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Dean McIlvaine

November Profile

If you’ve bought any organic Eden Foods products at your local grocer, there’s a chance you’ve already sampled some of the bounty of Dean McIlvaine’s farm.

“I like growing food for people because it brings our purpose closer to home,” he says. Dean says he feels proud when he sees his products on the grocery store shelves.

Dean’s farm spreads across the low sloping hills of Wayne County. He is fortunate to have one of the largest contiguous tracts of organic land in the region at 800 tillable acres. The pasture, woodlot and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land add an additional 400 acres. Dean’s father purchased the land in the mid-1970s.

Growing up on a conventional grain farm, Dean always had an appreciation for “working with the soil and watching things grow.”

In 1973, Dean’s “organic light bulb” turned on when the energy crisis forced him to look into less fuel-intensive, alternative farming strategies. It wasn’t until 1985, however, that Dean decided to “make the leap of faith” into organic farming. He began talking to people who farmed without chemicals and soon joined OEFFA, ultimately serving on the board and helping to start OEFFA’s certification program.

OEFFA was an early source of inspiration to Dean. His biggest challenge in the early days of the farm was overcoming the “negativity, doubtfulness, and skepticism” of conventional farmers who thought organic farming was the “craziest idea.” Dean found himself identifying with small-scale organic farmers or “renegade farmers” as he calls them. Dean also credits OEFFA for helping him build connections with other farmers—connections that have led to a “cumulative wealth of knowledge.”

Dean calls it “a combination of calamities” that led to his early success. The farm was certified in 1988, a year of a severe drought in the region. Farm prices were high and companies like Eden Foods were looking for organic soybeans, so Dean had no problem finding profitable markets.

Dean attended trade shows early on to attract buyers and brokerage firms. Now, Dean sells most of his products to natural foods processors and Dean’s partner, Carmella, sells spelt and baked goods at the Wooster farmers’ market.

Dean believes good crops come from good soil. Initially, Dean believed that ‘going organic’ was a “process of subtraction,” in which taking away chemicals was the most important step. Now, Dean realizes that organic farming is also about adding improvements to the soil in the form of cover crops, manure, and water control called “tiling.”

Tiling, which involves a round pipe installed two to four feet below the ground, drains excess water from the soil. Tiling has proved to be Dean’s most important investment. Not having to wait for the soil to drain itself allows a farmer to plant, harvest and control faster. In this wet, sloping region of Ohio, water management is the key to optimal soil health.

Dean also integrated small grains like spelt, barley, canola and buckwheat into his corn-soybean rotation. These crops prevent soil erosion on the slopes and help crowd out giant ragweed. In the 1980s, Dean put some land into CRP, allowing him to take some erosion-prone fields out of production and focus on farming the better land. Dean also keeps some beef cattle on marginal land that is too vulnerable to be farmed.

Dean has benefited from advances in scientific testing that give quick feedback on the beneficial effects of these organic methods. Tissue and soil tests are essential for monitoring soil health on the farm.

Dean gets a lot of satisfaction from “doing things the best that you can imagine how” and he is always willing to share advice. He believes in creating strong communities of farmers, where farmers share their knowledge and help each other succeed. At one point, Dean owned a truck that he used to collect grain from other farmers to take to market. It helped smaller farmers access the transportation necessary to enter the market. But, Dean says, “I learn from others as much as I share with others; it’s a symbiotic relationship.”

Farmers like Dean, who began farming at a time when chemicals were king, probably best understand the importance of strength in numbers. Carmella, who maintains a neat, colorful garden to the side of the house, says, “It’s important to interact with your neighbors. It’s easy to feel alone as a farmer. But, you have to remember the ghosts of the past, your ancestors. They went through this before.”

Dean now works full-time on the farm and he and Carmella pour their extra energy into the international sustainable food movement and are both active bicyclists.

About the writer: Danielle Deemer is working on her master's degree in Rural Sociology at the Ohio State University. Danielle, through her OEFFA internship, profiled some of the organization's most accomplished members and their successes, creating OEFFA’s Profiles of Success series. Lauren Ketcham has updated and edited content. This series is being unveiled throughout OEFFA's 30th anniversary celebration year.