Conservation: Our purpose. Our passion.
LANDOWNER SUCCESS STORY
John Kokoski, Mapleline Farm
By Diane Baedeker Petit, Public Affairs Officer, NRCS Massachusetts
Finding a Niche: Direct marketing, land stewardship keep Mapleline Farm viable
"When you direct market your product, you want people to feel that it's a clean wholesome product coming from a clean wholesome environment," says John Kokoski when explaining how the assistance he'd received from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has helped him keep his Hadley, Massachusetts, dairy farm sustainable.
"We try to project a favorable image to our neighbors and the general public. NRCS's help with nutrient management was kind of a helping hand in managing our farm," says Kokoski, who sells his milk directly to consumers through a farm store and old-fashioned home delivery, as well as through wholesale accounts with local retailers.
Mapleline Farm has been operated by five generations of the Kokoski family for more than a century. John Kokoski's great grandfather Stanley bought the farm in 1904 and throughout the generations, the farm has produced vegetables, onions, tobacco and milk.
Mapleline Farm is still a family farm. John's son and daughters are involved in the operation, and John's wife Elaine takes care of the retail store and bookkeeping.
Through direct marketing, the 110 acre farm has weathered rising energy and feed costs combined with low milk prices and immense development pressure. Milk from their 100 Jersey cows is processed and bottled in glass bottles on the farm.
"We're just trying to find our niche and be able to use direct marketing to enhance the milk price that we get and keep our farm viable," says Kokoski.
In fact, expansion of his direct marketing operation first led Kokoski to contact NRCS for help.
"When we wanted to put our milk processing plant at our farm, there was a problem because being as rural as we are, we don't have city sewers here," says Kokoski, explaining that the processing plant generates a lot of waste water, known as gray water, and they weren't able to build a water treatment facility large enough to handle it.
"NRCS came to our rescue and told us we could incorporate waste water from the plant into our manure slurry. They helped us with both our pump reception pits and slurry storage and helped us manage both our manure and the waste water from our processing plant," explains Kokoski.
"Until we started that project I hadn't had a lot of dealings with NRCS. They came out and were more than willing to offer help," says Kokoski. "They did a lot of the surveying and engineering work. I was amazed at the services that they were able to render, which I thought were above and beyond what I expected from a government agency. People were very accommodating, very knowledgeable and I was truly satisfied."
Dwane Coffey, District Conservationist overseeing the NRCS Hadley field office, explains why Kokoski shines as one of Massachusetts best conservationists: "Our office has numerous good clients. Some are good cooperators with conservation districts, some have a great rapport with NRCS, some are real stewards of their natural resources and others are community leaders. John Kokoski embodies all of those qualities."
Soil Conservationist Gene Kosinski worked with Kokoski on designing an innovative waste storage project, installed with financial assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The centerpiece of the project is a Slurry Store tank to store the collected manure, milkhouse wastewater and milk processing wastewater.
Natural Resource Specialist Vince Snyder worked with Kokoski to develop a Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan (CNMP), a progressive planning tool, on 85 acres. The Kokoski CNMP, one of the first to be signed and implemented in Massachusetts, provided Kokoski with nutrient management recommendations for applying manure and wastewater to meet the nutrient requirements of his crop fields.
"We try to do a good job managing nutrients from the slurry and cultivate in nutrients to make a good soil base for our crops," says Kokoski. "We have to be very careful that we don't over-spread our manure because a lot of the brooks and drainage ditches that run through our farm and our neighbors' farms eventually make it into the waterways."
Mapleline Farm sits in the middle of a bedroom community for the five colleges that are within a 15 mile radius of the farm. Kokoski sees that as an advantage in direct marketing, adding that that most of his products are shipped within that 15 mile radius.
Hadley is a growing residential community with a strong agricultural base. This scenic community is bordered on the west by the Connecticut River and on the south by the Mount Holyoke Range. Concerns facing a small dairy farm here are much the same as across Massachusetts: development pressure is strong, issues with residential neighbors are common and operating costs are high. On the other hand, with a strong customer base close at hand, direct marketing is a viable and profitable option for many small farms in the area.
"We have some of the best land in the state because we've so close to the Connecticut River," says Kokoski. "Probably by most standards, people would think it's too good for a dairy but we grow some fantastic crops in terms of corn, alfalfa and grass to feed our cows. The soils here have no stones; it's a very rich loam base, very easily tilled. It's nice for marketing, mowing and milking cows."
Mapleline Farm regularly hosts open houses for the public and events for farmers. "When we asked NRCS to participate, they not only set up an informational booth, but also Gene [Kosinski] pitched right in and gave a walking tour and explanation of what NRCS has done on our farm, which was very helpful," says Kokoski. "I think it helped to have somebody with his qualifications and expertise and experience to explain to the public just want NRCS does for the agricultural community."
"A lot of people around here are very interested in what happens to the environment," says Kokoski. "We use glass bottles in marketing our milk because by using the returnable bottles, it shows our customers that we are helping to preserve the environment."
Kokoski is taking a manageable and sustainable approach to planning the future of Mapleline Farm. "Our goal is not to continue to get bigger and bigger but to achieve a reasonable goal and improve on efficiencies in our cattle quality and our management practices."
"We just put up a new free stall and milking parlor with capacity for 100 milk cows. With the land base that we have and the labor resources, about 100 milking cows and another 100 dry cows, heifers and calves is about where we want to be and we think we can do a good job at that."
Kokoski foresees a need for future assistance from NRCS as his farm needs change and environmental consciousness grows.
"In this global environment where everyone is concerned with water conservation and water purity, I think everybody is somewhat conscious of what we're doing to the environment. I think everybody should have a passion for maintaining the environment for the future."