Building Resiliency Through Adaptation
Conservation helps a sixth-generation farm a new path and future
It’s not every family farm that can trace its history back to pre-revolutionary times, but Sheffer’s Grassland Dairy can.
Tucked in the rolling hills of West Hoosick, the initial 140-acre property was purchased in 1774 and paid for in British pounds. Two years and one Revolutionary War later, an additional 20 acres were purchased and paid for in U.S. dollars.
Since then, six generations of Sheffers have worked the land, weathered countless economic up- and down-turns, and consistently kept their eyes on the horizon, looking for the next market shift and opportunity.
One of the most significant shifts in the family farm’s history began in 2014 when owner Eric Sheffer began transitioning the traditional dairy operation to organic. “We could see where the conventional market was going,” he recalls, “and it wasn’t good. We weren’t interested in getting bought out and we had just upped our acreage to over 400 which made organic grazing a very viable option. In a lot of ways, the timing of the Dairy Transition Program couldn’t have been better.”
Today, the Sheffers graze more than 200 cows on a mixture of grass and clover. Eric, along with a team of four full-timers and one part-timer, handle the milking, shipping 2.5 million pounds of milk per year to Stonyfield Organic. “The opportunity to contract with Stonyfield in 2016 was another well-timed bit of good fortune,” says Sheffer. “When we got our organic certification in 2017, all the pieces were already in place for us to make a successful go at a new approach to dairy farming and maximizing our assets.”
Another opportunity that the Sheffers kept an eye on for years was conserving the land with ASA. “Honestly,” he says, “my father Wally and I discussed it many times over the years. Our plan has always been to keep the land agricultural, so it made sense, but we didn’t have a need that it addressed.”
But now, with organic prices at their lowest since 2015 and costs steadily on the rise, Sheffer appreciates how an easement can bring some stability to the farm at what may be a pivotal time for the industry overall.
“Our operation is actually in a decent spot, but I think there’s trouble ahead for organic dairy. An easement affords us flexibility with land debt and expansion. We’re able to pick our heads up and really consider different opportunities. Maybe we’ll take on different enterprises or maybe we’ll do something else. The important thing is we’re more resilient and in a better position to change directions if the market gets flooded or other factors impact our ability to be profitable. Protecting the land makes all that possible and ensures it will be available for yet another generation of Sheffers.”
"Conserving the land affords us flexibility with debt and expansion. We’re able to pick our heads up and really consider different opportunities.”
— Eric Sheffer
Funding for this project was provided by the New York State Environmental Protection Fund through the Dairy Transitions Farmland Protection Initiative administered by the Department of Agriculture and Markets.