New Traditionalists: Wisdom and technology power Lancaster County's fourth-generation Spring Wood Farm

story by Shaun Brady | photo by Albert YeeRoman Stoltzfoos emerges from the barn where his cows are milked and is faced with dozens of turkeys waddling aimlessly towards his driveway. A gate has been left open, and he calls to his eight-year-old daughter, playing nearby, to help herd the wayward birds back into their pen.

Stoltzfoos’ youngest is hardly the only one of his 11 children working on this mid-September afternoon. His oldest, Dwight, 31 (assisted at the moment by his 13-year-old brother Raphael), is managing the dairy operations that are the focus of Stoltzfoos’ Spring Wood Organic Farm, the main supplier for Lancaster County’s Natural by Nature milk. Joshua, 19, is gathering eggs from the four mobile, solar-powered coops used for laying by the farm’s 2,400 chickens. Clifford, 21, transforms a small percentage of the milk and eggs into gelato and yogurt. And their 15-year-old sister Althea rides by on a tractor, which she’s been using to turn the farm’s compost heaps.

“I want them to experience what I did,” says Stoltzfoos, 54, of his children, who are the family’s fourth generation to work on Spring Wood Farm. “They aren’t all going to want to stay here, but I want to give them the opportunity.”

The Spring Wood Ideal

There’s certainly no shortage of opportunities for work on Stoltzfoos’ 220-acre farm, near Kinzers in Lancaster County. In addition to the cows, turkeys, chickens and a handful of pigs, Roman and his wife Lucy operate a small rental property, the “Little Stone Cottage,” just up the road. Visitors are welcome to a farm tour, which Stoltzfoos hopes will help spread his philosophy to those accustomed to getting their meat and dairy from supermarket aisles.

“We want to get the message out to people about what really happens on farms,” says Stoltzfoos. “I think we have too many Americans who don’t quite understand that food comes from farms, not the grocery store or a manufacturing plant somewhere. Normal agriculture has done farmers a bad turn by separating them from their consumers, so they don’t even know what Americans really want. And Americans don’t really know what they want either because they’ve been sold a bill of goods. It’s amazing how many people enjoy that aspect, understanding a little bit more where food comes from and what some of the hassles are with it.”

The quaint cottage is for married couples only; with one bedroom it’s too small for families, and those living (or only visiting) in sin aren’t welcome. That restriction is a reflection of the Stoltzfoos’ Mennonite faith, which plays into Roman’s decision to farm organically and sustainably.

“We feel the whole idea of soil stewardship goes with an appreciation of who we believe created it,” he says. “Large-scale agriculture and using chemicals for every answer is ignoring the fact that there is a feeling and a soul for this whole thing. We believe that we can actually do things the way they should be done rather than the way they’re dictated to us.”

A 21st Century Farm

Anyone expecting Spring Wood to be a throwback, frozen in time as it was run by Roman’s grandfather when he bought the farm in 1941, is in for a surprise. There are solar panels on four roofs at Spring Wood, almost eliminating the Stoltzfoos’ electric bills for the year. There is also a panel apiece on the four mobile coops in which the farm’s hens lay their eggs. All four are moved on a daily basis to follow the grazing cows, which benefits both the chickens and the fields.

“If you don’t manage things right, the chickens can damage pasture, just wear it down and destroy the grass,” explains Joshua, who runs the family’s chicken business and designed the pens. “We move them every day. They also help fertilize, coming along behind the cows and spreading the manure all over the place. They’ll pick through it for grain or anything that runs through the cows. And they reduce the fly population.”

Every afternoon, Joshua wades through the thicket of chickens clustered around the four pens to collect six to seven dozen eggs. The eggs are not certified organic; while their feed is GMO-free, a particular passion of his father’s, organic feed is too great an expense to justify. “If we were organic, we probably couldn’t have as many chickens,” says Joshua. “I’m not sure people want to pay quite that price.”

