Ohio grain farmer replaces inputs with sweat.
He likes it that way, and he’s a lot better off financially, too.

It took a while for Dean McIlvaine’s diversified 830-acre organic grain farm to get in a groove, but now he’s cookin’: rich soils, resilience in bad weather years, organic premiums, a better bottom line... and the priceless pleasure of more time in the fields.

By Jason Witmer

 
 

 

 

 

Farm at a Glance:
Twin Parks Farm
Dean McIlvaine
West Salem, Ohio


Location: 54 miles southwest of Cleveland

Size: 830 acres, certified organic

Products: Corn, soybeans, hay, oats, wheat, and clover

 

Editor's Note:

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.

Click 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:
chris.hill@rodaleinst.org

Mention “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.”

Proud 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 well.

“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 the diversity.”

"It 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."
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.”

“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.


Spelt into gelt: This small grain, while a money maker, also fits well into McIlvaine’s diverse rotation

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.

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.

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 for soymilk.)

Spelt machine: Pictured above is spelt de-huller/cleaner. McIlvaine modified it to meet the needs of his farm.
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 soil.

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.”

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

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 ragweed.

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.

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 following weeks.

“Timing is 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 one step.”

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.