By Donella Meadows
–September 4, 1986–
Wouldn’t it be nice to hear, for a change, about a Midwest family farm that is not in trouble?
Meet Dick and Sharon Thompson, of Boone, Iowa. They have worked their 300-acre farm, the one on which Dick was born, for 29 years now. They’ve raised four children. One son works with them, another has his own farm not far away. They are not in debt, not one penny. And for 19 years they have used no herbicides, no insecticides, almost no commercial fertilizers. Their animals are fed no hormones and no antibiotics.
Dick went to Iowa State in Ames, 15 miles away, “and for ten years I applied what they taught me. Feeder cattle, feeder pigs, continuous corn. Two hundred pounds per acre of nitrogen fertilizer, and atrazine to kill the weeds. I was in debt up to my neck. If I’d gone on that way, I wouldn’t be here now.”
The work load was as heavy as the debt load, the cattle were sick, and Sharon and Dick were deeply unsatisfied, not only economically, but spiritually.
In 1967 a minister told them, “Listen. God will tell you how to farm.” They listened, paid attention to their own hunches, started going to meetings about organic farming. And they made two decisions. Get out of debt. And quit the chemicals, cold turkey.
Dick remembered the 5-year crop rotation of his childhood and he put it back into practice. Corn, soybeans, corn, oats, clover, and then repeat. That rotation immediately solved some insect problems, such as corn rootworm, which builds up in continuous corn.
He knew he shouldn’t leave the soil bare in the winter, exposed to erosion. So he started planting hairy vetch as a winter cover crop, a legume that fills the soil with nitrogen while protecting it from wind and rain.
To control weeds he has perfected a ridge-till system. He forms a ridge a few inches high in each planting row. His planter, which he has tinkered with until he has it just right, disturbs only a small band down the center of each ridge, so weed seeds are not brought to the surface. A few cultivations down the furrows keep weeds from being a problem.
Iowa has shifted almost entirely to a cash-grain system, which means animals are raised in huge centralized feedlots, and farmers produce only grain. That system never made sense to the Thompsons. It confines animals in dense populations in small spaces, where they must be constantly medicated to prevent diseases. The feed is hauled long distances to the animals, and the manure rarely gets hauled back to the land. “There used to be 11 farms on our road that kept animals,” says Dick. “Now there are only two.”
The Thompsons raise 1200 hogs and 50 cattle a year. The animals are housed with clean indoor and outdoor spaces, sunshine and fresh air. Corncobs, lime, and straw are used for litter and returned with the manure to the fields. Drugs are used only for sickness, which is rare. “If you try to kill bugs, you get only superbugs,” says Dick. He adds a lactobacillus acidophilus supplement to his feed, a “good bug” that naturally occurs in the digestive system of hogs. “It outcompetes the bad bugs.”
Dick used to compost manure before returning it to the fields, but he noticed that potassium was leaching out of the compost heaps, and his soil was beginning to test low for potassium. So now he has a new scheme. He has built a concrete retaining tank, into which he dumps all the manure. The leachate, rich in potassium, is drawn off as liquid and applied in spring as a starter fertilizer. The rest is put on the fields later as compost.
The Thompsons produce 150-bushel-per-acre corn and 50-bushel soybeans, yields any neighbor would envy. They get no special price for their chemical-free produce. Iowa farmers don’t talk easily about personal incomes, but the Thompsons say they see no need to expand their acreage or borrow money to get along. They’re doing just fine.
In fact their farm is becoming famous. Last September they held a field day, and 600 people came “from the East Coast and the West Coast, and from Minnesota to Texas. We’re getting disciples. It’s kind of awesome. But we know we’re doing right by the land, we feel good about our farm, and we’re willing to teach people anything we know.”
The Thompsons have rejected many of the principles of specialized, industrialized agriculture. They have worked out an ecological agriculture, one that respects animals, plants, soils, and the natural processes that create nutrients and control pests for free. They combine old-fashioned methods and modern ones, their yields are high, their costs are low, and their bank account is in the black.
There are other such farms in this country, somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 organic farms altogether, about 1% of all farms.
Why only 1%? Why don’t the Thompsons’ neighbors adopt these obviously-successful organic methods?
Because they’re in debt and scared; not eager to try something new. Because they’ve heard all their lives from the chemical companies, the extension agents, the universities, that you can’t farm without chemicals. Because billions of dollars have been spent researching and promoting chemical farming, while organic farming has had almost no support.
The neighbors dropped in on the Thompson’s field day. Even the Dean of Agriculture at Ames came. They’ve seen the evidence. They’re thinking. Who knows what will happen next?
Copyright Donella Meadows Institute 2011