Farmers paying more attention to organic, resilient ag

The numbers are in and speak for themselves

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

Change is sprouting in the Iowa countryside amid extreme weather, lost export markets, increasing chemical costs and consistently lower profits.

You can see it at the Practical Famers of Iowa field days: one at the Sam Bennett farm near Galva a few weeks ago drew a crowd of more than 100 farmers interested in learning about cover crops, and about 120 showed up to learn some organic farming from Ron Rosmann near Harlan in Shelby County on Friday.

These are not your aspiring vegetable growers. They are 50-year-old men in Pioneer caps who have heard about sustainable practices that cut costs, build profits and restore soil health. You would not have seen their type at a field day 25 years ago, but they are jamming into machine sheds and hoop barns to hear how turnips might turn them a profit at 40 such events across the state this year.

“They’re looking for answers,” said Rosmann, 69, the patriarch of a 700-acre diversified farm that supports three families — including two sons in the operation.

They grow organic crops, cattle, hogs and chickens. They have a local-foods restaurant in Harlan, organized a network of 40 organic producers to provide food in Des Moines and Omaha, and operate a Farm Sweet Farm store that sells regionally produced foods such as organic popcorn.

Ron’s family roots in Shelby County date to 1883. He was reared on a traditional diversified farm with cattle and hogs. But the Farm Crisis hit and his father died. “I was on my own,” Ron said, an Iowa State grad with a biology degree. He was desperate to cut costs. So in 1983 he quit using herbicides and pesticides altogether, cold-turkey out of necessity.

He understood biology and husbandry so he made it through the worst by trial-and-error and with the help of other farmers. Ron was a co-founder of PFI, which shares on-farm research among practitioners for free.

The results of that research are in:

Since going chemical-free, with rotational grazing, corn has averaged 160 bushels per acre on rolling ground “right in there with all the neighbors.” (Yields in Buena Vista and Sac County likely would be higher.) Beans have averaged 45-60 bushels per acre, and oats are coming in at 100 bushels per acre. Revenue per acre: $1,450 on corn, $900 on soybeans and $650 on oats. A conventional corn grower at $3.50 per bushel and a 200-bushel yield grosses $700 — plus the chemically-dependent farmer is paying a premium for Round-up Ready or dicamba-ready soybeans, and for the chemicals themselves. Rosmann avoids those costs entirely.

He sells his hoop-building hogs to Organic Valley, and surplus beef. Increasingly, their beef is being sold regionally by the family enterprise.

“The market can handle all the organic we can throw at it,” Rosmann says.

Greg Lickteig, specialty crops manager for Scoular in Omaha, a grain-trading firm, generally agrees. He notes that demand for organic is growing 6-7% per year, and he does not see that slackening. Consumers are demanding it. General Mills is on the program. An Algona native reared on an independent hog and crop farm, Lickteig is watching farmers in the West Bend area converting large acreages to organic. He wishes they didn’t have to wait 36 months to certify organic — during hard times like these let farmers certify organic in year one, he says, because the markets will support it. Call it an organic holiday. Farmers would jump in were it not for the transition.

“There are pockets where substantial numbers are going organic,” Lickteig said. “We are paying $8.50 in Fremont, Neb., today for corn and $18.50 today in Cherokee for soybeans.”

Bullish on land, Lickteig recently purchased 90 acres in Kossuth County that he is converting to organic. He says his cousin who farms near Algona is interested.

“The market signals are there,” Lickteig said, “but it’s a whole another way of farming. You can’t just be chasing the price. You have to believe in its benefits.”

Which are many: better soil health and microbial activity that lead to higher yields, better water retention and carbon sequestration from the atmosphere. Nearly every presidential campaign, including front-runners Biden and Warren, put agriculture at the tip of the spear in the climate-change battle. They’re talking about paying farmers for holding soil in place and improving water quality by on-farm practices. That would be a sea-change in farm policy that is built entirely around exports, program crops for industry (corn, beans, wheat, rice and cotton), and crop revenue insurance.

The conventional paradigm hasn’t been working so well as farmers lose money year over year planting corn and beans, all the while losing soil quality and productivity. They are left to the trade whims of an impulsive President and a chemical industry in the hands of a few. It takes three barrels of oil to make a barrel of commercial nitrogren, Rosmann notes.

“We already know what we need to know, we just lack the will,” Rosmann said.

That appears to be changing. They were asking questions about the turnips. “Cattle love them,” Rosmann said. And so do deer. They listened carefully as he described whole-farm management: He plants seven-year rotations, five-year and three year. He switches between corn, soybeans, oats, rye, hay and succotash (a blend of grains and peas, harvested as a high-protein hog feed to supplant soy). They compost and apply 1,000 tons of livestock manure and bedding per year. When you walk onto the farm you catch a gentle whiff of sweet manure, not the stench of confinement. It smells like a spring day in with the hogs under the hoop. Ron likes to dig around in the compost row pile and scoop for a smell, which he offers to guests as well.

Extremely wet and cold springs have made controlling ragweed difficult. It requires walking the fields. They didn’t have to walk beans from 1983 to 2014, but intensely wet and cold springs gave the ragweed and foxtail the upper hand in recent years. He notes that rye can be a very effective weed control agent in the flatlands of northern Iowa, but it can be more difficult to use as such on his terrain. He uses a hybrid rye that is an excellent livestock feed.

The Red Angus bellow from the vale, hoping to return to the feedlot.

“They’re spoiled,” he says of the 60-cow herd. “But the cattle do the work for us.”

He knew most of the people he was talking to in the turnip field. Many are conventional farmers old enough to remember diverse farms like Rosmann’s. They are becoming convinced of the numbers, he said. He noticed neighbors south of him whose soil is not as good checking out the cattle. Others wanted to know how resilient farms like this better endure extreme weather. Rosmann said one friend from Shelby County was there just to learn how to cut costs. They’re all interested in his revenue numbers. And the home-grown pork was tremendous for lunch.

“Over 40% of the dead zone (in the Gulf of Mexico) comes from Iowa alone. Over 40% of Iowa corn goes to ethanol, not feeding people. Over 40% of Iowa school children are on reduced or free lunches. Over 40% of food is wasted in America. This list could go on. … Farmers could mitigate the increased CO2 levels perhaps by as much as 40%, according to some research.

“We’ve lost our ability to relate with Mother Nature,” Rosmann told the weathered group. “Nature provides the ecosystem benefits for free — the only one making money is the farmer, not the chemical company. There is a sacred communion for me with Nature that makes me closer to God. He gave us the tools.”

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