Shelby Dukes on observation, organics and the disappearing family farm

Delaware’s official state bug is the ladybug. The state bird is the blue hen chicken, and the state tree the American holly. Its state seal has a sheaf of wheat, an ear of corn, and an ox proudly front-and-centre. The second-smallest state (by area) and the first to sign the United States Constitution, it’s also where Shelby Dukes was born into a farming family a few, short decades back.

Arable, or cropping, it was. Corn, soybeans, lima beans and some poultry. Despite the focus on plants, early on Shelby grew to love our four-legged friends. Today, she’s an animal husbandry specialist at Rodale Institute, a highly regarded not-for-profit to the east of Pennsylvania, where they research organic farming methods. Getting a job there is like winning the lottery and Shelby was still buzzing in her fourth week of tenure. “Rodale has by far been my greatest experience. They’ve been really great teaching me and I love all of the practices. I’ve already learned a lot about organic farming.”

Shelby studied animal and food science at university with a load of practicums, ranging from dairy sheep and Holsteins to a beef, sheep and horse farm, and even commercial broiler chickens. “That big company feel was hard to get used to.” Her education was conventional and a lot of her organic knowledge has been soaked up practically, on the job. Although she’s only been familiar with the animals for a month, she can already confirm they’re more relaxed, happier, than the stock on a conventional farm. “It’s an amazing feeling when you walk into the barn and all the hogs know their name and run up to you and want attention. We have two oxen named Lois and Clark who are the big puppy dogs of the farm. They love you. You’re their person.”

rodale-hog

Clearly, this personal touch is easier on a small-scale, experimental farm such as Rodale than at a larger, commercial set-up. But for Shelby the biggest difference between organic and conventional is the overwhelming emphasis on quality.

“You’re really pushing for that, not quantity. It’s not so much how many cows we can produce. It’s producing humanely treated, good cows. You know they’re happy and well taken care of. And really putting in the time and effort, versus how we can get the largest amount out. What you put into the animals is what you get out of them.

“You’re also not just waiting for the problem, you’re preventing the problem entirely. This gives a better life for the animal and creates a better farm for us. It also saves money in the long run. So, it’s kind of a win–win.” Observing is something Shelby believes is a core skill to have on the farm and is part of the morning chore routine. “My biggest thing is numbers. Every morning you’ll see me out there counting. If you’re individually counting all the animals, you’ll see each individual one and you’ll notice if something is off. It’s something my first boss taught me back home.”

Delaware has a population of almost a million and, as of today, the United States has more than 322 million mouths to feed and over 120 million households to provide for. Slowly over the past decades we’ve seen a decline in the family-run farm. By and large farming has been outsourced to corporations that promise to run things better, cheaper, bigger, faster. It’s a quantity game. “If you’re not milking a good three to four hundred, it’s a good year if you didn’t lose money. It’s so hard to survive here. I know so many close family friends who had dairies growing up and they couldn’t survive. They ended up selling out to bigger companies.”

Ultimately, Shelby feels the shelves is where change has the most chance. “What you buy is what sells. If you can educate your consumer to know it’s the best option. What’s good for them is what’s good for the animal, and good for the environment.”

The girl from the state whose official beverage is milk wants to do what a lot of people aren’t doing. When she’s learned enough she wants to go back to the family farm. But it probably won’t be cropping. “I can’t say I’m really keen on growing 12,000 acres of corn every year. I want to do something a little different.”

My Skype with Shelby lasted half-an-hour and she blustered that it would be the longest she’ll be sitting in front of a computer all week. On average, in the Western world people Shelby’s age spend ten hours a day in front of a screen. “I go home tired at the end of the day, but it’s definitely worth it. I like farm life.” In the nine-and-a-half hours she isn’t sat in front of an LCD, Shelby is helping to ensure that the future of our world’s food is an organic one. Perhaps even more importantly, she’s also single-handedly ensuring both Lois and Clark get their daily dispense of head scratches.