animals and the natural world merely as commodities to be exploited for profit (FactoryFarming.com).” And according to Food and Water Watch, “factory farms cause extensive environmental damage and leave communities with fewer independent family farms, unsafe water, reduced air quality and depressed economies (Factory Farms in New York; February 2011).” But to get past the philosophical and ethical wrongs defined by such organizations, what is a factory farm? Some say that if a dairy farm has over 500 cows, it’s a factory. For others, if the farm has its CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) certification, something that is required if you have 200 dairy cows or more, it is a factory. Consensus would say that the major themes of a factory farm are: excessive size, disregard for animal welfare, misuse of pharmaceuticals, mismanagement of waste, and socially irresponsible corporate ownership (Sustainable Table, www.sustainabletable.org).
From what you’ve read so far, would you consider Tiashoke a factory farm? For Brian and his family, animal care is a priority, labor management a key to their success, and in terms of environmental integrity, the family has permanently conserved nearly six hundred acres in perpetuity – meaning that it will always be available for farmland and will never be in jeopardy of being developed, something the entire family is very proud of.
I asked Brian another question, would he ever consider changing the way he farmed? The answer, quick and decisive, was yes – he would switch to organic. “The move to organic would be due to consumer drivers and not a philosophical issue though,” Brian clarifies. “I don’t see any problem with the way we farm or with conventional agriculture. Conventional agriculture gets the brunt of criticism because people don’t really know the level of food safety that our milk goes through. Just because something is organic, it doesn’t automatically mean that it’s safe and conventional doesn’t automatically mean it’s unhealthy.”
Brian asks me a question, turning the tables slightly. “Marketing can make anything seem like the right choice, but is it really?” Fast food chains, dog food companies, potato chip brands, and more are getting momentum from ad campaigns espousing their product’s farm origins. But for him, the reality is going to hit people that food isn’t like plastic widgets, faceless and uniform. Eventually consumers will want to know where their food comes from and how it is made and, right or wrong, they will make a decision based on how it is produced and where it is produced. Brian doesn’t think that when such a decision is made his farm will suffer because when he looks at other industries, agriculture seems pretty solid. People will always have to eat and thus agriculture will always be important.
Consumer awareness like what Brian talks about is gaining momentum and he hopes that food is an issue that sticks with the American public. “When people say it’s important, when you wake up in the morning and care where your food comes from, then agriculture moves from some anonymous thing to a staple industry on the forefront of American life.”
“I want to be sexy,” Brian says with a laugh then more seriously adds, “Agriculture is and always will be a pure thing at any scale. It is one of the last pure things in the world because you connect to the earth and that connects you to something bigger. As a farmer, you know your work is going to someone and what you’ve produced will nourish them. You know you have done a good thing and it fulfills you.”