In addition to his solar panels, Stoltzfoos also puts the sun to work composting manure and hay into fertilizer. “It’s a very healthy way to dispose of manure,” he says. “It moves the nutrients into the matrix of the carbon so that they become very stable; the plant roots can get them out, but water can’t. You end up with a product that is extremely homogeneous and has very little of its original smell or composition.”

Only days after Hurricane Irene and the torrential rains that surrounded it, Stoltzfoos points out the value of compost, which, unlike other fertilizers, won’t be washed away in a downpour. The composting also helps to transform the waste materials any dairy farm has to deal with. “All these Lancaster County farms, the soil is filled up to the max with raw manure,” says Stoltzfoos. “Phosphorous and nitrogen are too high, and tons and tons have to be hauled for miles to get it far enough away from the source. Whereas this system is so redemptive to the soil and so kind to the whole environment.”

A vigorous proponent of grass-fed cattle (he rents an additional 280 acres of grazing land in the area), Stoltzfoos was an early adopter of organic approaches. He took over what was at the time a conventional dairy farm from his father in 1982, finding it infested with weeds.

“It was so bad that in many fields we couldn’t even get corn to make an ear,” he recalls. When chemicals couldn’t provide the solution for the farm’s issues (and carried unnecessary toxins), Roman turned to organic methods. “[W]e decided for the safety of our family and the safety of our neighbors, we were going to do organic. We were betting that there were enough people who appreciated organic food that we could survive on that. And there really were.”

More Than Corn and Chickens

Within his first few years, Stoltzfoos began diversifying the farm’s output, beginning with the turkeys. “I needed something to make more cash income. The dairy price was really low at the time. But number one, I thought cows were a little too boring.”

His initial decision to raise organic turkeys was met with considerable skepticism, Stoltzfoos recalls. “I was told it’s absolutely not possible to do organic turkeys. No way. You need drugs to do turkeys. But long story short, 24 years later we’re still doing it and have never lost money. There’s quite a bit of demand for organic turkeys, but these days there’s a lot of so-called organic where they never get green grass like our turkeys do.”

Spring Wood’s nearly 5,000 turkeys are rotated among six pens on a two-week cycle. They’ll grow to roughly 20 pounds before being sent to market, chiefly through four outlets based in Pennsylvania and New York.

The family’s most recent enterprise is their partnership with Washington, D.C.-based Pitango Gelato, which has five stores in Baltimore and the D.C. area. The farm’s milk and eggs go into the mix which is turned into gelato at the retail outlets. They’ve since expanded from gelato to yogurt and Icelandic-style skyr, a very soft cheese, similar to a strained yogurt, which goes into B’More Organic brand smoothies. He would also like to sell raw milk, and sees a demand, but regulations are simply too onerous at present.

photo by Albert Yee

“Most of our milk that leaves this farm goes in a truck, just like a normal farm,” says Stoltzfoos, walking around the pasteurizing and separating machines in a small building between the dairy and the family’s home. “Only about 10 percent goes through this plant. But there will come a time when that will be 50 percent. We’re only five years into it.”

The Future for Farming

While he protests that the time is coming for him to slow down, it’s apparent that Stoltzfoos still has a vision for the future—and fears for his family’s continued involvement in it. He praises eldest son Dwight’s aptitude for managing the dairy, but regrets he doesn’t share his father’s passion for sustainability. “He does a good job managing the farm, but he doesn’t quite have the vision for organic that I do. He’s a little more profit-driven, but that’s partly where he’s at in life.”

 For the most part, though, Stoltzfoos’ family seems to have taken his lessons to heart and embraced the farm, perhaps more than many in the county. “Most of my friends’ children want nothing to do with their farms,” he says. “I’ll be honest, I have a couple of boys who think it’s absolute drudgery. But they don’t know how much drudgery’s out there in the real world. Once they find that out, this will look a little simpler to them.”