landscape redefined: Organic corn grows
tall and wide, 380 acres to be exact, on the Ohio
Farm at a Glance:
Twin Parks Farm
West Salem, Ohio
Location: 54 miles southwest
Size: 830 acres, certified organic
Products: Corn, soybeans, hay,
oats, wheat, and clover
Dean McIlvaine’s experiences with his long-term
transition to organic are a text book example
of what we’ve learned here at The Rodale
Institute® over the course of 23 years of
organic production in our Farming Systems Trial®
(FST). Dean, like us, discovered that organic
systems do much better in drought years. And he
discovered that all the chemical fertilizer in
the world won’t make up for a loss of soil
fertility and soil structure.
here if you’d like to learn more about our
FST experiments. Also,
stay tuned next week for a summary of an article
just published in the American Journal of Alternative
Agriculture that describes the better yields we
experienced here at The Institute during drought
years, compared with yields on conventional plots.
Also be on the look out for some amazing data
we’ve gathered on the dramatic negative
impact of chemical fertilizers on soil fertility,
and the stunning long-term benefits of compost.
You’ll be amazed. (We certainly were.)
Have any of you had similar experiences with
improved yields during drought years on organic
fields? Write and share your experiences with
us by sending an email to the following address:
“organic farm” and most folks in Ohio envision
a small homestead with a few tomatoes, zucchini, and chickens
running around laying brown eggs. Sure, they think, organic
farming can work on a few acres, but how would you ever be
able to control weeds on a large scale? Could you really farm
all those rolling Ohio corn and soybean fields without using
a few synthetic inputs?
They ought to meet Dean McIlvaine, owner of Twin Parks Farm
in West Salem, Ohio—54 miles southwest of Cleveland.
He farms an 830-acre varied crop rotation of corn, soybeans,
hay, oats, wheat, and clover – all of which is certified
organic. And all of which is doing surprisingly well.
“It makes such good sense – we like diversity
in our lives and so does our soil,” McIlvaine said.
“The longer I’ve been doing this (organically)
the more benefits and improvements I see – soil structure,
the color, the aroma… the weeds have gone from tough
to control to easier to control.”
poppa: McIlvaine and daughter Schuyler
pose in front of a 12-row goosefoot cultivator.
The cultivator is one of McIlvaine's top defenses
in the fight against weeds.
McIlvaine appreciates these improvements all too keenly.
His father purchased most of his acreage in the 70’s
and, initially they used a simple corn-soybean rotation and
synthetic inputs to buoy yields. This worked for a few years
but yields, and profit, began decreasing in the early eighties.
McIlvaine already questioned the environmental and health
costs of using chemicals – he had left Peace Corp after
a year in Paraguay because he didn’t like the amount
of chemicals they were using. He soon began questioning the
merits of synthetic inputs from an economic standpoint as
“Each year the yields were declining and interest rates
were high,” said McIlvaine. “I just felt like
we were farming ourselves into a hole.”
McIlvaine’s soils, which he describes as clay and loam,
had deteriorated to the point that they couldn’t produce
healthy plants. “I had a lot of trouble growing corn
in the eighties,” McIlvaine said. “Soils were
just so depleted and thin and yellow.”
When high interest rates prompted his father to get into
the farm machinery business, McIlvaine began to experiment.
His first idea was to increase yields by adding more fertilizer.
But he soon saw that even when he doubled the rate of fertilizer
plants showed no improvement.
Undaunted, McIlvaine tried another approach. “Whenever
we’d have a set-aside field I’d put clover in
it and try to work on building up the soil,” he said.
“I got into a more diversified crop rotation and the
soil responded. It responded like it was really lacking for
McIlvaine stopped using chemicals completely in 1985 and was
organically certified three years later. Unfortunately, success
didn’t happen overnight. “Like a lot of things,
we don’t get into the messes that we are in overnight,
so to correct the messes takes time to work out,” he said.
“It was about five years after certification before things
really started to click.”
makes such good sense – we like diversity in our
lives and so does our soil. The
longer I’ve been doing this (organically) the more
benefits and improvements I see – soil structure,
the color, the aroma… the weeds have gone from tough
to control to easier to control."
“I learned you really
had to follow the people who had done it before, who had farmed
without chemicals successfully,” he said. “You
had to pay attention to everything that they did. It was hard
to just adopt part of their methods and to use some of our
old bad habits and to make it work. You really had to understand
the whole picture. Sometimes it takes several years before
you realize what it was that stimulated things.”
One step toward success was making connections with several
companies that were buying organic grains for human consumption.
These brought a much higher price, which made up for lower
yields, and enabled McIlvaine to diversify his crop rotation.
into gelt: This small grain,
while a money maker, also fits well into McIlvaine’s
One of these companies, Purity Foods, specialized in spelt.
Spelt has been catching on because it has high protein and fiber,
good taste, and is more water soluble and easier to digest,
especially for those with allergy problems. The main challenge
with spelt is that its thick husk requires extra processing
to remove and decreases its bulk by up to 40 percent after de-hulling.
ground: McIlvaine has found spelt a very
McIlvaine saw that spelt, a small
grain/grass type of plant, would provide a nice alternating
crop with soybeans, a leguminous row plant. He created a re-circulating
system to clean the grain and sold the hulls as bedding and
a low-potassium roughage source. He sells his spelt to Arrowhead
Mills for breakfast cereal.
machine: McIlvaine modified this spelt
de-huller/cleaner to meet the needs of his farm.
