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Stein Farms

Chamber Awards: Agricultural Business of the Year, Stein Farms

By Mike Pettinella


To fully understand the ongoing success of the family owned, environmentally conscious Stein Farms on Gully Road in the Town of Le Roy, one needs to comprehend the meaning of a famous quote by Aristotle: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

While many people – the Stein family members and 21 dedicated employees – use their particular talents and skills in a variety of ways, it’s the collective synergy that has enabled Stein Farms to survive and thrive for more than 60 years.

When taking a closer look at Stein Farms, which has been selected by the Genesee County Chamber of Commerce as the Agricultural Business of the Year for 2016, it is clear to see how the Greek philosopher’s axiom applies.

The connection among the workers on the 2,500-acre dairy farm that milks more than 900 cows has produced a total effect even greater than what each one could produce individually.

“Ours is one of a number of multigeneration farm families in our county, and that’s why they are successful,” said Dale Stein, who owns the farm along with his son, Nate, 35; his brother, Ray, and Ray’s children, Jerrod, 31, and Natasha Sutherland, 33.

“We want to make it enjoyable for the kids to have a good life – family life, not just work – and we are dedicated to preserving the environment. We want to be known as people who care.”

In her nomination letter to the Chamber’s selection committee (the awards ceremony is set for March 4 at the Quality Inn & Suites on Park Road), Hiedi Librock, of Darien, pointed out the family’s commitment to environmental stewardship, viable employment practices, compassionate animal care, civic and community involvement, and event sponsorship in the Le Roy area.

She also mentioned Stein Farms’ recent $1 million expansion – the Steins also tend to more than 1,000 young stock – and attributed its progress to a decision made in the early years to adopt a dual cropping system that includes fall-planted triticale (a wheat/hay hybrid) for spring silage.

Stein Farms was founded in 1956 by Louis “Bud” and Jane Stein, who took over a former Curtice-Burns farm located next to Oatka Creek and just a couple miles from the Monroe County line. Louis passed away in 2007; Jane resides in Florida.

“Dale and Ray are the second generation, and Nate, Natasha and I are the third generation, coming back to the farm after trying other things,” said Jerrod, who returned to the fold about 10 years ago. “We went out to see what the world is really like … being the low man on the totem pole and seeing the way people were treated.”

Jerrod’s uncle, Ken, also was a co-owner until his death in August 2015.

Each of the owners has specific responsibilities, but is versatile enough to fill in the gaps when necessary, Jerrod said.

Jerrod’s forte is machinery maintenance, keeping the field operations going and overseeing the crew during planting and harvest seasons.

“We have three or four full-time employees on this side of the road and hire three or four retired guys for chopping,” he said.

Dale’s primary task – and a big one at that – is to feed the cows and keep that part of the farm running, which means being on the job six days a week to make sure the cow-milking machinery is working properly.

He also has been the chairman of the New York State Soil & Water Conservation Committee for more than a decade, leading a group that facilitates grants to help farmers implement programs to preserve the environment.

Ray’s main focus is ensuring a bountiful crop as 1,200 acres are used to grow corn for the cows and another 900 acres for hay seedings.

Rochelle Stein, Ray’s wife, who is well-known for her role as a Genesee County legislator, representing District 5 (Town of Le Roy), and Natasha's husband, Richard, also work with the ownership team.

Natasha’s area of expertise is on the health of the nearly 2,000 cows and young stock in the barns, a time-consuming chore that includes interaction with veterinarians and keeping up with the latest technology.

She is a former co-chair of Young Farmers and Ranchers and liaison to the Dairy Farmers of America.

And last but not least, Nate, a Leadership Genesee graduate, can be found handling the feeding duties on Dale’s days off, cleaning the barns, hauling manure, monitoring the separation system, etc., etc.

“Nate is a jack-of-all-trades,” Jerrod said. “He can do it all.”

The entire family hosted a “Field to Fork Feast” in September 2015, a high-end dinner event to help the Town of Le Roy generate funds as part of the America’s Best Communities revitalization competition.

And they are unwavering in their pursuit of maintaining the water quality of Oatka Creek, which features public trout fishing about 300 yards upstream from the farm.

“We get a lot of fishermen here. It gives us an incentive to make sure we are doing things right,” Dale said.

Jerrod and Dale said they are confident the operation will continue for many years, noting that Natasha’s children, Daniel, 4, and Lockwood, 3; Nate’s child, Lucas, almost 2; and Dale’s daughter Casey’s child, Zoey, 4, already are learning the ins-and-outs of farm living.

“The three boys go like crazy,” Dale said. “When they see a tractor, they have to be on it.”

Top photo: Richard Sutherland, left, Jerrod Stein, Natasha Sutherland, Nathan Stein, and back row, Ray Stein, Dale Stein. (Photos by Howard Owens.)


