Dickinson College Homepage Dickinson Magazine This issue of the Dickinson Magazine was mailed on Monday, March 27, 2006
From This Issue
Volume 83 • Number 4
Spring 2006

Cream of the Crop
Russ McLucas ’75 uses progressive methods to till the good earth.
By Sherri Kimmel

Sitting at the breakfast bar in the Revolutionary War-era farmhouse where he’s lived most of his life, Russ McLucas ’75 relates a “horrible memory” from his childhood. “I asked why my father was at home one day.”

His dad, a physician with a busy practice in McConnellsburg, Pa., was always out tending to his patients, so to see him home was cause for alarm. McLucas vowed that when he had children he would be around … a lot.

He soon made good on his promise. Between his freshman and sophomore years at Dickinson he got married and moved onto the farm in McConnellsburg, on the fringes of coal country. He commuted an hour to Carlisle, completing his geology degree while learning to work the land and helping to raise his stepson. Two daughters, including Kylene ’01, followed within a few years. He briefly considered a lawyer’s pinstripes and wingtips, but settled into the flannel shirts and denim that are his daily uniform. Though his choice of career may be unusual for a liberal-arts graduate, it has given him the quality of life he desired.

“I wanted to work for myself and set my own hours,” he says. “I could take the time to go to the plays, the musicals, the concerts, the softball games. Everybody has a scorecard. For some it’s a Rolex, for others a luxury condominium. For me, it was my kids. Now my grandkids are my scorecard.”

Though farming is an American tradition, there is nothing traditional about McLucas’s operation. With just one part-time helper, he works 900 acres, 280 of his own, the rest leased. His main cash crop is grass hay, but he also raises corn and wheat, keeps about 200 acres in managed renewable timber and even has a small shale pit that he mines.

Progressive by nature, he’s the thinking man’s farmer.

College-educated farmers tend to pursue agriculture degrees at big universities, earning what McLucas calls a “by-the-book” education. “They were never taught to go out and find the answers. But a liberal-arts education is different. I still remember T. Scott Smith [professor of physics & astronomy] saying, ‘There isn’t a right answer.’ My answer might be different than yours for the same question.” It’s a personality quirk, he confesses, “that drives some people crazy.”

A self-taught farmer who drew on the expertise of his grandfather, who farmed cotton in Arkansas, and two farmer uncles, McLucas learned to probe below the surface. “I knew how to ask questions and to look at things and take them apart. Dickinson taught me to think, to look at what works for you. I always remember when Noel Potter [professor emeritus of geology] quoted Ockham’s Razor [a principle proposed by William of Ockham in the 14th century]—‘the simplest solution is often the best.’ ”

McLucas’s penchant for questioning accepted practices led him, 23 years ago, to abandon the traditional way of preparing fields—plowing the soil in the early spring then planting seeds in the furrows. His no-till method of planting without plowing has made him a perennial contender for best corn yield in Pennsylvania’s agricultural expo, the Farm Show, held in Harrisburg each January. This year he was the champion in the shelled-corn category with a yield of 247.6 bushels per acre.

Not only is McLucas considered a state leader in a method that only 18 to 20 percent of farmers nationwide have embraced, but he has moved onto the national stage. As a founding member last year of the Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance, he spent about 250 hours producing a comparison of three methods of farming: traditional (plowing), minimum till (about 60 percent of the ground surface is tilled) and no till. During Farm Show week he was in St. Louis presenting his research, hoping to turn more farmers on to no till. It’s a tough battle: the known versus the unknown.

“Farming is a hide-bound industry,” McLucas explains. “Your grandfather did it that way. I understand the security of the tried and true. It took me 23 years to finally decide to go no till, not until I needed to replace equipment that was worn out. I couldn’t get enough extra yield to justify the expense.”

No till’s equipment reduction is one of the main findings of his study. The average equipment cost of conventionally tilling his study’s hypothetical farm of 400 acres of corn, 50 acres of oats or alfalfa, 100 acres of soybeans and 100 acres of small grains is $135,000; it’s $71,000 for no till, which requires three fewer pieces of equipment.

No till also is a more efficient use of the farmer’s field time—171 hours, as opposed to 452 hours for conventional farming, to put in the aforementioned hypothetical crops. But he’s quick to admit those field hours saved are eaten up by no till’s extra planning and crop management.

“I spend three hours with a pencil for every hour I spend in the field,” McLucas says. “With no till you’re dealing with a slate full of fungus, insects and microbiological activity. I have to match type of crop to insect records. With conventional you have a clean slate every year. It’s a lot more of a gamble. If I miss, I’m done. If I’m on automatic pilot, I’m done.”

The third savings McLucas has discovered with no till is in fuel and energy costs. In his study, he estimates conventional fuel usage at $9,308, with no till coming in at $2,819.

Using less fuel also benefits the environment. Once he can buy biodiesel fuel locally, McLucas plans to make the switch, even though it may cost $.10 more per gallon. “It burns cleaner, and I have a concern for pollutants and particulates in the exhaust,” he says. “We have a huge national deficit, and a big chunk of cash is needed to clean up the environment. If you clean it up before you make a mess it’s cheaper.”

Another reason he favors using renewable fuels, like biodiesel, over petroleum is to reduce our nation’s oil dependence. McLucas grimly mentions a cousin whose name is engraved on the Vietnam War Memorial which, like the Iraq War, he believes was fought to keep our oil supply plentiful and cheap.

“At what price of human life does it become advantageous to distill some ethanol, to run some soy oil through a diesel engine, at what price of human life does natural gas become cost effective?” Peering intently, he pronounces in deliberate tones a plaintive refrain: “What is that price?”

The final environmental issue he broaches is the reduction in soil erosion accrued through the no-till method. “It’s a lot easier to clean the residue out of a reservoir or river if it doesn’t get in,” says McLucas. “My style of farming generates top soil. We have a negative T factor [meaning there is no soil lost to erosion].”

With the success of his St. Louis research presentation and his Farm Show triumph fresh in his mind, McLucas is eager to spread the no-till gospel to more farmers around the nation and to keep refining his farming techniques.

“I enjoy what I’m doing,” he says with a wide smile. “My satisfaction, my reward is the self control that I have over my life, which sounds funny when I’m at the control of nature.”

 


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