Growing up in town, becoming a first-generation farmer was a mission for Allen Dean. He secured a footing in agriculture by participating in 4-H, and he sought out jobs working for farmers in the area baling hay and straw. He started working for the William and Fae Musser Farm in various partnerships: to manage an Angus cow herd, feed steers and heifers in small feedlots and grow field crops. “After 50 years, we are still involved with this farming operation,” Dean says.
In the early 1980s, his work got noticed, and an opportunity came up to branch out on his own. A landowner approached him about buying her farm. He bought 45 acres in Bryan, Ohio, with a land contract, and he began building an enterprise that is now just shy of 1,900 acres in Williams County.
A first-generation farmer starting out in the ’80s was a tall, tough order. “To help get through the ’80s, it helped that I was small-scale and hadn’t accrued a lot of debt,” he says, adding that he was able to pick up some additional income by doing farm equipment repair and metal fabrication in his newly built farm shop.
Dean has been no-tilling crops for close to 40 years and today raises soybeans and wheat, as well as some oats and barley this past season. The farm has been exclusively no-tilled for the last 25 years.
He was recently named a 2019 Ohio Master Farmer at the Ohio Conservation Tillage and Technology Conference in Ada. He farms with his wife of 21 years, Shelly, who is the office manager. Also included in the operation Dean's brother, Tony, who is the equipment operator in charge of spraying, harvesting and cover crop seed application; Dave Wines, who is an equipment operator, truck driver and mechanic, and part-time employee Tristin McGuire.
Dean and Shelly have four daughters, who are not involved with the operation, and one grandson.
“Allen’s broad vision of the future of agriculture and his impactful demonstrations of innovative on-farm practices make him a recognized leader in soil health and agronomy,” wrote John and Rebecca McGuire of Simplified Technology Services in a support letter.
Cover crop focus
The no-till system was a great fit for Dean Farms, but, he says, “I soon came to the conclusion I couldn’t do all three crops — corn, soybeans and wheat. So I took corn out of rotation, which allowed us to eliminate a lot of equipment. I bought a large John Deere air seeder that we still have today.”
No till was improving the soil, “but not at the rate I wanted to see,” Dean says. “I started looking at cover crops at that time.”
His first experience with cover crops was in the early 1980s, when he planted hairy vetch following wheat harvest. “Since that first field, we have continued to research newly developed cover crops that will stop soil erosion, enhance soil health and improve water quality,” he says.
Cover crops have been a mainstay on his entire acreage since 2005. He started with simple mixes, but is now up to 15-way blends.
“The radishes were doing tremendous things for our soil, but we started to have erosion even with radishes because of the winterkill that would leave the soil bare in the spring,” Dean says. “About in our third year, we started putting in ryegrass with radishes, which stopped all our erosion and helped with water infiltration. We’ve just expanded our mixes over time.”
D is a huge advocate for cover cropping and has hosted numerous field days. In 2011, Dean Farms was a stop on the National Conservation Technology Information Center’s Conservation in Action Tour. And in 2016, he started hosting an annual cover crop field day to showcase the importance of covering the ground and the benefits of conservation in farming.
“I truly believe cover crops are the new frontier in agriculture in regard to water quality and soil quality,” he says. “And, you’re seeing that as the demand is huge — especially with the young generation that is really concerned about the environment, and how food is being grown.”
In support of his nomination, Mark Roemke of Roemke Farms, Harlan, Ind., wrote: “Allen Dean has taken conservation farming to new levels and has been a teacher to us all on what cover crops can achieve.”
Dean Farms Cover Crop Sales and Service was created in 2011 as a warehouse and dealer for Saddle Butte Ag, Shedd, Ore. A year later, Dean and brother Tony designed and fabricated the farm’s first cover crop interseeder. Two years ago, a new cover crop seed facility was constructed on the farm to clean and blend seed to a farmer’s specifications. Currently, between 10,000 and 12,000 acres are custom-planted annually on farms within a 60-mile radius.
“Most of the cover crop seed is grown in the Pacific Northwest, and it is difficult to get it here on a timely basis,” he says. “With the warehouse, when a farmer comes in, I don’t have to order.”
Dean has worked with slightly more than 200 growers from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee, Michigan, Kentucky and Georgia.
Agronomy consultant Joe Nester with Nester Ag, who nominated Dean for the award, says Dean does a great job currently and has a long-term vision for sustainability. “He was the first in the area to build a high-clearance cover crop applicator machine. Not only does he do a good job on his own operation, as far as being a good steward, but he also reaches out and promotes it to others.”
Dean Farms is starting to grow a little bit of its own cover crop seed. Oats and barley were grown in 2018, and Dean says he hopes to add triticale this fall.
A computer program allows Dean to work with growers to pick cover crop species for a blend that considers the number of plants per square foot; the size of the plants and their types of roots; if a plant will winter-kill or not; number of pounds of seed per acre; and the seed cost per acre.
Since cover crops, Dean says organic matter on his farm has gone from 2% to 2.5%, to pushing 4%.
When asked about cover crop return on investment, he says, “You can’t put a number on soil loss, but it is huge. It’s been reported that the average farmer loses 7 tons of soil per acre, per year — equivalent to the thickness of a dime over an entire acre. You have to look at the long-term benefit.”
Master Farmer profile
Name: Allen Dean
Farm: Dean Farms Cover Crop Sales and Service and Dean Farms, Bryan, Ohio
Nominator: Joe Nester, agronomy consultant with Nester Ag
Leadership: Member, Trinity Lutheran Church; past director of Williams County Fair Board and Williams County Fair Foundation; past member of Bryan Area Foundation and Bryan Kiwanis Club
Ag leadership: Host of numerous soil and water conservation events; farm was a stop on the 2011 National Conservation Technology Information Center’s Conservation in Action Tour; sponsor of annual cover crop field days and participant in area field days with cover crop and test plots; project manager of the Williams County Fair Land Preservation Project
Awards: 2010 Responsible Nutrient Management Award by No-Till Farmer magazine; 2012 Ohio No-Till Farmer of the Year