Good sense, lots of soul, down on the farm

Sense and soul, down on the farm

I think farmers everywhere – including Maine – can learn something from the way my friend and former student Jack Dailey manages his farm…

Jack making the news with his new irrigation system, 2003

Jack making the news with his new irrigation system, 2003.

Last week we introduced my former student Jack Dailey and his family farm (since 1820!), the Boeuf Prairie Farm in the barely existant municipality of Extension, tucked away in northeastern Louisiana. Today, we head back, far away from this ridiculous blizzard, to catch up on his view of helping to feed (and clothe) the world with farming practices that can broadly be described as “sustainable.”

“Sustainable” is one of those trendy words that even the most egregious corporate polluters throw around like hard candy at a parade. It’s defined as people best see fit – to suit their own situation. But in farming, it’s very clear what’s sustainable and what isn’t. Here’s Jack’s take on it:

“…less pesticides, less water, less erosion, less energy, less greenhouse gases…”

“We have lots of studies showing how we are sustainable … graphs that show how we are producing more with less.  Less pesticides, less water, less erosion, less energy, less greenhouse gases.  And, I think it is a good thing to look at.  I know our farm is in better shape than when I got hold of it.  When you had no weed control or fancy planter, you would beat the ground to a pulp to have a clean seedbed. Then you would cultivate it three or five times with “cold steel”.  Then it would rain and fill the ditches with what little topsoil we had.

GPS-guided tractors furrow perfect rows

GPS-guided tractors furrow perfect rows

“Most people don’t have a clue about farming today…”

“Now it is conservation tillage, grassed turnrows, GPS straight rows because tractors steer themselves, an ounce of a chemical per acre instead of pounds, targeted use of pesticides, native cover crops, and rows that are 15 years old.  Precision soil sampling, GPS prescription applied fertilizer, seeds that combat pests for you, and drones on the way.  It’s just getting started.  There is no end in sight.  The fact that we are making higher yields than ever on land that has been farmed for 200 years; have more wild game than most of my forefathers saw, and are doing this with 4 people where it used to take 600, has demonstrated we are sustainable.  But, we need to tell others.  Most people in the U.S. really don’t have a clue about farming today. They are 2-3 generations removed from the land…”

Much of the cotton has given way to corn at Boeuf Prairie Farm.

Much of the cotton has given way to corn at Boeuf Prairie Farm.

“…we need to be good stewards of the land and earth.”

About climate change:

“Over the last 35 years I have seen that October used to be our ‘dry‘ month and that has changed a little.  I feel like our human lifespan is almost too short to experience much climate change.  We have wet years, dry ones, hurricanes, perfect falls, cold snaps, heat waves, early and late frosts.  Fortunately humans can adapt.  Even if the rate of climate change has been increased or decreased, we will survive.  I do feel we need to be good stewards of the land and earth.  I was “there” for Earth Day, the Ecology Flag etc.  I have a copy of ‘Silent Spring’.  But, I just saw a Bald Eagle yesterday being chased by 2 crows!  Pelicans are everywhere. Nature can heal our poor choices.

“DDT got rid of malaria here; thank God.  Yet, we allow parts of the world to continue to suffer because we are going to deny them chemistry that works.  So, is it all man-made?  I really think it’s mostly cyclical.  I don’t feel we need to help speed it up.  But, I also think that the ideas like carbon credits would hurt the economy when the science about all of this is still being figured out (remember the population “bomb”; lots of our global environmental scares have been exaggerated).  I am big-time against regulatory overreach.  Central planning and farming is not a good idea.  That model failed.”

The GMO thing… start with cotton

“I think that cotton is a perfect example of the benefits [of GMO].  First of all, I think of it as advanced breeding.  Why wait for hundreds of years of random luck to get an improved variety?  We can have them designed for our needs. The Bt genes that are used to thwart worms in cotton and modified corn varieties is really the same Bt used by organic gardeners to kill worms on their vegetables.  Only this is specific: the worm bites the cotton boll, and a protein kills it.  It’s the same with corn that is more drought resistant.  Isn’t using less water to grow a crop better?  The millions of pounds of pesticides not going into the environment today vs. ten years ago is a good thing.  Higher yields on the same land area means more land to be used for other things. It allows marginal land to be used for buffer strips, forests and grasslands.”

Jack's 8 year-old granddaughter Claire by some serious corn

Jack’s 8 year-old granddaughter Claire by some serious corn


That gives you a decent sampling of the “sense” of Jack’s farming life –  the knowledge and strategies and tools and environmental sensibilities that steer his management of the place. But obviously farming is much more than growing stuff to make some money.






The soul of it

The farm is mostly crops, but it has swamps and ponds and pastures for cows, native grasses, trees, bayous. And from what I’ve seen in his photographs, there isn’t a postage stamp-sized piece of it that doesn’t hold beauty inside – from the tiny flowers of his cotton “squares” to the broader vistas spreading out under an ever-changing sky.

Consider this —

“Quite honestly, today, we are only growing cotton because we enjoy being around the crop.”

That’s part of the “soul” of it – working a crop simply because it’s enjoyable to be around. I doubt that his Great-great-great grandfather Samuel Dailey felt the same way when he first laid down cotton seeds in the 1820s, and I don’t expect to hear from a sorghum grower, “I like growing sorghum because it’s pretty.”

Jack setting his decoys. He's always been a hunter.

Jack setting his decoys. He’s always been a hunter.

Jack hunting with his dog.

Jack hunting with his dog.

So the “secret sauce” of a life in farming is aesthetic reward. No argument with that.

Part of the initial appeal of farming, Jack says, was that it was such a change from the nomadic life he led when he was young (his father worked for Exxon then, and the family traveled the world).

By the time I was 21 I had already flown around the world.  Coming to the farm was like “home” and we were on vacation.  I have always been attracted to the natural world… Since I came here, I have been on a 35+ year vacation!  I think the real pull of farming for a young person is the fact of instant satisfaction and a diversity of jobs.  When you complete a field operation you can instantly see what you’ve done!

Many thanks to Jack for all this good stuff. Next week:

A packaged fish company sent me free packaged fish for “editorial review.” We ate it all. Now what do I do, since I don’t review foods?

Well, I have to do something. Stand by.



Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is a writer, novelist, crossword puzzle constructor, traveler through 49 states, and at times a danger in the kitchen. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.