Field to Fork Feast highlights the bounty of Genesee County's ag community

By Howard B. Owens


Amidst verdant rows of corn in nearby fields, with rays of golden, late afternoon sunshine lighting the sky, and a bounty of locally grown meat and vegetables ready for the guests, Shelly Stein beamed.

"We love this land," Stein said. "We really love this land. What we hope to do tonight is really invite others to have this same experience that we do every day out here, on the land, appreciating all of the food and the good fiber it provides for us, every day."

The Stein family opened their land to the community for a feast called Field to Fork Feast. It was a fundraiser to help support the America's Greatest Communities effort, but it was also a chance to highlight Genesee County's beauty, abundance and goodwill.

"There's a great deal of hard work that goes into what we do, but there's also a deep appreciation and the fact that we don't farm alone," Stein said. "We always farm with God and Mother Nature at our right and left hands, along with our family, and we're just blessed to be able to to support the contest that is America's Best Communities for Le Roy and Bergen and to share our passion. We feel honored."

The locally grown food was prepared by D&R Depot and served by their catering staff.

About 150 people attended and the goal was to raise $5,000 of the $15,000 needed in support of the America's Best Communities contest.

"We call Genesee County the 'Breadbasket of Western New York,' " Stein said. "All across the country, we are known as a county that is highly educated in our agricultural fields and that we adapt technology quick and fast and we are great producers here, so to be able to share that tonight is incredibly important."








Man who fell at farm on Gully Road Friday morning died, was brother-in-law to county legislator

By Billie Owens

The man who fell 12 feet Friday morning on Gully Road, Le Roy, died as a result of the accident. Kenneth Stein was an owner of Stein Farms, a 3,000-acre dairy operation, he ran with his brothers Dale and Ray and other family members. The 55-year-old was brother-in-law to Genesee County Legislator Shelley Stein.

Emergency responders from Le Roy and Caledonia, as well as Mercy Flight, were called to 8343 Gully Road at about 10:30 a.m. Friday after dispatchers received a call that an adult male had fallen and was unresponsive. He was taken to Strong Memorial Hospital where he succumbed to his injuries.

Arrangements are being completed by Falcone Family Funeral & Cremation Service of Le Roy.

More Greek yogurt production in New York won't necessarily help small dairy farmers

By Howard B. Owens

Even two new Greek yogurt plants in Batavia won't be of much help to small dairy farmers, which are finding it harder to survive in a globalized market and stringent regulatory environment.

Dale Stein, who operates a large dairy farm in Le Roy, said his heart is with the small dairy farmer, but knows they need to make some tough choices to stay in business.

"I have great sympathy for the small dairy farmer," Stein said. "We were a small dairy farm once. My brothers and I did the milking while my father worked in the fields. He went 20 years without a day of vacation."

The Batavian spoke with Stein Thursday and asked him about a New York Times story that said small dairy farms throughout the state are struggling.

How could Robert and Fred — who produce so much more milk than their dad — end up making less money? There are a number of reasons, some obvious, others less so. Milk went from a local industry to a national one, and then it became international. The technological advances that made the Fulpers more productive also helped every other dairy farm, too, which led to ever more intense competition. But perhaps most of all, in the last decade, dairy products and cow feed became globally traded commodities. Consequently, modern farmers have effectively been forced to become fast-paced financial derivatives traders.

In other words, if a dairy farmer doesn't hedge -- buying options to bet against an increase in prices -- they can't make money. (In hedging, if prices increase, the farmer profits; if prices decline, the farmer offsets losses on product with gains on the options.)

Stein said his farm is big enough to manage the fluctuations in commodity prices, but small farmers simply can't do it.

"Margins are tiny and getting smaller each year," Stein said. "The only way to survive is to sell more product, and if the size of your herd is limited, the less you have to sell."

EPA regulations define a small dairy as 199 head of cattle or less. If a farmer wants to milk a 200th cow, the amount of equipment, technology and infrastructure required to comply with government regulations would cost at least $250,000, Stein said.

Few small farmers want to take that chance.

Especially in today's labor market with fewer qualified migrant workers available.

"It's very difficult for them to compete for labor and for land," Stein said. "We started small. My dad started with two cows. We've slowly grown our business so we can employ more people and give everybody a middle-class wage. It's not that we wanted to be big, but we had to grow to survive."

John Gould, owner of Har Go farms in Pavilion, decided to go a different direction in his effort to keep a farm going that his father bought in 1956.

It's a decision many small farmers have made to survive, according to the Times article.

As tough as it might be to grow from a small dairy farm to a large dairy farm, Gould made the equally daunting decision to switch his farm to certified organic.

Making the switch, which he began in 2005, took three years. It involved building fences (because cows would graze rather than be confined to feed lots), put in water lines and pave drive ways. It takes time for the herd to adjust to a different diet -- corn and soy raised without pesticides or herbicides -- so milk production can drop to nothing for a time. Fields that once relied on chemicals to be productive must be slowly turned back into fields that are mechanically tilled for weeds and can tolerate a few bugs.

