Member Profile:

Rich Taber

by Dennis Atiyeh

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Rich Taber is a retired high school Agriculture/FFA and biology teacher, a retired career Army National Guardsman, and also a forester who owns Great Northern Farm with his wife, Wendy, in Lebanon, NY, in Madison County near the Hamilton/Morrisville NY area. He currently works with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Chenango County while running the farm and woodlot. Wendy owned her own farm in Vernon, NY and was a nurse before she began farming with Rich full time, which includes running a small commercial meat business selling products from off the farm. Together, they manage their woodlot and multiple species of livestock using sustainable forestry and agricultural practices.

Rich, having grown up on a small farm, was an avid outdoorsman in Eastern Connecticut where he kindled his passion for farming and forestry. He actively participated in 4-H livestock and conservation projects, worked on multiple dairy farms, and read everything he could get his hands on concerning nature and wildlife. “My childhood farm and woods experiences from tramping around the oak-hickory forests of eastern Connecticut and a rich tapestry of having grown up on the land and studying ecology, forestry, wildlife and agriculture at many levels lead to my continued involvement in forestry today,” Rich proudly says. After high school, Rich attended the University of Maine where he studied forestry and wildlife. His career at UMaine, however, was cut short after two years. Rich transferred to Tennessee Tech University after being offered a rifle shooting scholarship. While at Tennessee Tech, Rich was active in ROTC, and graduated with a BS in Agricultural Science while active in ROTC. Olympic style competitive rifle shooting was an integral part of Rich’s life; he competed for 40 years beginning in high school, continuing through college, the military, and his civilian life. During his undergraduate collegiate career, Rich recalls reading the novels “Malabar Farm” and “Pleasant Valley” by Louis Bromfield that solidified his sustainable agricultural and silvicultural philosophies. “These two tomes contributed to my ‘moral compass’ on how to deal with the land. They described [Bromfield’s] efforts in restoring several degraded, eroded, and worn out farms in north central Ohio, using principles of restorative forestry and agriculture that are still as relevant today as they were when written.” Aldo Leopold’s “Sand County Almanac” also provided many guiding ecological principles for Rich’s aspirations.

After graduating from Tennessee Tech, he did an active Army tour at the US Army Marksmanship Unit at Fort Benning, Georgia. Following active duty, Rich returned home and obtained an MS in animal science as well as an agriculture teaching certification from the University of Connecticut. Soon after, he bought his farm in central New York, and once settled, obtained another teaching certification and taught science courses at the local high school as well as Agriculture/FFA for 25 years. While teaching, Rich completed another MS in multiple use forest resource management from SUNY-ESF in 1996, with particular concentrations in silviculture, wildlife, and outdoor recreation. Rich retired from the Army National Guard as a major in 1996. Needless to say, Rich is well educated and has a passion to learn and educate those seeking to practice sustainable practices. After retiring from high school teaching in 2007, Rich took on his current position as a grazing, forestry, and agricultural economic development specialist for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chenango County.

The farm lies in a hilly region with steep slopes, reaching elevations as high as 1800 feet above sea level. Cold, snowy winters are prevalent and the growing season is short, so Rich must make the best use of his time when managing his woodlot and livestock. A stream runs through the woodlot most of the year, but disappears during the dry months. The neighboring area contains a blend of farmlands, woodlands, and wetlands, providing the perfect conditions for wildlife habitat. “There are no lakes or ponds on the farm, but the neighbor’s property which we lease has a couple of healthy beaver ponds that attract a variety of wildlife.”

Rich and Wendy jointly manage their woodlot and animals on 165 acres and lease 50 acres for additional grazing and hay land. There are about 100 acres of woods in one chunk, with another five across the road from their home. They primarily produce beef cattle, sheep, pastured poultry, and turkeys. “We have multi-species of livestock; a beef cattle herd, and a commercial sheep flock,” says Rich. “We graze both species together and practice rotational grazing, on both our land and nearby rented land.” The road to establishing a healthy farming ecosystem was not an easy one on Great Northern Farm. “[I] was attracted to this parcel because it was affordable, but it was in rough shape. It had been stripped of much of its nutrients with no additions of lime, fertilizer, or manure for years,” Rich says. “It was a typical southern tier hill top dairy farm that had not seen much management for many years. It has been a long row to hoe, so to speak, to bring this farm back into shape. I had to slowly begin to replace those inputs, which was a very expensive process.” Rich received his farm in relatively poor condition. It suffered severely from high grading and degraded pastures and fields. “The woods, as were and are so typical of many woodlots, had been pillaged of the better timber, and so I began to thin the stands and take out lower quality trees, ‘the worst first’ strategy that folks of an ethical and ecological nature abide by.” Throughout the beginning years of managing his woodlot, Rich commenced multiple forest improvement cuttings with assistance from DEC foresters. He also performed a large ash thinning in anticipation of the emerald ash borer. On the agricultural side, well-managed grazing practices have resulted in restoring soil health and productive fields once again. Today, Rich can walk through his woodlot and fields to find his sustainable management practices have made dramatic differences. “The fact that we have taken an essentially mined property and have seen it respond to ecological and benign oriented land management is quite gratifying,” Rich notes.

