Small Farms Coordinator Shares Knowledge & Practices with Moldovan Farmer

Dan Flaherty usually takes a working vacation. Each year in August, he tosses sheep wool from his farm, Tir na nOg in Hamden (NY), into the back of a U-Haul trailer. He loads a well-stocked cooler, his wife Helen, their three boys and their bikes, and heads for Prince Edward Island, Canada. There, according to fiber-making tradition, locals transform his bulk wool into Hudson Bay-style blankets. When he returns, it’s back to his day job, where Dan shares his farming expertise with others in the New York City watershed. As the Small Farms Coordinator at the Watershed Agricultural Council, Dan tailors whole farm plans that target water quality and a better farm business for regional livestock and mixed-use farms. A former Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) agent, Dan knows how to educate farmers on new ways to manage a farm, improve herd health, keep local water courses clean, and adopt on-farm, common-sense approaches that hopefully increase farm profitability and time spent with family.

Dan and Helen have always dreamed of traveling and sharing their farm knowledge with others. So it only made sense for Dan, with his wife’s blessing, to spend his last two vacations working, teaching one farmer about rotational grazing to improve their sheep and cow dairies…in Moldova. Through the CNFA, Dan volunteered his services and traveled to Ghiliceni village in Telenesti, where he worked with Goloseevo Ltd. “The farmer, Vasile, operated one of the larger farms which included a cow-and-sheep dairy, pigs and crops. The crops Vasile grows are mixed vegetables, wheat, barley, oat, and corn for silage, sunflowers and soybeans for feed,” Dan explains. “Vasile employs 20 full-time and 20 part-time people on the farm, quite a labor generator for this small village. The CNFA Farmer-to-Farmer Program connects people like me with farming and CCE experience with farmers in developing countries to improve their rural agricultural businesses. My watershed experience simply sweetened the deal.”

Originally part of the Soviet Union, Moldova is sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania. Over 700,000 people live in the capital city of Chișinău, about an hour from Vasile’s farm. “Fifty percent of the population is involved in agriculture in a country the size of Maryland,” adds Dan. “The climate is similar to New York with hot summers and cold winters, but only 25 inches of rainfall annually. It was a natural fit with my experience working and farming in the U.S.” The CNFA’s Farmer-to-Farmer Program (FtF) in Moldova was launched in October 1999 with funding through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The FtF Program provides farmers’ associations, cooperatives and agribusinesses with free American consultancy and a professional approach to technical and financial issues.

Dan’s background fit the CNFA need and at the last minute, he was quickly connected with Vasile and the Moldovan farm in November 2010. For two weeks, Dan consulted with Vasile and outlined a whole farm plan and recommendations to improve the farm’s overall operation. For starters, to help operations run smoother, Dan suggested hiring a farm manager to keep up with the daily operation of the dairy. To improve herd health, adding teat dips quickly decreases mastitis problems and improves the milking procedure. Dan found some of his Council experience and whole farm planning handy during his visit. “We determined the flock’s health and worm status by using the FAMACHA load index,” says Dan. “I took the tools I learned at a Cornell-Council workshop last winter and showed Vasile and the shepherds how to assess each animal by using the FAMACHA scale. It was pretty easy to convey even with the language barrier.”

Relocating a manure pile quickly addressed a water quality issue. “They’d pile manure for the year, let it compost down and then spread it on the fields. It’s a fairly common practice, but I asked them to move this particular pile because it was too close to a lake, just 100 feet away. The water quality recommendation came from my WAC whole farm planning model and a dose of common sense.”

Along with moving the manure pile, Dan recommended new fencing. “I kept my initial recommendations simple, about 20 total. Another simple fix was fencing. I suggested Vasile to put up a fence, move the cows out to pasture, and free up the herder to do something else. Vasile objected and stated that the herder would go back home and drink. Vasile’s job was to keep the herder busy with other chores, thus helping with the farm’s overall workload. I recommended putting up perimeter fencing. My initial idea was to keep the cows closer to the barn where the fodder was.”

CNFA invited Dan back for a second trip in June 2011, asking him to help Vasile put the second tier of recommended practices into play. “I was really excited to see what they had accomplished since my first visit and also to see Moldova during the growing season,” says Dan. On this second trip, Dan focused on the nuances of prescribed grazing management and outlined a plan for paddock rotation. “On my first trip, I recommended electric fencing which was a totally foreign concept to Moldovans. Everyone grazes their animals together with a herder. Sure, it keeps someone employed but it’s a drain on farm labor when there are other things to do.” Dan didn’t want to put anyone out of work. So he kept the herders for day herd tending, but added the fenced paddock option for nighttime grazing and animal containment. “Lots of villages are on the hill, and the valley is mostly farmland,” explained Dan. “Grazing lands are in common. Owners bring their cows down and a herder takes all the animals out to graze. Since there are no fences, the herder stands with the animals all day. At night, he brings them back, returning milk-heavy cows to their owners for milking. Each owner takes his turn at herding the cows. Animals stay in the barnyard overnight and everything starts over at sunrise.”

The practice stems from the farm collective mentality that prevailed in Moldova for centuries. “That all changed in 1991 when Moldova became independent,” explains Dan. “This changed the farming dynamic. Now, every Moldovan that was in the collective receives two hectares of land (4.9 acres) regardless of how long they worked in the collective. Land within families is not necessarily contiguous, so you could be farming your land here, and your wife’s plot two miles to the north and her parents’ plot a mile south.” Since 2006, Vasile has pulled together 735 contiguous hectares (1,815 acres) to improve farm efficiency. He pays each landowner in grain at the end of harvest season.

