By Brianna Gwirtz, OCJ field reporter
In 1973, a young Dean McIlvaine is plagued by problems caused by the energy crisis. The crisis was causing gas prices to skyrocket and fuel shortages were abundant. McIlvaine often thought of alternatives to using fossil fuels, something that would be better for the planet.
A problem solver by nature, McIlvaine has always been intrigued by possible solutions to modern problems.
McIlvaine carried this curiosity into his adult life. At Grinnell University College in Iowa, he studied economics and politics. McIlvaine was also exposed to organic farming while in Iowa at school.
“The idea of organic food production really resonated with me and blossomed. I tried to invoke change through politics. I had worked in Washington, DC for a while, writing a biological education and research proposal for the 1979 Farm Bill. However, I became more interested in practical applications. After college, I joined the Peace Corps to learn more about sustainable agriculture,” said said McIlvaine.
His stint in the Peace Corps took him to Paraguay for a while before returning home to the family farm in northeast Ohio. His father, Dale McIlvaine, owned McIlvaine Equipment in Wooster, a tractor dealership. In the mid-1970s he purchased Twin Park Farms. Located just off Interstate 71, the farm was named after the two rest areas surrounded by farm fields.
“When I got home, my dad was more than happy to hand me some of the farming responsibilities and focus more on the dealership,” McIlvaine said.
Shortly after returning home in the early 80s, McIlvaine was introduced to the new Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA). At that time, there were no national guidelines for the production of organic foods. The federal government relied on state agencies to determine qualifications and guidelines.
“We were farming conventionally until I dived into organic production. We harvested our first certified organic crop in 1988,” McIlvaine said. “At that time, there was a movement to standardize the organic industry. The National Organic Program was finally founded in 1990. So I’ve been part of the organic industry since the “official” beginning.
Going organic was both a moral and a financial decision. McIlvaine has always felt a strong aversion to chemicals. Her father, Dale, died at the age of 62 from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma due to exposure to chemicals, only reinforcing McIlvaine’s opinion.
The 1980s were difficult for many farmers and for agriculture in general. Farm prices were high, grain prices were low, and drought hit the region. However, the decision to go organic paid off at the right time.
“I like to call my first harvest beginner’s luck,” he said. “The demand for organic soybeans for soymilk and food-grade soybeans for export was very high at the time, so I was very lucky to sell into a lucrative market. It was perhaps a cost-cutting measure that was very successful.
From there, McIlvaine began to diversify his crops. Today, his farm consists of 850 cultivable acres, where McIlvaine grows food-grade soybeans for export, organic corn, rye and hay. Its products are consumed both locally and globally. McIlvaine sells grain to Western Reserve Distillers, a certified organic distillery in Cleveland, while most of its soybeans go to Japan for tofu production.
More recently, McIlvaine added 60 head of beef cows in 2014. The herd grazes 200 acres of pasture, which consists of an assortment of grasses and clovers. McIlvaine also planted patches of trees in the pastures in 1986, creating both a refuge for livestock and wildlife. The cattle, which he jokingly calls his “red, white and blue” herd, are mostly crossbred between Angus and Shorthorn. He markets the calves to local fatteners.
During his farming career, McIlvaine tried a bit of everything. He always felt called to go further in food production.
“At one point I was running my own mill and selling to bakeries. I also used to raise heritage breed pigs on pasture. We also have a grain cleaner and a shelling machine. For the past few years, I’ve done custom grain drying for most local Amish families,” McIlvaine said. “We have come a long way on the farm over the past 40 years. Early soil tests showed low organic matter levels below 2. Today they are healthy, well above 2.5. We test the soil every three years to verify.
Over the years since he’s been able to, McIlvaine has renewed his organic certification every year. Because he cannot use synthetic chemicals on his crops, he used a wide variety of minerals, biologics, and enzymes for fertilizers. Weed management requires more labor intensive work.
“Weeds are the bane of every farmer’s existence, but especially for an organic farmer who cannot use chemicals,” McIlvaine said. “We are doing more tillage, more crop rotation and incorporating cover crops; rye or clover are our favorites, but we tried a variety of things. We usually do something in the fields eight to 10 times a year, be it plant preparation, rotary hoeing, planting, cultivation or harvesting. »
McIlvaine’s dedication and long career in the organic industry earned him the 2022 OEFFA Stewardship Award. The winner is chosen by the past winners. McIlvaine was very honored to be this year’s winner.
“We are pleased to recognize Dean with this award,” said Carol Goland, Executive Director of OEFFA. “For more than 40 years, he has been a great ambassador for organic farming in Ohio, generously sharing his knowledge, encouraging others, and demonstrating through his own work what a successful organic farm can accomplish.”
McIlvaine has been heavily involved with the organization throughout his career. He has organized farm tours, attended numerous conferences, lobbied for a sustainable agricultural policy and written editorials for the Cleveland Plain Dealership. McIlvaine has also served on the boards of the Organic Agriculture Research Foundation and OEFFA, and is a member of the Grain Growers Chapter of OEFFA and the Ohio Farmers Union. .
“My favorite thing about farming is doing what I love. I love trying new things and taking on challenges. There are also always the joys of working in nature,” McIlvaine said. “Organic farming must be kept to high standards. There are always new players trying to undermine the organic label, through marketing or other means. It’s a never-ending battle to protect supporters of organic farming.
After farming for most of his life, McIlvaine is nearing retirement. In recent years, he has rented out some of his fields to young local farmers. He still manages a few fields but eventually hopes to transfer them all to tenants.
“My biggest lesson and piece of advice I would give to other farmers looking to get into organic farming would be to not count your chickens before they hatch,” McIlvaine said. “With every success, there is also a failure. Just count your blessings.
Retirement won’t change McIlvaine’s passion for the organic industry. His own personal beliefs are deeply rooted in doing what’s right for the planet and everyone on it.
“In general, I like to think that it’s everyone’s efforts that contribute to the whole. That being part of a bigger organization that is doing good things for people’s health, the health of the planet, and the health of our soil and water is very important,” he said. “It’s nice to think that I’m helping to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.”