The woodlot contains many large northern hardwood species, namely sugar maple, beech, ash, and red maple. A hardwood understory lies below his stands along with thorn apple trees and other brush species. Cornell maple specialist Steve Childs recently visited the woodlot to determine the feasibility for maple syrup production. “We were producing a film for our Cooperative Extension Farm Viability Grant on evaluating a woodlot for potential maple production. We needed a woodlot to evaluate, and so we used ours, with Steve Childs assisting in the evaluation.” After evaluating the woodlot, Steve and Rich concluded maple production is possible for a hobby type operation, with many beautiful sugar maple trees present in much of the woodlot. The slope of the woodlot, however, could create many issues with machinery access and also is a long distance from a viable road.“It’s extremely steep, and located a long distance from a road, electricity, and water,” Rich says with resignation. “It’s also very wet for much of the maple season, and hauling sap up the steep hills back to the farmstead would be onerous at a commercial level.” Therefore, Rich hopes to make the sugar bush into a hobby operation at best, maybe 100 taps or so. “At this point in our lives, we are not looking to add anymore enterprises. We would like to stop and ‘smell the roses,’ and continue to enjoy the woods for values which we find near and dear such as wildlife observation, hunting, cross country skiing, snowmobiling, hiking, camping, and the occasional harvesting of a few firewood trees and sawlogs.”

Rich has been an active member of NYFOA since the early 80’s, at the state and local central NY chapter levels, as well as the Society of American Foresters for many years. Being a member of NYFOA has proven to be one of Rich’s greatest assets. “I can’t imagine not being a NYFOA member due to all of the activities and experiences that I have had with this organization,” Rich explains. He also attributes acquiring good knowledge from his experiences with the DEC, Cornell University, and SUNY ESF. “I have gotten lots of information over the years from NYFOA as well as the DEC and Cornell.” These organizations helped Rich continuously learn through attending events throughout his career. Also being a forest educator has exposed Rich to many new forest and wildlife experiences. In return, Rich has the tremendous opportunity to share all of these experiences with the public during his classes. Additionally, Rich has served as an MFO volunteer, assisting and advising his neighbors many times over the years.

Every once in a while Rich finds spare time to enjoy his favorite hobbies. Though farming is the primary purpose of the farm, the woodlot serves as a recreational site that the whole community gets to enjoy. Corridor C7D, a state snowmobile trail, runs for almost a mile through Great Northern Farm where thousands of people enjoy riding through the trail throughout the snowy months, and as part of the NY State Snowmobiling system. Rich loves to train his hounds for raccoon hunting competitions on the farm. As a member of the local coonhound club, he invites other members to his farm for competitions where they all get together for a good time. Rich also makes time for hunting with friends during deer season, enjoys going for walks with Wendy through the woods, and frequently camps out in the woods to experiment with different camping equipment.

Rich found over time that one of the greatest challenges on his farm was finding the time and money to accomplish his management objectives. “Like anyone who works off the farm and also tries to farm to one degree or another, having enough time and money to get everything done is always a challenge,” says Rich. Additionally, the slope and soil type provides additional management challenges. “It is quite steep and at certain times of the year, the land is quite wet and easily prone to damage from heavy machinery.” Farm and woodlot machinery is expensive to buy and oftentimes breaks down.

Rich offers advice from his numerous years of experience working and managing in the woods. “Be very vigilant in conducting safe operations,” Rich urgently states. Rich takes safety very seriously on the farm. He has taken the Game of Logging Levels I and II multiple times. He believes “safety precautions have been one of my biggest accomplishments” when working in the woodlot. “I had a serious chainsaw kickback accident in 1983. It ripped into my face and left shoulder, which made me extremely cautious working with chainsaws and in the woods.” As time has continued, active education has been a key part of Rich’s life, and he encourages everyone to pursue more education. “Learn all you can about sustainable silviculture, avoid high grading, and become an active NYFOA member and attend events around the state.” Rich also reminisces about a few experiences he had with loggers over the years. “I have had several loggers who ’just happened to notice’ my maple stands when logging neighboring properties, and thought I should sell my logs right then and there to them. I had two loggers in particular who were aghast, not too long ago, when I told them that I had everything under control and didn’t need their services.” Fair warning to new forest owners: don’t let someone bully you into high grading your woodlot!

Rich and Wendy know they chose the right career paths. “Sustainable agriculture and forestry are two of our main passions in life. Over the years you learn to discern that which is good for the land, and that which degrades the land.” Their farm has been a fun, fulfilling mission that displays their enthusiasm for agriculture and forestry. “We get so much enjoyment from the farm and the woods. At times I have to force myself to leave Great Northern Farm to go elsewhere.” It has been an odyssey!


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