by Elizabeth A. Tomlin

During a March Shop meeting hosted by Simons Family Farm, Remsen NY, and coordinated by Oneida County Cooperative Extension, Ben and Chris Simons spoke to attendees about their diversification from dairy and how they have made it work.

Ben explained the farm is in a partnership including himself, his wife Robin and their son Chris.

Ben and Robin had originally farmed a small dairy in New Hampshire, but moved their family to New York State in 1984.

Renting and leasing farms along the way, they finally settled in Remsen, NY, and have accumulated several other farm properties, as well, including Steuben and Boonville, which now totals to about 1,100 acres.

“Right now we’re milking about 35,” Ben remarked. “But, we try to milk 50 or 60 all of the time. This is our dry time.”

“We have about 100 heifers here that are all due to freshen,” added Chris.

Ben said he sells about a dozen bagging heifers off in the spring of the year to a regular customer who milks about 100 head, but raises no heifers of his own.

Because the heifers are all approved for organic dairy, Ben sells the heifers for $2,000 – $2,500.

“I raise every heifer that hits the ground,” Ben said. “This is an organic dairy farm. I decided to keep the farm at the same size it is by going organic and getting the most out of what I’m doing.”

The change from conventional dairy to organic took place in 2012.

“I don’t feed any corn silage,” Ben commented. “I’m all haylage and hay, and corn meal and organic grain.”

Chris has no interest in the dairy end of the business and has expanded the crop business to include organic corn production and organic soybeans in some years.

“I don’t do anything with the cattle, just the feed,” Chris said.

“There’s a good market for organic corn,” Ben reported.

Developing a hay business has become a big part of the diversification on the farm, with most customers buying organic hay and other customers buying horse hay. Chris explained hay acres that are not organic are located in acreage furthest from the farm, but are close to where non-organic hay customers are.

“We’ll bale it and leave it right on the hay wagons and haul it right to the customer. That hay doesn’t even come back to this farm,” said Chris.

Although most hay is sold locally, Ben said any hay left by the first of March is sold to truckers who may take it out of state. He advised, “You want to have your barn pretty well emptied out for what you want to sell before you see green grass.”

Once hay customers see green grass they cut way back on hay purchases. But, when they see snow, they will buy another whole load. “That’s just my marketing tactic,” he said.

Ben said he also has a “very extensive” firewood business and does some logging as well. He found an excellent market for white wood this past winter.

“Anything white wood this winter was the thing to cut. Ash, maple, soft maple, hard maple, basswood, beech; there’s a market for anything white. Lower grade is staying local, higher grade’s going into shipping containers and going overseas,” explained Ben.

“Everybody makes more money if you can take a tree and put it into a log. But, my main business is firewood.”

Ben said he cuts about 2,000 cords of firewood each year. He uses a John-Deere skidder and a cherry picker mounted on a truck. He cuts the logs and stacks them, separating the firewood, then cuts the firewood anywhere from 8 to 20 feet long. Crooked trees are cut at shorter lengths. They have two firewood processors.

Ben said he runs a “constant ad” for his wood business, although many customers are referred to him by “word-of-mouth.”

Chris said he doesn’t get too involved with the wood business end of the farm, but does all of the maintenance on the equipment as needed. “I can be more profitable in this shop servicing equipment and getting things ready and let the employees go out and do the day-to-day tasks. Then I can have all of the equipment ready for everyone at the turn of a key.”

This way when firewood is done the tractors are ready for cropping.

“I just float around to make sure everything is smooth and running,” he said.

However, Chris is completely in charge of the crops and although he has established a profitable market for them, he said he is still learning about marketing.

“I’m very diversified in my market,” he explained. “I keep all of my organic ground close to home. I have all of my non-GMOs in one area and all of my round up ready in another area. So that when I go into an area with the combine, I’m not hop-scotching all over.”

This past year Chris said he was fortunate to acquire a bin for grain drying.

“Up until that point, I had been forced to sell everything out of the field without drying.”

This required learning the entire drying system.

Obstacles for the family include the same low dairy prices and weather impact that have impacted other northeast dairies.

“I made it through with my hay and firewood,” said Ben. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I wasn’t diversified.”