July 31, 2009
Farm cultivates next generation
Preble youth following in family footsteps as fifth-generation farmer
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Casey Knapp, 20, of Cobblestone Valley Farms in Preble, works in the barn. Knapp has received an award from Wisconsin-based organic distributor and promoter Organic Valley, honoring him as the next generation of organic farmers.
PREBLE — If it wasn’t for his muddy rubber boots and slightly grubby T-shirt, Casey Knapp would be the kind of 20-year-old you’d expect to find studying for the LSATs, hoping to get an internship at some high-powered law firm.
Instead, Casey plans on returning to his family farm as the fifth-generation owner of Cobblestone Valley Farms, now an organic dairy and berry farm in Preble.
Casey’s newfound devotion to his family farm has earned him distinction from Organic Valley,a Wisconsin-based organic distributor and promoter.
This week, he traveled to Wisconsin to accept the company’s “Gen-O” award, an honor the company has established to recognize the next generation of organic farmers.
Casey is a natural fit for the award, which is given for promotion of Organic Valley and organic farming in general. After graduating from high school in 2007, he has worked as an public relations officer and promoter for Organic Valley, giving speeches in San Francisco and New York, and working at the United Nations to help develop sustainable farming policy for the developing world.
“The average age of a conventional farmer is 55 to 56,” he said, as Thursday’s work came to an end.
Even among organic farmers, Casey is on the young end of the spectrum — organic farmers are, on average, age 35.
On Saturday, the Knapps will host a “Generation Organic” conference at their farm, with about 40 fellow Organic Valley farmers from as far away as North Carolina meeting to discuss issues facing the new crop of organic farmers.
It wasn’t always his dream to follow in his father’s footsteps and take over Cobblestone Valley Farms, Casey Knapp said. As a child, Casey planned to leave the farm, doing something other than the family business.
But two years ago, something changed, and Casey began to see something in his parents’ farm that he hadn’t before.
“I like the strawberries,” he said, looking north toward Preble Road, where the Knapps’ strawberry fields lie. “A lifestyle of living outside with your family, that’s the best way to go.”
It’s not as if organic strawberry-growing is the key to a life of easy luxury. Knapp said that over the summers, weeding the strawberry patches usually takes up about four hours each morning.
“The key is to never look at your watch,” he said.
The strawberry patches are only part of the Knapps’ 600-acre Preble farm, which they switched from conventional to organic nine years ago.
“It’s a whole different frame of thinking,” said Casey’s mother, Maureen Knapp.
Paul and Maureen Knapp were among the first to adopt organic farming methods in Cortland County, and Maureen has been an active spokesperson for organics since they started nine years ago. They said the reasons for switching to organic kept mounting after they began exploring the idea 11 years ago.
“There were a lot of different road signs along the way,” said Paul Knapp.
For one thing, he said, the chickens he let graze in the fields produced better meat than their caged counterparts.
“The meat that comes from the pastured chickens is so much different,” he said. “It’s much more tender, and more flavorful.”
That difference was enough to inspire the Knapps to look into totally organic farming. Improving the quality of their products, however, was not the only idea that motivated the family’s move away from conventional, “chemically enhanced” farming.
The realization that the farm sits on the Chesapeake Watershed made a difference, too.
“We realized that what we do here doesn’t just affect tens of thousands, it affects hundreds of thousands of people downstream,” Paul said.
But changing over to organic farming is not as easy as simply making the decision. The Knapps spend hours every morning hand-weeding their strawberry fields, and they haul their cows’ manure into well-organized compost piles, which they use for their own pastures and sell to local growers.
As scores of New York dairy farmers struggle to make ends meet during a period of depressed milk prices, the Knapps’ decision to work organic seems to be an even better idea.
Conventional dairy farmers are earning about $12 per hundredweight, or 100 pounds, of milk, well under the $16 per hundredweight needed to offset the costs of production. Meanwhile, the Knapps, thanks to a price premium on organic foods, earn about $26 per hundredweight of the organic milk produced on their Preble farm, which they market through Organic Valley. Even with the increased costs of organic farming, that makes for a significant revenue increase over the Knapps’ local competition.
Meanwhile, Casey said he is looking forward to eventually taking the reins at Cobblestone Valley Farms. In the meantime, he is working on a business degree at Onondaga Community College, and eventually plans to transfer to Cornell to study agriculture. He is excited about the future for organic farming.
“People are becoming more aware that what they put into their bodies affects their health,” he said.
For his peers, who in many cases are bucking to leave their families’ farms, Casey suggested they reconsider.
“Look at your priorities,” he said. “If your family is one of them, this is the greatest job you can have.”
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