“Nineteenth-century farming meets 21st-century technology in Moldova,” laughs Dan. People in the villages are still using horses and carts and roads aren’t paved. Firewood and sunflower stalks provide heating fuel; firewood is hand-stacked for winter. And every village has a community-access well which provides water by bucket; many villages have no running water.

While the farm utilizes several tractors, most labor is performed by hand. Farmhands pitch-fork hay onto horse-drawn wagons and then fork off delivery into haystacks or rudimentary shelters. Sheep are housed under the same crude thatched-roofed lean-tos as they have been for centuries. Even newborn lambs in winter take shelter under there. “They’ve skipped a whole hundred years in Moldova,” Dan observes. “Horse carts are preferred transportation. The village ladies tend the fields by hand, with hoes, in sandals and no work gloves. You see the disparity of the times, as modern tractors like Belarus plow alongside Soviet-era models using plows with steel wheels. You see a satellite TV dish mounted on the side of one house, and someone talking on his cell phone while pulling up a bucket of well water. It’s pretty crazy.”

Vasile’s cow operation uses two breeds: Simmental and Lebedinskaya, a cross between of Ukraine Grey and Brown Swiss. “One challenge with the cows is that they were eating straw and old oats harvested last fall,” says Dan, “While they were milking 45 cows into buckets, milk production overall wasn’t very high. I saw lots of forage quality improvement opportunity, and that’s where rotational grazing comes in. We’ll see improved milk yields simply by improving nutrition through forage quality and ending the feeding of nutrient-devoid straw to dairy cows. Once we got those basic fixes under control, we moved to more complex improvements like extensive fencing and watering facilities in pastures. There is no water in pasture; the cows drank water out of the lake. The plan was to run waterline on top of the ground to the paddocks. We took 45 acres of grazing land, laid out paddocks on paper, and then used temporary fencing to move the animals each day. This keeps the herder employed, busy, and ‘off the bottle.’”

Since Dan’s visit in November 2010, Dan made two other key recommendations. First, he suggested that the farm go to a pipeline system, transitioning from bucket milkers to a milk pipeline the length of the barn which empties into the milk tank. “The goal was to transport milk directly to the holding container with less labor. Vasile easily implemented that pipeline system, which was 40 percent complete by the time I arrived in June.” Dan also recommended hiring a dairy manager; Valentina now oversees the cow dairy, milking, herders and grazing. She also coordinates the soon-to-be-installed electric fencing, much to the surprise of her predominantly male co-workers. “The farm was interested in grazing and electric fence because there are no fences in Moldova for livestock,” adds Dan. “I recommended portable electric fence for the 60-cow dairy, enough fence so staff could move and set up a grazing paddock, moving it every two days.”

The sheep dairy had issues of its own. “Men milk sheep into wooden buckets three times a day, April through August,” Dan continues. “Three men can milk 250 sheep in 1.5 hours. This speed depends on a steady flow of animals through the chute. Keeping the flock close by led to overgrazed areas in pastures nearest the sheep facility.” For the dairy flock, Dan suggested fencing an old orchard with portable electric netting moved daily to fresh grass. Trees provided shade and protection. The combined approaches Dan developed served as the basis of Vasile’s prescribed grazing plan, almost identical to those Dan prescribes for watershed farmers. Since the farm was expanding and starting a sheep flock just for meat, Dan developed a third grazing plan for a remote pasture to feed a flock of 200 animals and 60 dairy heifers.

“Developing the plan turned out to be the easy part,” remembers Dan. “Finding the fence manufacturer was the tricky part. Since there are no fence distributors in Moldova, we finally found one in Romania willing to ship the fencing across the border.” Dan priced out different options for the sheep and cow paddocks and presented it to Vasile. “He thought it was going to cost thousands of Euros,” Dan continues. “As it turned out, fencing totaled $800 US dollars for the dairy cow system and $1,100 for the sheep.” Dan’s prescribed grazing management plan, while still labor intensive, kept people employed. “I really didn’t want to put anyone out of work. The way we set it up, the staff can rotate paddock configurations at night. The dairy cows and sheep will no longer need to come inside at night. Having the fence allows the dairy cows to stay out at night when it’s cooler and continue grazing and eating high-quality forage. Sheep can be outside too and not have to be watched. This improves the farm’s bottom line through higher milk production and cost savings in feed. The shepherd still has a job escorting the animals out to pastures further away by day, and then escorting them back home at night. He can even stay in remote pasture for several days with the flock protected within the electric netting.” Animals are now spreading the manure themselves instead of the farmer cleaning out the barnyard and spreading it on the fields by hand – just another advantage to a prescribed grazing management plan.

“This was all foreign to their way of raising livestock and their way of life,” noted Dan. “First it was satellite dishes and cell phones. And now it’s an American talking about fencing, electric fencing from Romania no less. This has been an experience, bringing 19th century Moldovan farming into the 21st century. I can’t wait to hear about what they accomplish in the next six months. I hope to be invited back. At least now, my family will know where I’m at…they originally thought Moldova was near Utica (NY).” Despite the physical distance, farmers in two countries have much in common. Be it efficient and profitable farm management in Moldova or whole farm planning protecting water quality in the New York City watershed, farmers share a love for their livestock, their land and the families they feed…and enjoy spare time for a vacation with friends and family.