To increase soil fertility, McIlvaine began
inter-seeding spelt with other crops. He now plants spelt
in the fall and seeds clover into it in the spring. He harvests
the spelt in the summer and leaves the clover until he has
prepared for next year’s crop of corn or soybeans. He
then ploughs down the clover and other crop residues, reincorporating
them back into the soil. Sometimes he does an aerial seeding
of spelt into soybeans and harvests the soybeans with a “carpet
of green spelt growing underneath.” (McIlvaine sells
his soybeans to Eden Soy and American Soy Products, mostly
Although he gets
most of his fertility from cover crops, McIlvaine composts
a little – mostly as a way to use waste products. He
throws it in a heap, turns it periodically, and uses it after
a year or so. He also ads inputs such as gypsum, colodial
phosphate, potash and, in the past, composted chicken litter.
McIlvaine has also minimized his impact
on soil structure. He doesn’t plow when the soil is
wet and, by not using chemicals, doesn’t kill beneficial
organisms such as earthworms and bacteria, which aerate the
Improved soils: Even
corn works again on his replenished soils
After years of work, McIlvaine’s soils
have improved to the point where he can grow a healthy crop
of corn as part of his rotation. (The corn, along with hay
and oats, are sold as feed to local farmers.) “Even
on a wet year like this we’ve got big thick ears,”
said McIlvaine. “As long as you don’t get into
a continuous cropping program the soil will replenish itself.
If you give the biology a chance to work it can provide.”
McIlvaine explained that a healthier
soil structure drains better and allows for good air and water
movement in the soil, which increases plant growth. “That
seems to do as much for the crop as having pumped a lot of nutrients
into it,” said McIlvaine. “I think that’s
where the organic system really shines.”
||"Like a lot of things,
we don’t get into the messes
that we are in overnight, so to correct the messes takes
time to work out."
On dry years, like 2002, the organic system
works well because soils with high organic matter absorb more
water and hold water longer. “The soils will act more
like a sponge because of the biological activity and the organic
matter that exists,” said McIlvaine. “The soil
that has been abused is more like cardboard – shallow
and hard. We really work to increase organic matter and that’s
where we get the buffering affect from wild weather swings.”
Breaking the weed
cycle: Over time, he’s
seen fewer, less invasive weeds
of clover: Clover is the last leg in McIlvaine's
six-crop rotation. This year some of the clover
was cut and made into dry bales or silage. The rest
was plowed down.
Weeds have been a problem for many organic
grain farmers, especially on wet years like the past one,
but McIlvaine has found a system that works for him. Over
the years, he has seen his weeds change from tough, hard to
manage weeds, such as quack grass or thistle, to less noxious
weeds that are easier to control, such as foxtail and common
Besides breaking up the weed cycle with
crop rotation, McIlvaine uses timely cultivation and planting
to control weeds. By spacing tillage out in the springtime,
McIlvaine allows a crop of weeds to grow and then disks them
back into the soil. He plants later than most, waiting until
May or, if necessary, early June to plant his corn crop. At
this time the soils are warmer and plants grow more quickly,
out-competing weeds. A delayed planting also gives McIlvaine
time to make an extra trip with a disk or field cultivator
to kill more germinating weeds.
is everything. Understanding when’s the best
time to plant, the best time to cultivate. Conventional
agriculture has changed all those things with the equipment
and the use of chemicals that cover up the mismanagement
of the farmer"
Once the crop is planted, McIlvaine tries
to stay ahead of weeds long enough to give the crop a good
start. A week after planting, he uses a rotary hoe, even if
the weeds aren’t obvious. He may go through once more
with the rotary hoe and then uses the cultivator twice in
everything,” said McIlvaine. “Understanding when’s
the best time to plant, the best time to cultivate. Conventional
agriculture has changed all those things with the equipment
and the use of chemicals that cover up the mismanagement of
the farmer… But in the meantime the farmers are generally
destroying their soils, little by little. So when you get
rid of the chemical technology you have to replace it with
a lot more management. Quitting the use of chemicals is just
To McIlvaine, controlling late-season weeds
is less important. “They’re not significant to
where they’re really hurting the yield,” he said.
“And that’s another change in the mindset of most
farmers. They want to see a perfectly clean field. Economically,
that’s not possible. The costs of making a perfectly
clean field are pretty astronomical.”
McIlvaine feels that there are better things
to invest in than chemicals. “Its nice to not be enslaved
by the rising chemical costs,” he said. “A lot
of farmers out there don’t worry about rotating crops
as much as they do rotating herbicides. In those cases they’re
working for the chemical company, basically.”
“The management decisions and extra
time I spend in the field is really money in my pocket instead
of going out into the pocket of some salesman or chemical
company. I could get a job in town that would pay for the
costs of the chemicals or fertilizers but that’s not
what I want to do. It’s the farm life – the time
in the field, working with nature – that’s more
exciting and fun. Most people want to minimize their work,
but for me that is where the real dividends come from –
paying attention to the land and spending time with it.”
So, there you have it – a bona
fide Ohio organic grain farmer. Though it doesn’t fit
the stereotype, it seems to be a pretty good fit.