Growing strong: From SUNY Broome to Cornell, and a successful farming career

Lonny Schaefer Headed out to the hillside, cows and calves alike bucked and gamboled with a joy peculiar to springtime – called, perhaps, by a grass so green that it seemed to glow on an overcast day.

SUNY Broome alumnus Lonny Schaefer made his way through the many operations of Catskill Cattle, his family farm, accompanied by his young daughters and a devoted cat. There’s the calving pen that houses the cows and their young calves, the bull barn where massive black and red cattle snuffle, perhaps curious about the visitors by the fence. The new greenhouse, where workers transplanted young plants into fresh-turned soil.

Farming is a family business for the Schaefers, whose operations span five towns, three counties and two states. Lonny’s great-grandparents purchased the main farm in Deposit in 1930, and he expects to see it become a centennial farm during his lifetime. Over the years, the Schaefers have added farms throughout the valley, with operations ranging from crops and dairy cows, to beef cattle and stone quarries.

“I truly believe every small town needs to have a farm because this is where they can buy food that they see every day,” Schaefer said. “As long as people eat, this farm will be here.”

Beef, veggies and more Bulls at the Catskill Cattle farm

Catskill Cattle specializes in high-quality registered and commercial cattle. Following best management practices, the cattle represent some of the best beef stock in the Northeast, according to the farm. The breeds are of similar types, and the mixes between their bloodlines improves meat quality, Schaefer explained. Whether cow or bull, ear tags provide a good deal of information, including that particular animal’s ancestry.

A fun fact for our more urban readers: Beef cattle in the United States are typically solid colors to differentiate them from dairy cattle, save for a few outliers such as one spotted bull, placidly chewing his feed in the pen.

Lonny began working with cattle when he was 12 years old. Two years later, he began his own beef herd at the age of 14, independent of his family’s dairy, on land that was considered more marginal for agriculture. He founded the Catskill Cattle Company in 2006, when he moved his 85-acre homestead; his cattle and hay operations span approximately 300 acres.

The farm has 100 head of cattle, and typically sells that same number in a year for beef, as well as selling registered bulls for breeding. The farm also sells other meats, fresh fruit and vegetables – about 60 different varieties, as well as flowers and even jams and pies in their retail store.

You can also find the farm’s beef at the local Big M, as well as Down to Earth Whole Foods in the Endicott area and the Binghamton Regional Farmers Market. Catskill Cattle is also a custom grower for chefs downstate, although most of the meat and produce stays local – feeding the Deposit community.

“People have started to care about where their food comes from,” Schaefer said.

Calves in the field at Catskill CattleFrom SUNY Broome to Cornell

As a member of a farming family, Schaefer’s future career may have seemed predetermined, at least in part. But when it came time to go to college, he wasn’t sure what path to take.

Lonny started at Morrisville State College, where he majored in furniture design, but didn’t have the passion to pursue a future career as a cabinet maker. He took a few classes at SUNY Oneonta. Then it was off to the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry and Syracuse University – he took classes at both campuses — but illness forced him to take time off from his education.

Back on his feet, he enrolled in a few classes at SUNY Broome, intending on returning to SU. Instead, he ended up staying, earning a degree in Marketing, Management and Sales.

“Broome was very welcoming. I very easily found groups of people I got along with because Broome has such a variety of people,” he said. “Some of my closest friends in my life are those I met at Broome.”

With the encouragement of his advisor, Professor Mid Semple, he then applied to transfer to Cornell University’s School of Agriculture and Life Sciences – and was accepted. His experience at SUNY Broome prepared him well for the Ivy League, he said. Most of his credits transferred, allowing him to enter Cornell as a junior. The courses he took at SUNY Broome also proved highly useful for his future farm, such as statistics and business math.

“What Broome offered – I think it presented students with a little more reality, that these are the skills you need. Broome prepared you to get ready to go to work,” he reflected. “I know at Cornell that some of my friends wouldn’t get the jobs they wanted; it’s a different experience.”

At Cornell, he majored in Applied Economics and Management, and took electives in such subjects as livestock nutrition to prepare for his future path. He also played football and joined the AGR fraternity, whose business network proved even more useful in some ways than an Ivy League degree.

Shortly after graduating from Cornell, the Schaefer family had the opportunity to purchase the current home of the Catskill Cattle Company, enabling Lonny to start on his enterprise.

Through the years, the 35-year-old has accumulated multiple honors. Currently the president of the Delaware County Farm Bureau, Schaefer won the New York State Young Farmer and Rancher Achievement Award in 2011 and the New York Farm Bureau Discussion Meet contest in 2015, and was the Broome County director of the New York Beef Producers Association in 2010. He also sits on the town board.

Stewards of the land

Ducking into the farm’s greenhouse, Schaefer offers a friendly greeting to the young workers there – some of them former SUNY Broome students. The sizable space with its hooped roof replaces an older facility, felled by 40 inches of snow in last March’s historic farm. And like the farm as a whole, it’s set up with expansion in mind.

“This is very much a plan-ahead business,” Schaefer explained.

While farming might seem an old-fashioned enterprise to urban dwellers, the field has gone high-tech – and Schaefer eagerly embraces what technology can offer to his business. Satellite imagery helps him map fields and plot acreage, while drones help control fungus and mold. He also plans on using drones to spray crops for the farm’s produce operation – a real time-saver, he said.

Technology aside, as a future-oriented business farming is about more than the bottom line. It deals with the basic processes of life – food, nutrition – and the health of the land that supports these processes. With that in mind, the farm has been looking at reducing its carbon footprint and reducing potential negative impacts on the environment.

The farm has adopted green practices – reducing tillage, using trickle-tape irrigation and biodegradable mulch, keeping cattle out of the water and planting cover crops to reduce drainage, among other measures.

“The impact of my farm on the environment is very important. We take care to be good stewards of the land,” he said.