Life on a Switzerland County farm: Calvin Snow goes natural for farming future


The Pleasant Township Farm

In the gently rolling landscape of Pleasant Township, Calvin Snow and his family are working on their dream.

Their 100-acre dairy farm, its house dating back to 1872, lies along the headwaters of Indian Creek’s east branch on Pleasant Grove Road.

It is one of the few small farms in southern Indiana that pays its own way.

“I’ll be 51 on the first day of January,” Calvin Snow said, “And I’ve been in dairy all my life. Dairy pays the mortgage and everything.”

Snow is a big man with a salt and pepper beard. He looks you in the eye. His hands are big, hard and full of muscle. He is proud of the fact that neither he nor his wife works off the farm.

He came from Burlington in Boone County, Kentucky to Switzerland County in the early 1980s. He brought his new bride and 17 cows with him.

“I first farmed my dad’s farm in Kentucky,” Calvin Snow said, “but I decided to come to Switzerland County to the farm my cousin was working” on Pleasant Grove Road.

“My mother’s maiden name is Betty Jane Beach,” he said, explaining his local connection. “She’s from Vevay. My grandmother she was a Webster. She was 52 when she had my mother. Mother was the baby, the last of 17 children.”

EQIP and the Dream

“I’ve had a lot of ups and downs, and I’ve tried every type of farming,” said Calvin Snow.

When he arrived in the county, more than 20 dairy operations were active in Switzerland County. This year, according to Nathan Crane, Switzerland County Extension agent, “We’ve got six or seven left.” Nathan Crane suggested that the heavy workload of dairy farming and the changing economy could have had a lot to do with the decline.

Two years ago, Calvin Snow was accepted into the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

EQIP, part of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, provides a voluntary conservation program that promotes agricultural production and environmental quality. It offers assistance to farmers who want to make structural or management changes on their land.

“EQIP furnishes a lot of support,” Calvin Snow said. “They pay a certain percentage, and I pay the rest.”

According to Ken Lane, local USDA representative, money is allocated every year for EQIP projects. Switzerland County received its allotment in the fall, and residents will be able to apply for funds by the end of the year.

As part of the process, Lane states, “We go out and meet with the landowners to get a plan together that is workable and do-able.”

Through EQIP funding, Calvin Snow started on a program two years ago to develop a compost system, provide controlled access to the stream that runs through his property, obtain clean drinking water for his herd, fence pastures for grazing rotation, and set aside part of his land as a wildlife preserve.

A Disastrous Interruption

No sooner had Calvin Snow started with EQIP, however, when the Christmas blizzard of 2004 struck him hard, threatening the survival of his herd and putting his plans in jeopardy.

At first, there was only rain and temperatures in the 40s on the evening of December 21st, but by dawn, snow had begun to fall all along the Ohio. The temperature fell down to the single digits, and winds gusted up to 40 miles an hour.

“We had 30 inches of snow,” Calvin remembered. “All the buildings fell in. Killed two cows, trapped four or five.”

It was the worst storm he had seen since the blizzard of 1978. “People could hardly get down the road to help,” he said.

The disaster hasn’t discouraged him. He has designed and built one new pole barn structure, and is working on restoring the rest of his buildings. He now has 60 head of Holsteins and is milking 30. He is also raising several steers. That’s on top of his EQIP projects.

Leaving Artificial Fertilizers Behind

Calvin Snow is now hoping to move his operation to be completely organic.

“I’ve done some chemical and high-fertilizer farming,” he said.

“And I still spray a little nitrogen. But if your ground is good enough, you don’t need insecticide. Every year I use less and less spray.”

The manure composting system he is developing with EQIP helps preserve nitrogen in the manure byproduct and will ultimately, he hopes, allow him to eliminate the use of nitrogen additives. This will keep costs low, he noted, and make the difference in his move toward organic farming.

This past year, he said, he obtained up to 200 bushels of corn to the acre with virtually no chemical fertilizer.

“So, why buy fertilizer when you don’t need it?” he asks.

He attributes part of his high yield to a suggestion from his Byron Seed representative to plant his corn rows east-west instead of north-south.

“You boost your yield up to 20 bushels an acre that way,” he said, explaining how corn roots grow north, and if another plant isn’t in the way, the roots have more room to develop.

Clean Water

Another step towards his dream of a model farm is fencing. With the assistance of EQIP funds, he fenced out the creeks, divided the pasture in sections, and resowed all that area with special blends of grasses from Byron Seed (a company he now represents).

EQIP has also contributed to the construction of concrete creek crossings for his cattle, an aid in the prevention of erosion and water pollution.

“I helped design most of them,” Calvin Snow said.

Another aspect of the farm’s development is spring enhancement.

“Each section of pasture will have its own water source. I knew about where the springs were at, and then they went and drilled and built experimental holes. Then they made the 500-gallon drinking tanks.

“We’ll also be guttering the barns for water. The better the water, the better the milk. With all this, the cows don’t have to walk down to the stream to drink, and so they don’t get cold.”

Highly Digestible Forage

Highly digestible forage is another piece of Calvin Snow’s plan.

All the ground is set up, he said, with highly digestible high-protein alfalfa and sorghum.

“That seed is 50 cents a pound higher,” he said, “But it’s worth the extra cost.”

Calvin Snow feels that the improved forage allows his animals to obtain more nourishment from less bulk.

“That feed stays in them longer, and they eat less and you have less waste. We already cut our feed costs a third over all,” he said. “Our feed costs will be at a minimum when we’re done.”

The feed will make possible more years of production from each animal. In large-scale operations, he said, cows are overfed. “And the more you force a cow, the more you burn them up. With natural feed, you get more years out of the cow. The average age is about six. I get 10 to 12 years from mine.”

All Natural Beef

Calvin Snow is not only using his methods of pasture and corn production with his dairy herd, but also with the steers he is breeding for all-natural meat. He and his wife feed the animals by hand three times a day, and, he said, “a store over in Madison markets the beef for us.”

He added, “A lot of beef are force-fed, and given hormones, but ours are finished before they are overfed and fat.” He noted that his steers are all kept in boxed stalls, which keeps bruising of the meat (and the formation of gristle) at a minimum.

An All-Natural Farm

Calvin Snow has three more years left in the EQIP program. By the end of that period he hopes to be well on the way to fulfilling his dream of having his produce and meat officially certified organic.

“I have this idea for an all natural farm,” he said. “This will be a model farm when it’s all done. People can come in and look at it and see the difference. That’s what I’m working toward. It’s all I ever wanted to do.”

— Bill Felker