Organic farmer takes on 800 acres

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WEST SALEM, Ohio – Dean McIlvaine’s grain farm sprawls across 830 acres by the ocean.
At least that’s the way he likes to think of the four-lane interstate that borders his property in Wayne County, Ohio.
If he closes his eyes and turns his back, that monotone whoosh of tractor-trailers speeding toward Columbus or Cleveland could lull him to sleep like waves crashing on the beach.
But there’s no time for sleep at Twin Parks Farm. And if you do have an extra minute, you should be weeding.
Eating dirt. McIlvaine pulls a bean plant from his field. The roots intertwine, clutching a handful of dirt. McIlvaine puts it to his nose and inhales.
“It smells like the ocean. A fresh scent. Earthy. Healthy. I wouldn’t be afraid to eat this dirt.”
McIlvaine also wouldn’t be afraid to eat his beans or corn or wheat, although he might hesitate before biting into his neighbors’ crops.
The reason? Spraying chemicals to control weeds and pests makes him cringe. And most farmers do it.
But not McIlvaine. All of his 830 tillable acres are certified organic.
Era of chemicals. McIlvaine grew up in a world that smelled more like methyl bromide than saltwater.
His father, Dale, farmed this ground first. He spent years mixing herbicide tanks without protection. And his bath water turned yellow at night, McIlvaine says.
The generation before that, McIlvaine’s grandfather, Donald, sold fertilizer in Creston, Ohio.
When McIlvaine returned to the farm in the mid-1980s, after taking pre-law at an Iowa college and going to Paraguay with the Peace Corps, he saw his dad struggling to make payments.
For the farm to survive, McIlvaine knew inputs needed to be cut. So he talked to his dad about organic farming. The man who spent a lifetime depending on herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer encouraged his son to give chemical-free farming a try.
In 1985, McIlvaine took over one field, converted it to organic and made it work. The next two years, McIlvaine and his father transitioned all the fields to organic. In 1988, the Organic Crop Improvement Association certified the farm.
And although early on McIlvaine sometimes doubted their decision, his father was his biggest supporter.
When he died eight years later of lymphoma, he blamed chemicals.
Not so bad. Without herbicides, yes, some of McIlvaine’s weeds look as healthy as his beans.
But he isn’t concerned.
“Weeds aren’t bad unless they interfere with crop growth,” he says, pointing to a bean plant covered with healthy pods.
That doesn’t mean McIlvaine surrenders to weeds. It’s a constant battle, he says.
Although most organic tillage practices are similar to conventional farming, McIlvaine makes extra trips cultivating and rotary hoeing to fight weeds.
The key is to have the weeds germinate and then kill them before planting, he said.
Then he waits to plant until the soil is warm and hopes the plants will outgrow the weeds.
If all else fails, he gets down on his knees and picks with his hands.
What and when. “With organic [farming], it’s not necessarily as important what you do as when you do it,” he said.
“In great weather, everyone can make hay. It’s when the weather is bad that it’s a game of strategy.”
Like how late should he wait to plant? Or harvest? When is the best time to cultivate? And how often?
This timing is different than conventional farming because McIlvaine alters what he does to beat the weeds. He doesn’t have a chemical to do the job for him, he says.
Like most farmers, McIlvaine said the weather can make or break him.
He waits for a hard frost to kill his weeds before he harvests his fields.
Just when McIlvaine thought he knew it all about organic farming, “the monsoons came,” he said referring to the past two particularly rainy seasons.
Weeds run more rampant than usual and his “livestock” – his earthworms that he counts on to add organic matter – starves without a balance of oxygen and water.
The rainy weather also costs him production.
“Production drops but the organic demand keeps snowballing,” he said.
“Before, all I heard about was people asking the cost. Now they’re just asking where they can get it.”
McIlvaine sells his soybeans to American Soy Products, maker of Eden soymilk, and exports the rest to Japan. He directly sells most of his corn, spelt, wheat and hay to food processors.
He also has a spelt dehulling and seed-cleaning operation.
The money. Rather than having chemicals manage McIlvaine’s fields, he prefers to do the work himself.
“I’m paying myself rather than a chemical company to do the same thing.”
Little by little, farmers are starting to work for these companies rather than for themselves, he said.
“Farmers need to take back responsibility in production and keep the money in their own pockets,” he said.
“So much of this organic stuff just makes sense,” he said. “This world was created by a supreme being for a reason and when we alter it for our own benefit, we pay consequences.
“I just like the idea of enhancing life rather than destroying it.”
Nowadays, farmers don’t even have to touch the soil, he said; machines can do everything for them.
But isn’t that the whole point of farming, he asks, to be near nature.
McIlvaine rakes his fingers through his dirt and comments how much it’s changed since he stopped using chemicals. It’s darker, smells sweeter, has more organic matter, and isn’t as compacted, he said.
He likes to stand in this dirt, relax and take deep breaths of fresh, clean air. Sort of like being at the ocean.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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