Phyllis McCain Restoring Her Farm from Soil Up

Phyllis McCain is the fourth generation to live on her mother’s family homestead near Norfolk, NE. She never expected to live there, but when her mother died in 1990, she felt pulled to purchase 40 acres of the property from the estate and preserve it for her descendants. Now she and Wyman, her husband of 56 years, are gradually restoring not just the buildings, but the soil itself.

The land had been rented out to tenant farmers since the 1950s, and no organic matter was being put back into the soil. “I watched the soil blow in the winter, because it’s sandy,” she says. So she contacted her local NRCS office, enrolled 20 of the acres in the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), and seeded that ground to native grasses in 2004.

The next few years were dry, and Phyllis says the seeded land looked terrible. It took four years before the grass had grown enough to mow and provide a little income as hay. Three years later, she seeded another 10 acres to cool-season grasses. These have not done well in the recent hot, dry summers, and she says they plan to inter-seed to help thicken the cover.

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Phyllis maintains the land as organically as possible, cutting weeds by hand and spraying only as a last resort. She says the remaining 10 acres of land are in timber, and she will begin harvesting some trees soon, as they are mature and need to be thinned. New shelterbelts will be planted in the future.

Meanwhile, she and Wyman have also restored all the buildings. The farmhouse, built in the 1890s, was in bad shape. With the help of good carpenters, they have replaced windows, lowered ceilings, insulated, put on siding, and added a deck. They also built a new garage, and restored two other outbuildings.

Restoring depleted farmland isn’t new to the McCains. They own a ranch 50 miles away in Knox County, where they first kept a small herd of stock cows and dairy cows, because that’s all the land would support. Over the years, they have seeded that ground to grass and can now take in 130 cow-calf pairs each spring, rotationally grazing them through a series of 20 paddocks. The cattle’s owner lives nearby, and watches over the property while Wyman helps Phyllis with the work on her family homestead.

“One of the most challenging things [about managing my family land] is doing something in a man’s world,” Phyllis says. “Some men tend to not listen or pay attention. You really have to say, I’m the boss. This is my place. I’m paying for this, you will do as I say.”

Phyllis says she has a good relationship with her current renter, who manages and harvests the hay. As soon as the grass is well-established, she wants to rent her land as pasture, to bring cattle onto the farm. “My land was farmed out,” she says, “and I know it’s not going to get any better until I get cattle back on the land to put some organic matter back into the soil.”

Other plans for the farm’s future? Phyllis would like to build a tractor shed, and clean out undergrowth from the wooded areas so she can establish trees and other plants that will draw in birds and wildlife. “We’re bird enthusiasts,” she says. As soon as the grasses were planted, birds began to return to the farm. She has seen grouse, prairie chickens, gray partridge, and wild turkeys.

The McCains have learned a lot about conservation from attending meetings of the Nebraska Coalition on Grazing (a University of Nebraska program) and talking to other farmers with similar goals. They have learned enough about organic gardening to raise almost everything they eat, including vegetables from a big garden plot and fruit from their 40-tree orchard.

“I was so determined to do this, to restore the land to the prairie my great-grandmother had,” Phyllis says. “It was hard work.” When she got discouraged, she would think of her great-grandmother Sarah Cropper, who homesteaded the farm’s original 160 acres in 1873. Her husband died of pneumonia the second year, leaving her on her own with a farm and six children to raise. “She’s been my mentor,” Phyllis says. “It was so hard for her, and easier for me even when I thought it was hard.”

Phyllis and Wyman have raised four children, but all have off-farm careers. She says they know her wishes to keep the farmstead in the family. Although she did not live on this land until 10 years ago, Phyllis says her heart has always been on the farm. “I have dirt in my veins,” she says. She wants the land left in grass to stop erosion and provide a bird and wildlife sanctuary.