Agricultural Environment Management: To-B-Lea Farm Focuses on Positive Image of Farming!

For dairy farmers Tobe and Lena Elmer, farming cleaner and greener has always been a top priority and a source of great pride. Because of their commitment, they have received numerous recognitions for their conservation practices and milk quality.

The Elmers’ To-B-Lea Farm is situated in the southwest corner of Jefferson County in the Town of Ellisburg, New York. The entrance to Southwick Beach State Park on Lake Ontario is less than a quarter mile down the road. “Our proximity to the lake and state park makes us very visible to the public,” commented Lena. “With all the traffic passing by us – campers, lake residents and park visitors – we’ve become more aware of our image and the image we present for dairy farming. We try to keep things neat and clean, as well as focus on our conservation practices.” Tobe added, “It’s important to promote a positive image of farming. Taking good care of the land, water and animals creates a good impression.”


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Tobe, Lena and Corky sit among the flowers planted in from of the barn to add a touch of color for the public to enjoy. Photo by Jefferson County Soil & Water Conservation District

The Elmers purchased the farm from Tobe’s father, Lloyd, in 1964, when the dairy consisted of 115 acres of workable land with a milking herd of 45 cows. Since then, they expanded to 100 Holstein milkers and 325 acres, growing primarily corn and alfalfa. In addition to Tobe and Lena, their three now-grown children, Tim, Terry and Traci, have been active in the operation over the years. They now have a hired employee.

They began focusing on conservation issues in the early 1990s. Their prime concerns were manure run-off, leaching and odor, as well as developing a nutrient management plan to ensure they were spreading nutrients responsibly and effectively to protect water quality and get the most value from their manure.

Working with the staff of the Jefferson County Soil and Water Conservation District, the Elmers participated in the Agricultural Environmental Management (AEM) process, which started with an inventory of the farm’s activities, future plans and potential environmental concerns. A customized conservation plan was developed and implemented, followed by an evaluation to ensure that goals were met to protect the environment and the farm’s viability.

With the guidance of the District staff, the Elmers embarked on several improvements to divert rainwater and treat runoff from the milkhouse, barnyard, silos and roads. “We had a milkhouse drainage problem and installed a barkbed system that was innovative at the time,” explained Tobe. “We’ve remodeled it since its initial installation to become even more efficient.” The system entails a septic tank that receives the waste, where solids settle. The liquid then drains into the bark, which provides a carbon source for bacterial breakdown of the nutrients in the effluent and out-letted to a wastewater vegetative treatment area. The solids from the septic tank are pumped out and spread on the land.

Another area addressed was the barnyard. “We completely dug out the original barnyard and filled it with big rocks then filter fabric and finer material, which prevent mud and manure from leaching into the ground,” Lena said. “The top is then scraped and spread on the fields once a year. We continue adding stones to keep it properly maintained and make sure it’s effective.”

A roof water collection system was developed that alleviated a major mud problem in their barnyard. The rain water no longer runs into the barnyard area, but is diverted into a drainage ditch that brings the clean water to a wetland area. Improvements were also made to address silage leaching from the bunker silo. A system was installed to collect the low flows, and the high flows divert to a wastewater vegetative treatment area. Also, a stone and felt screen was used to build up and harden the driveway and access roads, thereby preventing mud from going on the highway and getting into the bunk silo.

With the assistance of the Soil and Water Conservation District, the Elmers enrolled in Natural Resources Conservation Service’s EQIP program. “The EQIP grant covered about 75 percent of the costs,” said Lena. “It was well worth it, even with paying what we did for the improvements.” Tobe concurred: “Without the grant, I’m not sure how much would have gotten done; if it would have gotten done as soon as it did; or done as well.”

More recently, the Elmers worked with their Conservation District to develop a Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan to make sure their manure was handled effectively. “It involved a more accurate measurement plan for spreading,” Tobe said. “And, it was nice to learn we already were doing a good job with our manure. We only had to make a minor change in spreading on one field during a certain time of year because of slope.” Getting the maximum nutrient benefits from their manure has been extremely cost-effective, as they haven’t had to use fertilizer on their corn fields for years.

According to Lena, they began making conservation improvements because it was “the right thing to do.” Their commitment to improving the environment and enhancing the public image of dairying earned them the Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District’s 2002 Conservation Farm of the Year, which is a source of pride for the couple. “We received a great amount of help and guidance over the years from the staff at the Soil and Water Conservation District,” said Tobe. “They are excellent people to work with, asking what you want to do and making suggestions. They know the rules and regulations, but are flexible and work with you making sure you get the outcomes you want as well.”

“The Elmers epitomize the strong conservation ethic that many of our county farmers display,” said Christine Watkins of the Jefferson County Soil and Water Conservation District. “Their decision to address the resource concerns on their farm was not driven by regulation, but by their desire to do what is best for the environment, their farm and the community.”

While being environmentally responsible is important to the image of farming, Lena added that producing a high quality product is important to. “We take pride in what we do and the product we produce for the public,” she said. Their efforts have been well noted as they have been honored consistently through Dairylea Cooperative’s Quality Milk Recognition Program, and have received the Super Milk Award over the years. Most recently, they also attained the Dairylea “Gold Standard Dairy” designation, which recognizes dedication to producing a quality product on a farm that has met a variety of safety, environmental and animal care standards.

“It’s nice to be recognized for what you’ve done, but we always feel that there’s room for improvement,” said Lena. “We like to try to get out ahead of things, continue to do the right things for our farm and the environment, and look for more ways to present a good image for dairy farming.

The Agricultural Environment Management (AEM) program is free. In addition to helping farmers identify and address environmental concerns, the process documents good stewardship. To get started, call your county Soil and Water Conservation District today to schedule a free, confidential AEM Assessment for your farm. To learn more about AEM, view the AEM Worksheets (under ‘Technical Tools’) or locate your County Soil and Water Conservation District office.


Avatar of Barbara Silvestri

Barbara Silvestri

Barbara Silvestri is the Information & Education Program Coordinator with the NYS Soil & Water Conservation Committee in Albany, NY. She can be reached at 518-457-3738 or

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