Donald Cairns of Parkesburg, honored as the 2017 Farmer of the Year by the Chester County Agricultural Development Council, has a fleet of gigantic planting and harvesting machines with onboard computers that guide everything from steering through the rows to distributing the exact amount of seed in each one.
But when Cairns wanted to know if his soybeans were ready to harvest after a recent rain, he walked through his fields as he's always done, knelt down in a row, and popped open a bean pod.
"Throw them in my mouth and chew on them," he said.
"Best way to tell. First, the pods must be dry enough to easily crack open. Then, the beans inside the pods should be dry enough to store. From experience, I chew on the beans and tell what the moisture is. They need to be 13.5 percent or less for long-term storage."
He estimated that the beans he was chewing were 20 percent to 22 percent moisture, too wet to harvest that day.
Cairns, 51, looked out over his rolling fields of winter wheat, rye-grass pasture, soybeans, and corn, laid out like a living palette of greens and browns on his 100-acre Cairns Family Farm. He owns a 130-acre farm a few miles away in Gap, and leases 1,420 acres on both sides of the border between western Chester and eastern Lancaster Counties.
With the help of only one employee, Cairns plants 1,000 acres of corn, 500 acres of soybeans, and 150 acres of wheat. He grows 13 million pounds of grain, 275 tractor-trailer loads.
The corn and soybeans feed dairy cattle and poultry on local farms, which sell their products to local families. Cairns sells his wheat to local flour mills that supply local bakeries.
"It's all local," Cairns said, believing firmly that farming is vital to the well-being of neighboring communities.
He felt this way long before he could act on his belief. "I was very excited about farming as a little kid, but we didn't have a farm," Cairns said. "When I was 11 years old, one of our friends, Randy Bremer, a Presbyterian minister, bought some Angus cattle and invited me over to help take care of them. I thought this was cool. When I was 12, I bought my first cow. My dad bought four. "
Cairns said he knew 40 years ago, raising his first cow, Heifer No. 637, in a rented pasture, what he wanted in life. "I think people that have a calling to farming have that calling inside of them," he said, "and back then, when I was 11, 12 years old, is when I discovered that calling."
When Heifer No. 637 gave birth to her first calf, Barney, Cairns began a seven-year run of showing his cattle at 4-H shows and learning how to judge them.
He still has the 1948 Ford 8N and 1952 Farmall Super M tractors he first drove as a kid, housed alongside his high-tech farm machines.
"That's one of my babies," he said, patting the Farmall's ancient hood. "I would never sell it."
When he graduated from college, farm prices were so prohibitively low that Cairns deferred his farming dream and went into the commercial insurance business for 13 years before he and his wife bought the old dairy farm that became the Cairns Family Farm in 1997. He's been farming it for 16 years.
Hillary Krummrich, director of the Chester County Agricultural Development Council, said one of the reasons Cairns is being honored is his commitment to land conservation, "not only on the ground he owns, but he even made improvements on the ground he leases from other people, which is amazing."
During a tour of his leased farmland, Cairns stopped at a sloping field and pointed out the U-shaped terraces he bulldozed into it to prevent storm-water runoff from carrying away topsoil. The terraces direct runoff into a grassy waterway that empties into a creek. "I want that water to be clean when it leaves this field," he said.
Cairns said he practices no-till farming, leaving the remains of cornstalks to decompose naturally instead of plowing them under, because running a tractor burns fossil fuel and tilling the soil releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. He uses cover crops including rye grass to prevent erosion and enrich the soil.
Krummrich cited Cairns' massive 250,000-bushel grain storage and drying facility that dominates the Parkesburg landscape and looks like it just flew in from Nebraska.
"It allows him to determine when he wants to harvest and when he wants to sell the product," she said. "A lot of farmers have to rely on someone else to dry and store the grain, so they have to harvest and get it out immediately. They have much less control over the market."
She said Cairns, who has mentored young farmers since he was one himself, is also being honored because of his 28 years on the county's 4-H board, which built the Romano 4-H Center of Chester County in Honey Brook.
Along with his best-practices farming, Cairns said he was proud of his 15 years of going door-to-door to persuade his neighbors to permanently preserve their farmland by selling conservation easements through the Chester County Agricultural Land Preservation Board.
To date, he's helped 25 farm families preserve their land forever.
"I didn't want to be the only preserved farm here, surrounded by heavy development," Cairns said, looking out over his farm and the preserved farms around it.