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Jeff Dean

September Profile

Jeff Dean is not a dairy farmer; he’s really a grain farmer who happens to have a dairy operation. At least, that’s how Jeff thinks of himself, because he says he didn’t intend to enter the dairy business at all.

Jeff grew up on a conventional farm, on the same land he farms now. His parents still live on the farm, near the milking operation about four miles from Jeff's house. Out of high school, Jeff went to college and continued farming the family’s land conventionally for about ten years.

Then, in the late 1980s, northern Ohio was hit with a severe drought that threatened many farmers' livelihoods. Jeff had been looking into alternative crops, but the drought convinced him. Jeff joined OEFFA in 1991 and became certified organic in 1993.

Jeff started by raising conventional food-grade tofu soybeans for a small premium, but he found it hard to meet the crop's strict quality standards. When he heard that organic soybeans commanded a higher market price, he decided to convert. To learn more, Jeff called other farmers for information about growing organic beans and attended farm tours coordinated by OEFFA, Innovative Farmers of Ohio and Iowa's Grassland Council. OEFFA members Rex Spray and Dean McIlvaine, who also grow organic soybeans, became important mentors to Jeff. Rex, for example, shared his expertise on the art of organic crop rotation.

Not everyone, however, was supportive of Jeff’s organic farming. Jeff recalls encountering a great deal of skepticism from the surrounding farm community, who had been convinced of industrial agriculture’s superiority based on glossy ad campaigns and corporate-backed research findings. "How can you do that?" farmers would ask him. He overheard others saying, “Oh, this is terrible. He’s going to lose everything!” Jeff's father was skeptical but supportive, especially when he began growing his own chemical-free vegetables and chickens.

Luckily, Jeff's local bank believed in his business plan. Jeff says, “Fortunately many consumers understand organic even though a lot of farmers around here don’t. I had some farming success already behind me, so the bank was willing to help me with starting my organic operation.”

Jeff first got involved with cattle one summer when he found himself with a field of rye and clover that ended up being mostly clover with not much rye to harvest. Seeing that he really had a field that would be best used for hay got him thinking that maybe he needed some cattle to eat the hay. He bought a few head of beef cattle, made hay from the field, and officially became a cattle owner. During his beef cattle years, Jeff kept researching other livestock options and eventually found that raising organic dairy cows might really be his best option.

Jeff Dean

Today, the dairy operation is in its seventh year. Jeff currently milks 83 cows, most of which are red, white and roan Milking Shorthorn. Jeff likes the Shorthorn breed because they have been "less fooled with." They are an older breed that is heartier and more suited for grazing than Holsteins, the newer and more popular dairy breed.

“I try to keep things simple since I’m not really a dairy farmer,” Jeff says. He milks the cows twice per day in an old, converted hog barn turned New Zealand-style milking parlor.

A professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison popularized the low-cost parlor and helps keep family farms in business by designing retrofits for old buildings. The New Zealand system is different from conventional systems in that the cows are milked as a group, rather than in individual stalls. The cows are guided in and out of the barn through a series of gates and usually eat from a trough while they are being milked. A worker applies the pumps to the udders from a narrow pit below the cows. Adding the metal work and pump system to an old building cost just a few hundred dollars per cow, compared to conventional milking parlors, which can cost thousands of dollars per cow.

Milking the cows is still a manual operation which requires putting on and taking off each device for each cow that is milked. The milk is pumped into a cooling tank. The Dairy Marketing Service empties the tank every other day, with much of the milk ending up in a Stoneyfield milk carton.

It's simple, like Jeff says. But, sometimes a cow comes down with mastitis, an infection of the udder. Antibiotics are the standard treatment for mastitis, but not for an organic dairy. Jeff has found that a little TLC (as in, hand-milking) usually clears up the problem. Mastitis, of course, cuts into milk production, but Jeff says he just expects to lose some volume now and then.

When the cows aren't milking they are out grazing on the green pasture, changing fields either once or twice a day. They travel by narrow "lanes" that border the fences. Interestingly, Jeff says that changes in the volume of the milk produced are affected by the condition of his pastures. It only takes about 12 hours for the evidence to show in the amount of milk his cows produce. Constant monitoring is needed because once a cow’s production level drops it is difficult to bring it back up.

But, there’s more to Jeff’s farm than cows. The farm is about 650 acres which includes corn, soybean, spelt, small grains, hay, and pasture. Enough corn and hay is grown to feed all the cows and the rest is sold on the organic market.

Jeff is proud that his corn and soybeans are looking good this year, and he often has a good crop. By using organic methods he has been able to keep his fields healthy and productive. Jeff rotates his crops every year and incorporates clover into his field to improve fertility.

Jeff likes the grain business because it is relatively simple and the work is finished by late fall. “When you’re done with grain, you’re done,” he says, unlike the dairy, which is a year-round job that makes it "harder to get away." Because Jeff’s dairy is seasonal, over the winter months the cows are not milked. This gives the cows about a 4 month rest from milking. Then in April the cycle starts again when the cows begin calving. Jeff keeps all the new heifers and 2 or 3 promising bulls, and sells the rest of the bull calves.

Even though dairy farming may not have been what Jeff set out to do, Jeff feels good knowing he is "not contributing to the problems in society that come from chemical use.” And, he raises his own food, including his own beef. Jeff also enjoys the lack of routines, aside from milking the cows. “That’s the best thing about farming; it’s never the same thing twice.” Since going organic the farm's biodiversity has also increased with more deer, pheasants, wild turkeys, coyotes and bird species, which enjoy the trees growing on his Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land.

However, Jeff still confronts many of the same problems as conventional farmers. The conflict between making investments in expensive machinery and keeping the farm size manageable can spiral into a vicious cycle of investment and farm expansion. Farmers often walk a fine economic line and Jeff is not sure that his two adolescent children will want to take over the family business. “It’s a great way to live, but it’s not a great way to make a living,” he explains.

To people considering the dairy business, Jeff advises that new farmers should get some hands-on experience to see if they enjoy the work and to "pick up as much knowledge as possible" about the business. For those that decide it’s what they want to do, he recommends living cheaply during the first few years of the operation, until investments start paying off. And, on the bright side, newcomers will have the advantage of having a “fresh” mind that is unpolluted by all the "bad habits" of conventional dairy farmers.

And, he recommends that you always be ready to learn something new. Jeff has given two OEFFA Farm Tours and says that, “The farm tour is as much for the farmer as it is for the people who show up.” He has received constructive solutions to farm problems from attendees.

In the end, Jeff has become a model farmer whose resourcefulness and determination have helped make the organic dairy industry in Ohio a success.

Jeff Dean

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.