Culture of sustainability

Written by Jason Nichols

With a diverse operation that includes several businesses, the Hurst family is focused on the future

It all started with a small dairy farm, a tiny convenience store outside the farm’s entrance and a desire to be sustainable for generations.

Today, the operation that started with George Hurst and his father, Earl, is a thriving group of partnerships that includes the 500-cow, 900-acre Oregon Dairy, a 35,000-square-foot supermarket that employs 360 people, a 200-seat family restaurant, a composting operation, an energy generation system and environmental stewardship programs that have positioned Oregon Dairy as an important community partner in Lancaster County, Pa.

As Hurst surveys his sprawling Pennsylvania operation, he readily admits he never expected it to turn out this way.

“When I went into partnership with my dad in 1974, we had a small dairy and a small convenience store,” Hurst says. “We did not have any idea where this was going to end up.”

Earlier this year, Hurst ended up in Washington, D.C., to receive a sustainability award from the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy for his farm’s dedication to community outreach, renewable energy practices and a business culture that isn’t afraid to take risks and try new things in order to remain viable.

Hurst is in partnership with his son, Chad, and daughter and son-in-law, Maria and Tim Forry, on the dairy operation. Maria accompanied him to the awards ceremony in Washington, D.C.
“I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe we are being recognized for the things we do every day,’” says Maria, who accepted the award with George in Washington, D.C. “I also think about all the other dairies that are doing the things we do and even more than we do. It’s very humbling.”

The dairy is equipped with a methane digester and recently went into partnership on a compost operation.

The digester is a prime example of the management’s foresight.

In 1985, energy costs were forecast to increase dramatically and the population of Lancaster County was on the rise.

Hurst worked with a nearby dairy to install a methane digester to decrease his dependence on purchased energy for the dairy, the restaurant and the grocery store. That wasn’t the only benefit of the digester. The anaerobic process also significantly cuts down on the odor associated with a dairy operation, which positioned the dairy as a more community-friendly operation.

“That’s part of having the digester and one of the reasons we recently expanded its capacity,” says Tim. “The digested manure has less odor. You can’t put a number on that, but that’s an important thing for us because we have so many people close by.”

The farm added a second collection tank to the digester in 2010. The digester now provides all the power for the dairy, supplements power to the grocery store, heats Tim and Maria’s home and preheats water for the dairy.

The farm’s manure management practices show the family’s dedication to using all of their resources. They’re essentially using the manure from start to finish.

All of the manure from the operation is first used in the methane digester. The liquid manure is piped from the digester to the lagoon and is used as fertilizer on crop fields. The solid manure from the digester is run through a separator that turns the solids into bedding material for the farm’s bedded pack barns. The used bedding then goes into the farm’s newest endeavor — high-quality compost.

About five years ago, the farm was approached by Terra-Gro, a nearby composting and marketing company, about collaborating on a novel composting project. Oregon Dairy Organics, the resulting partnership between the dairy and Terra-Gro, is now in the compost business.

This isn’t the kind of compost often found in a pile next to a vegetable garden. Oregon Dairy Organic compost is a premium product most often sold as a top dressing or soil amendment for turf fields, construction projects and more.

There’s a science to making a quality compost product, Chad says.

The used manure bedding from the dairy’s bedded pack barns only makes up about half of the compost. Because it’s high in nitrogen, the cow manure is balanced with about the same amount of horse manure, which is higher in carbon. The horse manure comes from local straw and bedding suppliers, who dispose of old bedding at nearby horse farms. Food waste from the restaurant and some local refuse collectors is added to the mix, providing many of the bacteria that turn the waste into compost.

After mixing, the raw material is laid in rows in two 360-foot long buildings. Each row is turned about three times per week. If the mixture gets too dry, it is supplemented with liquid from the nearby lagoon. In about three months, the compost is a finished product and has about half the volume of the original mixture.

The finished compost is run through a machine that separates any large particles before it is loaded into trucks for transport.

The operation, now in its fourth year, didn’t start out as a way to turn large profits, Chad says.

“We were trying to break even in our first couple of years and we were able to do that,” he says. “Now we’re turning a profit, but there’s going to be more opportunity in the future.”

There’s a good market for quality compost and a growing market for it in the construction industry because of new regulations requiring amended soil for new building projects. In addition, some landfills in the area are making moves to allow less compostable material to be dumped at their facilities, putting Oregon Dairy in a strong position.

“We have a good land base now, but you never know what the future holds,” Chad says. “If something were to happen, this would allow us to sustain our cow numbers and be able to process the manure.”

Oregon Dairy is located in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and has been involved in multi-state efforts to preserve the quality of the bay. Through grants from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the dairy has been involved in streambank fencing projects with the goal of filtering any field run-off before it gets into creeks and streams.

In addition, they practice no-till farming and use cover crops throughout the winter to further control erosion.

Maria says the focus on sustainability is something that has been part of Oregon Dairy as long as she can remember.

“It’s something that’s been passed down by our parents and grandparents,” she said. “We don’t sit down and talk about it; it’s what we do and how we think.”

These efforts, however, have also been good business decisions, she says. The partners want to be sustainable in a variety of ways.

“When we make a decision, we look at how it affects the environment, how it affects the cows, how it affects our finances. If it’s not going to cash flow, it’s not going to be sustainable financially,” Maria says.

Take a quick trip around the farm and it’s obvious it’s often visited by people in the community. Wooden signs mark important locations like the freestall barn, digester and milk parlor, and there’s a large observation window where visitors can watch the milking process.

Just outside the dairy, the supermarket is always busy, and the restaurant is a popular spot for locals. Attached to the restaurant is a small ice cream shop and playground, which is frequented by local families. George partners with three of his brothers on the store and restaurant.

Oregon Dairy hosts about 2,000 school children for tours each year and each June hosts Family Farm Days, a three-day event that brings between 12,000–15,000 visitors to the farm.
“That’s part of who we are,” George says. “This is kind of a destination place for people, so it’s easier for us to open up our farm than it would be for some other farms.”

Family Farm Days began in 1983 as a simple open house at the farm with hay rides, a barbecue and tours. Today, there are a variety of educational presentations, pony rides and much more. Several local agricultural groups are involved, including swine, beef and poultry producers, conservation groups and local 4-H clubs.

“We want people to learn where their food comes from and how we care for our animals,” Maria says. “With all the misconceptions out there about food safety and mistreatment of animals, it’s extremely important to get people on the farm and show that those things are myths. We don’t want to be quiet about what we do.”

Earlier this year, Oregon Dairy received the National Dairy Beef Quality Assurance Award during the 2015 Cattle Industry Annual Convention in San Antonio, Texas.
“It’s an honor to be recognized,” Tim says, “and I think it comes with a certain amount of responsibility.”

That responsibility is something Hurst welcomes. Being a good neighbor and an innovative businessman were traits passed down from his father and something he has imparted on his own children. The results of that way of thinking are all around him.

“It’s rewarding,” he says. “It’s really a blessing. We’re just trying to be good stewards of what we have.”