Organic Farming at Dickinson College

This article will appear in the summer issue of Dickinson Magazine.

The day that I go out to the college farm, it is cow day. It’s hot and the sky is clear. Jen Halpin, director of the organic farm, stands in a dirt path that cuts through acres of perennial forages, taking pictures. To our north and extending out to the west, are five acres, recently fenced, where the cows should be, and they aren’t. Last year, Halpin tells me, the thousand 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 cows to the college, drives up in a truck with a rig attached to the back, presumably used to haul the cows out to our 180-acre farm earlier that day. Bob and Jen joke, and as he heads off, Jen calls him the farm’s mentor. Since last year, he’s guided the cow and calf operation that will ultimately provide the 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, Jen says the goal is to raise our own livestock. Until then, we take a before and after weight of Bob’s cows, and he gives us the difference in beef. We provide the pasture that grass-fed operations in the area struggle to find in July when the water shuts off and there’s little rain, and the cows mow our forage for us. “It’s a really cool deal and he’s a great man,” Halpin says.

For Jen Halpin, the 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 certified organic, a certification that it requires a three-year transitional period before the physical inspection. In the transitional period, which we chose to last four years instead, the farm made its plans to address everything from runoff to soil fertility, draft issues to organic seed.

“I appreciate that third party entities watch us to ensure our efforts are legitimately progressive,” Halpin says. “We’re also going to be certified by Food Alliance this year, which offers a different, holistic approach that requires a farm to provide habitat for wildlife, to implement strategies for biodiversity, to treat workers fairly, et cetera.” 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 and challenge us and propose new methods.” Transparency is important at the farm.

True, these efforts cost more than conventional techniques; certified organic seeds tend to cost a quarter to half as much as mass-produced, genetically modified seeds, “but you have to invest in what you believe in,” she says. Jen 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,” she says, “and that our food is safe for our customers.”


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About Brett Shollenberger

Brett Shollenberger is an sustainability consultant, writer, improviser, and editor specializing design of higher ed. programs and holistic communications strategies.
This entry was posted in Climate Ethics, Dickinson College, Environment, Organic Farming, Sustainable Agriculture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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