Here's the Beef
by Brett Shollenberger ’11
October 3, 2011
Jenn Halpin has shepherded the farm through the long process of gaining organic certification.
Out at the Dickinson College Farm, it’s cow day. It’s hot, and the sky is clear. Jenn Halpin, director of the farm, stands in a dirt path that cuts through acres of perennial forages, taking pictures. To the north and extending out to the west are 12 acres, recently fenced, where the cattle should be, and they aren’t. Last year, Halpin says, the 1,000-pound animals hopped the fence to join the neighboring dairy herd. It took all day to coax them back. “It’s always an adventure on the farm,” she says.
Bob, the local farmer who has loaned the cattle to the college, drives up in a truck with a rig attached to the back, presumably used to haul the cattle out to Dickinson’s 180-acre farm in Boiling Springs, Pa., earlier that day. Bob and Jenn joke, and as he heads off, she calls him the farm’s livestock mentor. Since last year, he’s worked with farm staff to improve their beef-cattle-grazing operation that ultimately will supply the college Dining Hall with local, grass-fed beef.
“He provides the cows and empowers us with knowledge,” Halpin explains. After a few years learning from Bob, she says, the goal is for the college to raise its own livestock. Until then, Halpin takes a before-and-after weight of Bob’s cattle, and he gives the college the difference in beef. The farm provides the pasture that area grass-fed operations struggle to find in July when the water shuts off and there’s little rain, and the cattle mow the forage. “It’s a really cool deal, and he’s a great man,” Halpin says.
For Jenn Halpin, the cattle operation is just one of many experiments in progressive farming techniques, food safety and land management. It is also the first year the farm has been USDA-certified organic, which requires a three-year transitional period before the physical inspection. During the transitional period, which the college chose to last four years, Halpin planned to address everything from runoff to soil fertility to organic seed.
“I appreciate that third-party entities watch us to ensure our efforts are legitimately progressive,” Halpin says. “We also were certified by Food Alliance this summer, which offers a different, holistic approach that requires a farm to provide habitat for wildlife, to implement strategies for biodiversity, to treat workers fairly, etc.” The farm also has a personal relationship with customers. “We want our customers to come out and see how we’re raising our crops and animals, to ask us questions, challenge us and propose new methods,” she explains. Transparency is important at the farm.
Though these efforts cost more than conventional techniques—certified organic seeds tend to sell for 25 to 50 percent more than nonorganic seeds—“you have to invest in what you believe in,” she says. Halpin sits cross-legged now. She plucks blades of grass and runs them through her fingers as she speaks. “We want to ensure that we have a long-term positive impact on this land and that our food is safe for our customers,” she says.
The farm also recently secured a $13,000 grant through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to implement concepts such as the mass tree planting that Elise Rodriguez ’11 and Gene Wingert, assistant professor of biology and education, recently spearheaded.
The project helped to achieve organic certification by meeting some of the farm’s needs with trees; some species act as draft protection from pesticides sprayed on nearby land, others act as windbreaks, while still others are simply a visual barrier to keep the farm’s composting efforts from being seen from the road. More important, Rodriguez chose to incorporate anachronistic and native-species trees, which build biodiversity and add historical relevance for educational purposes.
In all, the farm reads as a living laboratory. Each project acts as an experiment in sustainability, designed to test farming techniques and dream up new ones, from utilizing compost as a nutrient-rich input to growing, to eating, to composting and back again.