Dave and Holly Albert, owners of Misty Mountain Farms, raise cattle for their local Pennsylvanian market. Their operation runs on a strong value system, adherence to conservation, continued profitability, and consumer relationships.
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“My ancestor’s life was tough, and their values of hard work passed down from generation to generation. We were taught to ‘stay by the stuff’ and keep a steady resolve to get through every major crisis that impacts your life. We have taught our children to wake up in the morning and do the very best job on the day they have been given.”
– Dave Albert, owner of Misty Mountain Farms
Dave’s family has been farming the land for six generations, since his ancestor, John Wolfgang, first turned the soil in 1854. An immigrant from Germany, Wolfgang and his fiancé landed in Philadelphia. Once they married and acclimated to America, they pushed their few belongings in a wheelbarrow over 200 miles before settling on 110 acres in Trout Run. Clearing trees, picking rocks out of the soil, tilling the soil, and cultivating a crop was not an easy way of life in the 1800s (or even today).
Six generations later, the Alberts farm ~300 acres grazing multiple species of livestock, including Angus cattle, Texel/Suffolk sheep and lamb, and pastured poultry, including chickens and turkeys. To support this effort, they grow row crops of corn, soybeans, oats, barley, and canola. The main focus of tillable acreage is for forages and cover crops. The balance of their operation is dedicated to improving the pastures.
Soil Health Translates to Profitability
“A healthy soil will produce the same amount of yield, if not better, without any inputs such as pesticides and commercial fertilizer.”
Misty Mountain Farm is profitable because Dave believes that soil health is the foundation of any farming enterprise. With farm incomes generally down across the country, this is a big statement.
He utilizes no-till farming to grow corn, soybeans, and barley with limited inputs of commercial fertilizer. Imported poultry litter is readily available and he uses approximately 200 to 300 tons per year. When expanding his land holdings, it takes him about three years before the soil has enough organic matter to support the crops he harvests.
No-till means that Dave will simultaneously plant multiple cover crops such as rye, Austrian winter pea, eco-till radish, and multi-species clovers. These covers are planted post-harvest and stay on the fields until it is time to plant his corn and soybeans. He will plant the spring seeds right over the cover crops without turning the soil. The cover crops then turn into food for the trillions of soil microbiota and ultimately his row crops of corn and soybeans.
How does Dave know his soil is healthy? His definition is that he can achieve the same yield per acre as conventional farmers with little to no herbicides and pesticides.
The level of input determines soil health, which then allows the farmer to achieve target yields combined with optimal profitability. In addition, this summer was a drought year with only a couple of inches of rain a month. Yet his crops were healthy and strong because of the soil biodiversity. When it finally did rain, the ground absorbed the water like a sponge. He says you can tell a farm has unhealthy soil when there is a lot of mud on the road after a rain — a sign that the soil quality has deteriorated so much that it simply just washes away.
Organic or Conventional? Neither – Regenerative
“We live in a world where production and monoculture crops are the norm. To get the highest yield, you need the highest inputs but yet we have a market structure where profit is not there.”
Regenerative agriculture is when you not only protect the land but you make it better than when you first started farming. It enhances the ecosystem around the farm or ranch by enriching the soil, protecting and improving the watersheds, and increasing biodiversity — all while improving crop yields.
Dave is a student of agriculture. When Dave was a high school junior, he won first prize on a paper about cover crops at the state-level Future Farmers of America convention in Harrisburg. He then graduated from Penn State in 1984, with a degree in Animal Science. That is where he met Holly, who also grew up with an agricultural background.
In 2007, he was a participating member of a team of soil scientists who traveled to Europe to study organic waste recycling. Dr. Richard Stehouwer led this team, spending two weeks in Germany and Austria. While ferrying down the Rhine River on a lazy Sunday afternoon, Dave saw the town of Wiesbaden, Germany where his great, great, great grandfather, John Wolfgang Albert, was born. An unexpected highlight of the day for sure.
Dave spends his winter months reading and learning from soil experts such as Ray Archuleta, the founder of Understanding Ag, LLC, and Gabe Brown, a regenerative farmer from North Dakota, who has a 5,000-acre farm with 20% higher crop yield than the county average.
Conservation: Protecting the Chesapeake Bay
Streaming right through Misty Mountain Farm is West Branch Murry Run, one of the five headwaters that ultimately flow into the Chesapeake Bay. One of the more pristine rivers, the Loyalsock was the 2018 Pennsylvania River of the Year.
