Thinking Like a Field
Jun 01, 2020 03:42PM
By Lilace Mellin Guignard
We think of a farm as a place for breeding a particular type of animal or producing a specific crop under the control of one owner or manager. A dairy farm, for instance, is a place that breeds cows for the purpose of producing milk. Following the law of modifiers set by the dictionary definition, a family farm must be a place for producing families. At Mt-Glen Farms in Bradford County this has certainly been the case. Three-going-on-four generations of Jacksons have farmed 900 acres in Columbia Crossroads. But Dean Jackson doesn’t see himself as controlling the cows or crops anymore than he can control the weather. Or his family.
“I’m a cowman,” he tells me one evening, “but I’m a conservationist first. If I see a spot of erosion, I want to do something about it.” His voice holds the tired satisfaction of a person who has spent his day doing something good and noble.
The Jacksons were awarded the Leopold Conservation Award in 2019, which recognizes farmers, ranchers, and foresters in twenty states who inspire others with their dedication to land, water, and wildlife habitat management on private, working land. They were recognized in January at the 2020 Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg, where they were given $10,000 and a crystal award. The award is given by the Heinz Endowments, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, and Sand County Foundation.
The award honors Aldo Leopold—a hunter, forester, professor, and writer—who was one of the leading conservationists of the twentieth century. His essay “The Land Ethic” calls for us to expand our understanding of community to include animals, plants, streams, hills—everything. He writes, “In human history, we have learned (I hope) that the conqueror role is eventually self-defeating.”
“I know exactly what he means,” Dean tells me after I read him that quote. “A conqueror wants to squeeze every dollar out of every acre, pushing the ground to yield as much as possible by pumping fertilizer in. That’s not right.” Dean is very much aware that his farm is both a way of life and a business. The bloodline of their Holstein herd is internationally recognized, and, even during the pandemic, bull sales have not slowed for them.
Yet they’ve felt the effects. There is less demand for extra cattle. In May he’ll only be paid full price for 85 percent of his milk. The price for the other 15 percent is unknown, as is the price for milk or crops in the following months.
He’s not alone. Family farms were facing a range of struggles even before COVID-19 came along. Most farms in Pennsylvania are family-owned, and there are 300 family dairy farms just in Bradford County. But something does set Dean apart. His conservation practices like no-till farming have made it cheaper to operate. “When you have the efficiencies in place, you can handle hard times like this,” he says. “We are more sustainable economically as well.”
But those practices take time to implement. In 2002 Mt-Glen switched to 100 percent no-till after Dean became more aware of the damage from tires constantly driving over the field to plow, disk, and spray. Now their cycle starts in fall after harvesting the corn, soybeans, oats, or wheat. When the stubble is still on the ground he plants a cover crop right away in hopes of getting several inches of growth before winter. He covers this with liquid manure that feeds the cover crop.
The cover crop suppresses weed growth and improves soil fertility. Come spring, Dean sprays and lets the crop die down and rot, feeding the worms and adding to the topsoil’s organic matter. Then he plants his cash crop right over it.
This way the field is always covered, retaining and absorbing moisture and minimizing erosion. Now that he only needs a 65-horsepower tractor and sprayer, he has cut down on fuel use and time by three-quarters. “It’s unbelievable!” he tells me.
Dean has put many other conservation practices in place, including: adopting a nutrient management plan, rotational grazing, installing solar panels on his shed that supply two-thirds of their energy, establishing grass borders around crop fields, managing manure, and planting pin oaks and evergreens along Mill Creek to provide wildlife habitat and more runoff absorption.
Conservation is in his blood, and every breeder knows how important bloodlines are. Dean’s grandfather, Scott Jackson, started cooperating with the Bradford County Conservation District soon after it was established, creating a plan in 1965 that included land renovation, contour strip cropping, surface water diversion, and hedgerow planting. Dean’s father, Ben, constructed their first manure storage facilities.
Dean saw firsthand how important it is to build a relationship with the land and the local conservation district. “First thing I’d tell a new farmer is don’t turn your back on the government. They know what other farmers in your area are doing, can help you improve your operation, and pay you to do what’s best for the land and your business.”
Now Dean and Rebecca’s children are involved with the operation. Katie is herd manager. She and her husband live just down the road. Son Kyle graduated from Mansfield University in 2019 with a degree in environmental science. Throughout college he worked on the farm when he could, and now works helping landowners solve water issues. “I guess he got more the conservation side of me than the farming,” Dean jokes. Their oldest daughter, Courtney, lives in Maryland, and youngest son, Clark, graduated from Penn Tech and is looking for work in construction management. He’s been handy to have around the farm.
“I tell my kids, no matter where they are, they’ll always have one foot on this ground. No other place will ever mean more. It’s the love of the soil.” When asked to describe himself, Dean says he’s blessed and grateful.
Aldo Leopold wrote about learning to think like a mountain, to take a long and deep view of the interconnections of all animal and plant life, as well as the rocks, soils, and streams. This realization came in the 1920s, the same decade Scott Jackson established Mt-Glen Farms. I listen to Dean describe the soil below the surface full of worm channels that allow roots to grow unimpeded, soil with room to soak up the rain instead of it running off and carrying topsoil into Mill Creek. Mill Creek hugs the northeastern edge of the farm, flows south to Mt. Pisgah State Park, and fills Stephen Foster Lake where people come to fish.
This conversation is not what I expected from a dairy farmer. Dean talks far more about feeding the worms than feeding his cows. Here, I realize, is a man who thinks like a field. Leopold would be proud.