The Dairy QueenJun 01, 2021 11:32AM ● By Alison Fromme
On a recent spring morning at Engelbert Farms store, Lisa Engelbert discussed renovations with a representative from a local paint store. The 100-year-old walls have original paint on them and Lisa needed advice on how to preserve it. She’s planning to turn a small space within the shop into a place where customers can relax, enjoy some food, and maybe encounter a neighbor before picking up their groceries.
“When people come in for a cup of soup or a coffee and baked good, we want them to have a place to sit and enjoy it,” explains Lisa. Right now, she offers all kinds of grab and go items, like cheeseburger soup, pork spring rolls, rice pudding, muffins, and coffee—in addition to organic and local vegetables, fruit, honey, cheese, and more. It’s all produced by her farm and other businesses in the area.
The rustic store is part of Engelbert Farms in Nichols, New York, which has been in the family since 1911. During the early 1980s, Lisa and her husband Kevin (now the town supervisor) took charge. Before that, Kevin’s dad had farmed intensively and taken advantage of the technology available—he sprayed chemicals to kill the weeds and crop yields rose. But the good fortune brought by chemicals didn’t last forever. Kevin recalls that he was plowing in third gear because the soil was rock hard. He found three earthworms and corn from three years prior that had not decomposed. The cows were sick. The cost of chemicals and the vet bills were rising.
To turn the farm around, Kevin and Lisa turned to organic and brought the land back to life with rotational grazing and other practices. The certifying agency, Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, NOFA-NY, did not even have organic standards for dairy farms at the time, but they reviewed the Engelbert’s practices and approved them. Later, Kevin joined the NOFA-NY standards board to help write the guidelines and Lisa worked there as an administrator. Engelbert Farms became the first certified organic dairy farm in the United States, before there was even a market for organic milk.
At first, their milk was mixed and sold as conventional milk. The couple wanted to put in their own processing equipment, but the bank would not provide a loan because of the risk. In 2001, they joined the CROPP Organic Valley milk co-op and brought in a profit for the first time. Now the land is farmed primarily by two of their three sons, John and Joe.
When the pandemic hit last year, there was so much uncertainty. Lisa had to limit the store to six customers at a time and put chairs out front for those who were waiting their turn. Then, when local lockdowns were enacted, the store could only accommodate two shoppers. On the farm, the work still had to be done, and between the dairy cows, beef cattle, corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, vegetables, there was plenty of it. “The cows still needed to be milked. The crops needed to be planted,” she says.
During the pandemic, big grocery stores ran out of meat and other products, but at the Engelbert Farms store, the supply of food was never a problem. Beef, pork, and veal come straight from their farm. The milk they produce is processed by their co-op, Organic Valley. Another local farm, Lively Run in Interlaken, New York, processes their milk into cheese. Other products like maple syrup or berries from Terry’s Berry Farm are locally sourced. Many of the new customers gained during the pandemic have kept coming back, even as supply issues have returned mostly to normal. “This is a silver lining for us, if there is one,” Lisa says, adding that the pandemic did reveal something about the food system. “Our food system is made up of a lot of big companies, and when one has a problem, it causes a big disruption. If we had a local and regional food system like we did in the past, our society would be a lot more resilient.”
The Engelberts know something about resilience. In 2011, their farm flooded catastrophically. Water nearly reached the second floor of their barn, and, when it receded, deep mud covered everything, including pastures and fencing. They had just started the on-farm store a couple years earlier. Their sons had just taken on joint ownership in 2010. How does a farm family survive such a disaster?
“I guess you just have a strong backbone, determination, and friends,” Lisa says. “The amount of support we received was mind-boggling.” Hundreds of people came to help during the aftermath. And, despite spending those early years recovering from the flood, her sons are still farming.
In 2019, the family bought the old creamery on 263 West River Road in order to expand their store and their business. “Our whole focus is local and organic,” Lisa says. “If I won’t eat it, we won’t bring it into the store.”
Recalling their transition to organic during the 1980s, Lisa says she and Kevin knew that going organic was the right thing to do, even though the bank and processors laughed at them, telling them they couldn’t do it. “Well, here we are,” says Lisa.
They may not have been able to get the milk processing equipment back then, but it’s still a goal. Lisa plans to eventually process their milk into yogurt and fresh cheeses right at the farm store, next to her commercial kitchen where the prepared foods are made.
For now, on a spring day, Lisa might be planting broccoli or brussels sprouts or potatoes, managing the wholesale meat business, or greeting customers alongside her granddaughter. And on Saturday mornings, she’ll be baking cinnamon rolls from scratch, ready in time for eager customers.
The store is open Thursday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Call (607) 699-3775 for more information. Their products are also available for home delivery through Delivered Fresh.