Madison County honors 2014 Conservation Farm of the Year

CE-MR-2-Conservation Farm 2by Troy Bishopp

HAMILTON, NY — The Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District welcomed area farmers, friends and conservation enthusiasts to a complimentary luncheon in celebration of the John Schell Family receiving the coveted 34th annual 2014 Conservation Farm of the Year and a New York State Assembly Citation at the White Eagle Conference Center in Hamilton, NY.

Like many farmers who chose to farm in the rolling hills and valleys of Madison County, John Schell and his family conjure up the vision of the rugged individualist braving the elements and farm pricing structures to raise a family and feed a nation.

“I had farming in my blood”, said John, after helping on his grandfather’s farm for years. By the fall of 1987 and with the help of the late Barrett Welsh of Edmeston, NY and NBT Bank, he purchased a 273 acre farm between the Sangerfield River (running through the Nine Mile Swamp) and State Route 12 in the Town of Hamilton at the headwaters of the mighty Susquehanna River Basin.

“In the beginning, my initial consultations with the local Natural Resources Conservation Service team clearly showed that my fields with high erodible land (HEL) designation would need a higher level of management to mitigate runoff issues,” said John.

Since those early years of hard knocks, John has been joined by his wife Suzette, son John II, daughter Jenna and longtime employee, Brad Smith to farm nearly 800 acres of owned and leased land dedicated to corn, soybean and hay production with the balance in pasture and hardwood forest used in maple sugar production while providing consumers with quality dairy products through the Oneida-Madison Cooperative.

The home grown forages and grains are fed to the 100 cow dairy and 85 head of replacement animals with the remaining production stored at the farm and marketed through local feed cooperatives.

“Diversification between the dairy and crop enterprises has cut our overall costs. It has paid huge dividends,” said John.

Since 2005, the Schell Family have been a no-till farming proponent on their highly erodible land and credit CaroVail’s Crop Consultant, Matt Entwistle for introducing them to the idea. “I made plenty of mistakes back then but customized my John Deere planter with different closing wheels, row cleaners and retrofitted an Unverferth Mfg. zone tiller hitch to streamline the process. With the price of fuel and having just so many hours in the day, it’s been a pretty cool and cost effective way to go into a field with just a tractor and planter making a one-pass system,” said John. “I’ve lost a lot less topsoil from the recent gully-washers and saw 10 times better yields during the 2012 drought. I’m a believer.”

The farm has utilized a collaborative approach in implementing common sense conservation practices that include: a comprehensive nutrient management plan, a precision dairy feed management program, field buffers, rock-lined waterways, roof water management, roofed heavy-use area, manure transfer system. A milk-house waste system is also planned for 2014.

“To get conservation on the ground it takes plenty of brainstorming and seeing other farms to customize the various projects to fit the land and the farmer’s wallet,” said Madison Co. SWCD’s District Technician, Jerry Boyd. “We have to figure out the many slopes, manure collection strategies, make structures rugged enough for dairy cows, and always think about planning for future growth.”

The elder John added, “With my son and Brad as the cow guys, I’ve been losing callouses just driving the skid-steer around. Efficiency has meant money.”

These measures have enhanced water quality throughout the property using the family’s resources along with program funding and technical assistance from the Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District, the NYS Environmental Protection Fund, the Natural Resources Conservation Service EQIP Program, The NYS Agricultural Environmental Management Program, Cornell’s Dairy Feed Management Program and The Upper Susquehanna Coalition.

“We are pretty lucky to have local organizations like the Madison Co. Soil and Water Conservation District working with us. The evidence is in our consistent crop yields, reduced erosion, improved water infiltration, enriched fertility levels and a better economic outlook against the unpredictability of the weather. I’m happy in seeing the results from many hours of hard work and planning,” said John Schell.

For more information on conservation planning and implementation, give the Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District a call at 315-824-9849.

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