However, in the 1970s and 1980s, the Chesapeake Bay was floundering under a high nutrient load from the hundreds of farms leaking their fertilizer, manure, and pesticides into the rivers that fall in the watershed area.
Recognizing this issue, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation set up a series of grants for farmers to keep the run-off clean by establishing buffer zones between the farm and the watersheds.
In 1999, the Alberts were the first in Lycoming County to fence an 80-foot buffer between their cattle and the stream. At this time, the stream was warm, semi-polluted, and had no trout. Instead of trout, which are an indication of cleanliness and purity, they found only a few chubs and crew fish.
Just buffering the stream produced dramatic improvements. So much so that in 2017, they celebrated a 100-person ‘field day’ that included the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Chesapeake Conservancy, Regional Conservation Partnership Program, and State Rep. Garth Everett. They enjoyed a Misty Mountain beef barbeque, talked about soil health and water quality, and examined the stream for a 9-year improvement.
Working with students from the Lycoming College Clean Water Institute, they shocked the stream, temporarily paralyzing the fish, to see what fish now inhabited the ecosystem. A brown trout popped up. Now, trout flourish in the cold, clear, and oxygenated water that provides not just places to hide but also clean gravel for their eggs.
How Dave Grows Beef
Dave’s proprietary cattle feed produces beef with such tenderness that ‘you can eat it with a spoon.’
The crops he grows feed his 150 head of cattle. In the summer, they graze on improved pasture and cover crops in his fields. For the wintertime, the cow-calf pairs are fed mostly forages and corn silage. The finished ration is fed year-round in a finishing barn post-weaning. Both spring-born and fall-born calves are weaned at 10 months of age.
Dave says the key to a high-quality eating experience is prepotent genetics for marbling, coupled with a consistent energy release in the rumen, to allow for a steady rate of gain and growth. Cattle are harvested at the peak of perfection in quality grade. Harvest weights average 675 lb. on the rail. Plating a ribeye steak that is manageable is key to his restaurant trade.
As we sat in the warm sunshine, his pregnant cows trotted over to see us and investigate if we had any food. We heard his bull over in the nearby field wanting to visit the cows. Dave is careful what breed he uses for his Angus cattle. When I asked him if he used antibiotics, he said, ‘sure’.
He continues, “the other day, I had a pregnant cow who was about to calve. She contracted pneumonia and was terribly sick. I gave her an antibiotic cocktail, she lived, and the calf lived. If I hadn’t, I would have lost both of them. It is inhumane to let them suffer.”
As a nice push to gain valuable nutrients on pasture, Dave raises poultry, including chicken and turkey.
Customer Transparency: Strong Local Market
“Consumers don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”
For five generations, the Alberts have been selling their beef into the local market in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and the surrounding area. They use three local USDA-inspected processing plants to turn their cattle into cuts for both the local restaurants as well as the farmer’s market. Since Covid, the local market has boomed! Per-month sales have doubled over the previous year. Slaughter dates are now being held for all of 2021 and into 2022.
The consumer wants to know their farmer. Misty Mountain Farms has long enjoyed a loyal following. But since Covid, more of the consumers who previously shopped in local supermarkets have bought his beef from the local market. Dave and Holly meet with consumers to inform them how they raise and feed their cattle from the time they are born. Customers love the taste and consistency of the Alberts’ meat.
Here’s how the farm prepares the cattle’s feed for winter…somewhat meditative to watch!
Their customers’ trust in Dave and Holly has placed the couple in the education business. Dave says, “we meet people where they are at. We don’t make a judgment on their knowledge, we just make a product that keeps them coming and we explain how we get there.”
This shows how important the farmer’s brand has become. The consumer wants great taste and flavor, but also to trust their food producer. Dave could just as easily sell his cattle to one of the ‘big four’ meat processors. It would be sold to the grocery store market and get absorbed into the retail system. There, the very same consumer would see the ‘generic’ beef and walk away not knowing the unique care that Misty Mountain Farm takes to grow their cattle.
The Bottom Line
Misty Mountain Farm is a great example of an innovative and curious farmer with strong values who also cares about his consumers and the environment. He puts his profits back into the land so the farm can continue to provide the best meats while restoring health to the surrounding ecosystem.