CAZENOVIA, NY — In the hills overlooking Oneida Lake, with its fertile and sometimes fragile Honeoye soil, stand fields of cover crops, contour strips, wildlife ponds, riparian buffers and plantations of trees sequestering carbon, moisture and precious topsoil. This is a testament to a farm family’s life-long conservation ethic.
It has been said, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” Pete Gianforte put his own twist on this adage by planting trees when he was a young farmer so his family and community could sit under them today. This legacy of humble stewardship since 1974 has garnered the organic, diverse and wildlife-friendly, Gianforte Farm LLC, to be enshrined as the 2016 Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District’s Conservation Farm of the Year.
In its 36th storied chapter, the board of directors, district employees, conservation partners, fellow farmers, extension educators and friends honored Peter, Judy, Luke and Piper Gianforte for their pro-active approaches, determination and own sweat equity in balancing conservation practices with grain crop production. “Peter has put a lot of care and love into this land and into his life’s work,” said wife, Judy.
In the early 70s, the Russian grain embargo significantly impacted the grain market and domestic production and prices took off, which Pete was destined to be a part of, by growing primarily corn and some soybeans and wheat. Pete’s interest and degree in horticulture from nearby Morrisville College also inspired him to manage his timber, plant trees and create wildlife habitat along with production goals. “I like a lot of diversity and diverse projects to do”, said Pete. This led to an interest in organic grain production, which by the mid-1980s, was starting to ramp up.
Pete married local gal, Judy, in 1989 who just so happened to be a geology and landscape architecture graduate from Dartmouth College and was invited to “come out of the woods and be a farmer.” Judy quips, “When I pick rocks out of the field before planting, I can appreciate them more.”
Together they raised crops, kids and planted over 4,000 pine, spruce and black cherry trees and developed wildlife ponds named after their son, Luke, and daughter, Piper.
This passion for forest stewardship planning and planting and spending winters in the southern U.S. working on conservation projects for the Nature Conservancy was recognized by the CNY Forest Owners Association in giving the Gianforte family the Donald Sterns Forestry Award in 1993.
In 1995 the 400-acre farm became certified organic for feed and food grade row crops and small grains. Today their owned acreage and 200 additional rental acres are NOFA-NY certified as well as being a certified handler. They grow over 10 diverse grain crops including rice and dry beans, in a detailed rotation to mitigate weed and insect pressure.
“Contour farming, crop rotation and soil health is paramount to making organic production work. Soil health is carefully monitored through soil health tests and a nutrient management plan and enhanced through crop selection and periodic use of soil amendments such as gypsum and compost,” said Judy. “We’re in the field a lot, scouting and making critical planting, tilling and cultivating decisions and deciding which piece of equipment will do the best job given field conditions.”
“Organic certification creates significant paperwork and documentation from field to buyer. However the verification and traceability is very important to us in providing integrity to the customer,” said Judy. This regime allows the farm to sell wholesale to mills, organic dairies and direct to customers from South Carolina to Maine. They also have their own small “nanno” mill and sell whole grains, beans and milled products to local stores, coops, restaurants, bakers and individual customers. Customers rave about the products: “The taste of the milled products reflects the earthiness, diversity and the Gianforte’s commitment to the stewardship of the land.”
Given their hectic work schedule, equipment maintenance and attention to detail, the Gianfortes have continued to foster and enhance their farm surroundings over the years through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Conservation Security Program. They have also participated in the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program, which provides cover, food and habitat for turkeys, raptors, pollinators, amphibians and other wildlife. They have installed numerous wood duck nesting boxes, bluebird houses and kestrel boxes and perches along field margins, shallow ponds and stream buffers. In 2009 they had a 5kw wind turbine installed to help power the operation.
The future of the award-winning farm looks bright as son Luke, who graduated from Cornell University with an animal science and business degree, joined the operation full-time in 2014. He became the majority manager while dad became manager “emeritus” and mom continues to be the parts runner and works for the Cazenovia Preservation Foundation part-time. Sister Piper helps out when she can albeit pursuing a marketing and visual communications career.
“We’ve decided as a family that Luke will have the opportunity to take the business into the future,” said Peter. Luke has inherited his parent’s work and conservation ethic and love of the land with a more modern flare. He utilizes GPS technology to monitor crop yields and management zones in each field as well as software and record-keeping systems. “I’m trying to find ways to be more efficient with labor, fuel and management decisions over an input system. We’ve got to maximize margins to remain competitive and be in a timely and flexible position to capture markets,” said the younger Gianforte.
Luke’s candor and business savvy is gaining him and Penn Yan’s Lake View Organic Grains co-owner, Peter Martens, some notoriety as the “young guns of organic grain production” and bringing them together to mentor other farmers in workshops. “If I can help others and show boots on the ground ideas that improve the organic business climate, I like doing that,” commented Gianforte.
Lori Kenyon, Certification Director for NOFA-NY Certified Organic, LLC echoed praise for the Gianfortes in receiving the 2016 Madison County Conservation Farm of the Year. “Luke, Judy and Peter are dedicated to sustainability and their farming practices show them to be good environmental stewards that we can all be proud of.”
Luke summed it up best by saying, “It doesn’t matter what you’re growing, conservation practices add value to the land. It’s this land that supports us and gives strength to our local communities”
You can access the Gianforte Farm products at www.gianfortefarm.com
To learn more about the programs, projects and technical assistance the Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District provides local landowners contact them at 315-824-9849 or on the web at www.madcoswcd.com