"You've got to think those things through and plan how you're going to handle all of that," Gould said.

But Gould said he got what he wanted out of the switch to organic: A profitable and viable small dairy farm.

"It seems to have been a good decision for us," Gould said. "It's certainly a different lifestyle from the type of farming we had been accustomed to, but we continue to make very high quality milk, which is very important to us and important to our customers."

Gould is philosophical about the choice for small dairy farmers -- spend the money to comply with environmental regulations or take a loss for three years and switch to organic.

"Nothing in this business is simple or automatic," Gould said. "That's the life we chose. If we're going to be in the business, we have to make those kinds of decisions."

Small dairy farms that decide to grow would indeed help New York meet the anticipated demand for milk created by two new Greek yogurt plants in Batavia. But Stein said obstacles to growth for small dairy farmers will hold back the industry.

Even now, before Alpina and Pepsi open their plants, the local supply of milk is limited.

"Chobani (operating a Greek yogurt plant near Albany) already uses so much milk that we don't have any extra milk now in our market," Stein said.

It would help the New York dairy industry tremendously, Stein said, if it were easier for the small dairy farms to grow and help meet increased demand.

"We all want to protect the environment, but current environmental regulations are stopping growth of the dairy industry in New York," Stein said. "Pepsi's milk may well have to come out of Michigan because they have enough milk and we don't, which is a shame, because we could use the jobs."

Local farmers concerned about proposed budget cut to Soil and Water District

By Howard B. Owens

In a long conversation today about the need for the Soil and Water Conservation District in Genesee County, Le Roy dairy farmer Dale Stein didn't once complain about an increasingly demanding Environmental Protection Agency.

He just said "Farmers need help."

That help has come for years from the Soil and Water District. Staff members have the expertise to help farmers comply with regulations that protect the land, air and water.

"All of us want to live in a good environment," Stein said. "But we can't do it on our own."

After our talk, Stein walked me across the street, through the mud and over a plank bridge that spans a cement trough, a little creek if you will, of liquid manure.

The manure is fed into a new $170,000 machine that pulls out the solids, drys it, mashes it up and sends it out a conveyor belt into a big pile in a new storage building.

Sawdust, which has served as bedding for cows for decades or longer, is getting expensive, Stein said. Increasingly, it's used in recycled products, which drives the cost up for farmers.

Now, Stein's cows sleep on their own processed manure.

"The cows love it," Stein said. "It's soft and fluffy."

Surprisingly, it has no discernible odor.

The environmentally friendly process was driven as much by federal guidelines to reduce his manure waste as it was by economics.

After a 30-percent federal grant to help pay for the project, Stein said the savings on sawdust purchasing will pay for the operation inside of two years.

Without the help of Soil and Water technicians, Stein said, the project would been a lot harder to pull off. They help identify issues on his farm that might run afoul of regulations, find the right solutions, help secure grants to pay for the projects and then ensure the project is completed within federal or state guidelines.

No farmer, Stein said, has that kind of expertise.

These are tough times, though, and the Genesee County Legislature wants to balance the county's $140.5 million budget without raising property taxes. At the same time, more than 80 percent of the county's revenue is tied up in covering the expense of unfunded mandates.

So, where the county can cut, officials are looking at deep cuts.

For the Soil and Water District, that means a 15-percent reduction -- $26,000 -- in the county's $170,000 allocation.

With the budget cut, there will be at least one less staff member in the district, according to Brad Rodgers, chairman of the Soil and Water board of directors.

"(The cut) would be a real detriment to the agriculture industry in Genesee County," said Rogers. "Even level funding would hurt us."

Scott Page, president of the Genesee County Farm Bureau, believes keeping Soil and Water is critical to protecting Genesee County's economic base.

"If we hurt ag, we miss an opportunity to move forward," said Page. "The more we build off our agricultural base, the better the local economy will do."

Page said his family has been dairy farmers in Le Roy for 50 years, and he's seen the regulations get tighter and more technical. While he doesn't think they are entirely necessary ("What farmer doesn't want to care for his animals?" he says), there is just no way the typical Genesee County farmer can keep abreast of all the regulations without experts to lead the way, he said.

Although Stein's manure recycling project has a direct economic benefit to his business, complying with many of the state and federal regulations adds nothing to the bottom line.

"It's tough for a farmer to lay aside that kind of money for something that is not going to generate profit," Page said.

Banks don't want to loan farmers money to undertake projects that often cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Banks are only willing to help, Stein said, because there are federal grants available to pay from 30 to 70 percent of a project's cost.

And it takes Soil and Water experts to help a farmer through the application process.

"We have a good Soil and Water program," Stein said. "But we will start losing farms in this county pretty quickly due to these regulations without help."

Photos: Top, Dale Stein in front of a pile of manure dust; inset, Stein holding a handful of processed manure; bottom inset, Scott Page.

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