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After rough start, late bloomer Don Cairns finds success

2022 Master Farmers: The long-term sustainability of his farm is what drives Cairns to be successful.

Even though he did not grow up on a farm, Don Cairns still remembers that moment as a child that would ultimately change his life.

When he was 11 years old, his neighbor, a church pastor, decided to buy some cattle for his small farm. One day, the neighbor invited Don over to help him take care of his cattle. Almost instantly, Don says he was hooked.

“I thought,  ‘Wow, this is really neat, and I started pestering my parents, saying, hey, I want to get some cattle of my own,” he says. After saving up some money mowing lawns, Don was able to buy his first Angus heifer at age 12.

While he still has an affinity for cattle — he’s been coaching the Chester County 4-H Livestock Judging Team for the past 15 years — Don’s built his farming career around growing crops. He farms more than 1,600 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat in and around Parkesburg, Pa.

But he’s more than just a farmer. Don has become an important pillar of Chester County’s agriculture community to help keep farming going for many years to come.

Stressful start

Don’s home farm is a 100-acre property about a mile or two off Route 30 in a rapidly developing area of western Chester County. He and his wife, Kelly, whom he met at a wedding, didn’t plan on being farmers right away.

Kelly, who grew up on a dairy farm in southern Chester County, went to medical school to become an anesthesiologist. Don, who went to Penn State and initially attended the College of Agricultural Sciences, got a business degree and sold commercial insurance in his 20s.

After marrying, they started tinkering with the idea of getting into farming. So at age 30, the couple bought their farm for $787,000. It was a big amount of money, so Don kept his job selling insurance for several years to help pay the bills and to build up the farm business.

Starting out was rough. Two droughts in 1999 and 2001 were devastating, he says, coupled with the fact that corn prices at the time were terrible — $1.90 per bushel at one point.

In 2000, Don’s father, Sam, died unexpectedly.

The couple also had two small children at around this time, which also added to the stress.

“It was a very stressful and tough time,” Don recalls.

But something in him drove him to keep going and make the farm a success. “Stubbornness maybe, determination, resilience,” he says. So in late 2001, Don left his full-time job to focus on farming full time.

Pullets to crops

When Don and his wife bought the farm, it included two poultry barns with pullets. He never imagined growing pullets, but this was key because it provided some reliable cash flow.

He then started putting together a long-term plan.

“Right off the bat, I realized that the only way to turn this into something is to figure out a growth plan,” Don says.

Don turned his focus to growing field crops. He rented neighboring farms and slowly built a reputation as a solid tenant farmer and land steward.

He kept the pullets until 2015, and then repurposed the poultry houses for other uses. One house is now the main storage for his machinery.

Don grew his acreage to 1,600 acres of corn, full-season soybeans, double-crop soybeans and wheat. He also does some custom harvesting on the side.

His grain storage facility, which can store up to 230,000 bushels, was built in phases off the three-phase electric line that runs right through the farm. The bins allow him to dry all his grain and hold it until the market gives him a good price. Although he forward-contracts only 20% of his annual grain crop, he likes to keep a simple approach to grain marketing.

“When the market is strong out a ways, I usually do some forward contracting and I just do straight contracts,” Don says. “I usually don’t do options. I usually simply forward-contract sale of grain, and I have some corn sold for next spring at pretty good prices.”

In the field, his cropping approach focuses on long-term sustainability, high yields and investing in technology. He farms 100% no-till with cover crops on most acres. His typical crop rotation is two years of corn followed by soybeans with cover crops mixed in. A few of his plots get some wheat and double-crop beans before rotating back to corn.

In good years, his corn yields have topped 240 bushels per acre, soybeans 88 bushels per acre and wheat 115 bushels per acre.

Don is a big believer in investing in the latest planting and harvesting technology, as well as performing test plots in the field. In March, he took delivery of his fourth new planter in 15 years. It allows him to precisely meter nutrients in-furrow, plus banding; automatically adjust seeding depth based on soil temperature and moisture; and automatically vary down pressure and closing-wheel pressure as field conditions change.

All data is tracked and transmitted to the cloud, where he can access it in his office and make changes on-the-go.

His tractors have autosteer, which is key because it allows him to do test plots right in the field. “With autosteer I can stripe a farm, skipping every other pass,” Don says. “And then I can come on through and fill the remaining strips with another variety. That way, when we run the combine, we can do a whole-farm test plot. It’s a very good way to test hybrids against one another.”

Giving back

As his farm has grown, Don and his wife have made a commitment to giving back. Ten years ago, he started a landowner appreciation dinner where he hires a local venue and brings in speakers to talk about current issues and agriculture and land preservation. The event has grown and gets close to 100 people in attendance each year for fellowship and to say thank you to his landowners.

The home farm was placed in the county’s farmland preservation program in 2004. Soon after, he started talking to his neighbors about preserving their farms with the idea of preserving a large block of land that will stay in farming for perpetuity.

“I got a tremendous response from my neighbors on this idea,” Don says. “We now have 750 acres of contiguous acres of preserved land now.”

He has served on numerous ag and community boards, and in 2017, he was named Chester County Farmer of the Year.

Last year, he was elected to the Penn State board of trustees. The university’s bylaws require six trustees be elected by delegates of the state’s organized ag societies or associations.

“It keeps me out of trouble,” Don says with a laugh. “We’re at the point in our life where I’m not just solely focused on growing more corn. Yeah, we try to do the best we can with the farming operation, but I think there’s a lot more important things out there to help the community as a whole. Especially the ag field. We have this calling to support agriculture, and we want to leave the world a better place and help the next generation.”

At only 55, Don still considers himself young, so he’s just starting to explore the idea of succession planning. His children, Lauren and Jacob, are just of college and starting their own lives, and there is a possibility that one or both might return at some point in the future. If not, a good farm will be waiting for someone.

“I kind of feel like we have built a nice collection of rental properties and properties that we own, and the size of the grain handling, it all fits together nicely,” he says. “I’d love to have a young person with an opportunity to take and run with that. We’re starting to explore the possibilities of that. We appreciate the opportunity that we had to start from scratch.”

Don Cairns at a glance

Operation: Cairns Family Farm, Parkesburg, Pa.; 1,600 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat  

Family: Wife, Kelly, two children, Jacob and Lauren

Ag and community involvement: Board member or active member of Chester/Delaware Farm Bureau; Chester County Ag Land Preservation Board; Chester County 4-H Center; Chester County 4-H Livestock Judging Team; Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance; Western Chester County Chamber of Commerce Octorara Area School District; Upper Octorara Presbyterian Church; West Fallowfield Christian School; Penn State University board of trustees

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