by Troy Bishopp
CHITTENANGO, NY — The dust bowl era in the Midwest displaced many families, including farmers. Edson and Harriet Durfee were one of them. Luckily for New York and Madison County, they and their three children moved back east from Nebraska, and settled their dairy farm on 120 acres of river bottom soils and Honeoye hills which fed the appetites of the, “then”, quiet hamlet of Chittenango, NY.
Going on five generations in the community since then, their dedicated land stewardship, soil conservation and farm management has garnered the coveted 38th annual Conservation Farm of the Year by the Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District. “We appreciate the opportunity to work with the Durfee family and help them achieve their conservation goals, including enhancement of soil health practices and protection of numerous water bodies within the Oneida Lake Watershed,” said District Manager, Steve Lorraine.
The historic dairy farm started around 1940 with Edson and Harriet milking 24 cows and growing crops with their son, Warner. They pioneered the Dairy Herd Improvement Association in the area as well as being founding members in New York Farm Bureau. By 1950 their 34 cows boasted a 14,256 lb. herd average with 486 lbs. of fat. According to local historical records, “Good farming has been the basis of much of their success, enabling them to increase both the size of the herd and the production per cow. They have so many good ideas to demonstrate on their farm that the Tri-County Land Use Field Days were held there for years to help educate other farmers.”
Fast forwarding to 1963, Edson passed away. Warner had married his bride Mildred, and their six children had been born. The Durfee family had expanded to 50 cows, rented more land and built a 13,000 bird egg-layer barn to supply the surrounding area and New York City markets. The new chicken barn would only house chickens for four years, however. In 1967 when egg prices plummeted, and like most chicken farmers of that era, the Durfees sold all the birds and the 4-year-old laying barn sat dormant for the next 12 years.
In 1978, a tragic barn fire destroyed the dairy barn and took the lives of all the cows except for 20 heifers that happened to be out on pasture. It was a turning point for the farm as Warner Durfee retired, and sons, Steve and Doug, took over as partners. Steve and Doug turned the former egg-laying barn into a cow barn and increased the herd to 180 cows and expanded the land base until 1999 when Steve bought out his brother Doug.
After this transition, Steve and his wife Mary Lou, with their children, Nate, Ben, Dan, Martina and Samantha all helped develop the farm along with other family members and by 2014, the name had changed to Tuscarora Dairy and a partnership ensued between Steve, Mary Lou, Nate, Ben and Dan.
Today’s operation has 900 milking cows and 800 dairy replacements fed from 1000 acres of owned and 1200 acres of leased land that facilitates corn, small grains and forage crop production. A crew of family and 25 full and part-time employees take care of the animals, the land, and a seasonal farm stand and maintain the equipment and facilities. They no-till plant 600 acres of corn and plant cover crops in the fall to keep the soil and nutrients in place. Their high quality milk is sold to the Oneida-Madison Cooperative with the farm receiving numerous Super Milk Awards.
“The key for our farm is the cows come first, crops second and we pay all of our bills on time,” said Mary Lou. “We don’t spend what we don’t have and have always tried to avoid new paint disease. Lately however, we’ve had to get really creative about our bottom line as the milk price hasn’t kept up with expenses. We would have been happy staying at 200 cows and debt-free but to make a viable business for the next generations we needed to have a bigger operation,” said Steve Durfee.
In creating viability and vitality, conservation practices play an integral part on this modern farm. “Soil is a limited resource so you want to protect it, it’s that simple. Since our soils are prone to leaching, it’s a no-brainer for us. And we want to be good neighbors communicating our passion within our growing community,” said Durfee.
The farm is being recognized for a multitude of conservation measures which include: nutrient management, precision feed management, strip cropping, no-till planting, cover crops, zone tillage, animal waste systems, manure injection, silage leachate collection, constructed wetlands for nutrient reduction, roof water control structures and stream bank stabilization projects.
In addition to their busy schedules, the Durfee Family also volunteers. They are long time New York Farm Bureau members and active in their community. Marylou is a 4-H dairy leader who has coached eight elected dairy princesses at the farm. She is on the Madison County dairy princess committee and is a former chairwoman of the Madison County CCE Agriculture Committee. Steve was a former Madison County Farm Bureau President and Madison County DHIA board member. He is currently the Madison County Farmland Protection Board Chairman and Town of Sullivan chairperson for the zoning board of appeals. Nate serves on the Madison County Farm Bureau and Madison County CCE boards and is on the board of directors for the Farm Service Agency.
The farm also hosts school tours and mentor college students in dairy management.
Madison County SWCD Board Director, John Salka remarked, “The commitment and stewardship by the Durfee family over four generations is vital for the health of Madison County and beyond. We pause today to thank them for their hard work and dedication to our conservation mission while thoughtfully educating the community about the importance of local agriculture.”
Assemblyman William Magee echoed his sentiment, “The Durfee family farm are sterling examples of land conservation, stewardship and best farming practices helping to perpetuate sustainable agriculture.”
“Working with our local conservation district to obtain sound technical advice, nutrient management planning and financial resources while addressing farm resiliency in our busy community has been invaluable,” said the Durfees. “This award honors our whole family’s commitment to agriculture and providing our customers with the highest quality, delicious dairy products. It’s nice to receive affirmation for our work and expense, but we don’t farm for the accolades. We just want to leave our soil better for the next generations than when we started.”