Life-long learning is a quest of Dick and Sharon
Thompson, innovative and tireless advocates for
practical stewardship of their chunk of Iowa farmland.
They saw in the writing of Bob Rodale an approach
to farming that gave them confidence to abandon
their conventional practices 35 years ago. They
never looked back.
Twenty years ago, they helped found Practical
Farmers of Iowa. Three years later they began
hosting field days. They’ve published and
carefully documented an annual research update
since 1985. Same title, each year: Alternatives
in Agriculture: Thompson On-Farm Research.
(For your copy of the 200-page, 2002 edition,
send $10 to: 2035 190th St., Boone IA 50036-7423)
They’ve received many accolades recognizing
their leadership. The latest was the National
Seventh Generation Research Award, given by the
Center for Rural Affairs (Walthill, NE) and the
Consortium for Sustainable Agriculture Research
and Education (CSARE).
They received the honor for their leadership,
through the Practical Farmers of Iowa, in establishing
methods of on-farm research whose accuracy equals
that of field-scale university trials. The award
was presented earlier this week at the annual
meeting of the Crop, Soil and Agronomy Societies’
annual meeting in Indianapolis, IN.
Farm At A Glance
The Thompson farm:
Location: Boone, IA. North-central
Iowa, about 45 miles north of Des Moines and 20
minutes from Ames; midway between Illinois and
Nebraska, Minnesota and Missouri.
Important people: Dick and Sharon
Thompson; their son, Rick and Lisa, his wife,
and their children Jessica, Sarah, T.J. and Cole
Years farming: second generation
farming on the land; 44 years on their own.
Total acreage: 300
Tillable acreage: 298
Soil Type: Clarion-Webster (loam
with silty clay loam)
Crops: corn, soybeans, oats,
alfalfa, rye cover crop
Livestock: 75 brood cattle (cow-calf);
120 sows (farrow-to-finish)
Regenerative farm practices: ridge-tillage
for weed control and minimized tillage; precision
mechanical weed control; five-crop rotation in
seven-year cycle; solid manure and local municipal
bio-solids (sludge) to build soil organic matter;
no herbicide or synthetic fertilizer use; on-farm
research on sustainable practices; humane livestock
management, including double-alley loading chute;
hormone-free animal feeding; outdoor farrowing.
Marketing: Niman Ranch Pork,
Coleman Natural Beef, local freezer sales
Since 1986, more than 8,000 college professors, students, farmers
and other visitors from around the world have traveled to Dick
and Sharon Thompson’s farm northeast of Boone, Iowa. The
Thompson farm is located approximately 45 miles north of Des
Moines and is minutes from Ames, the home of Iowa State University.
Thompson : For 35 years, he and his wife
have been faithful to a way of farming that enhances
the soil . . . and the bottom line.
What’s the attraction? The Thompsons aren’t
your typical Iowa farmers, and they’ve got the numbers
to prove it.
For the last 35 years, they haven’t purchased herbicides
or fertilizers, although they are not certified organic. Since
1988, economic data from their farm shows a $146.81 per-acre-per-year
increase in labor and management return for their farming
system, compared to the conventional corn/soybean rotation.
This number doesn’t include government farm payments
“Comparing cropping systems, our return in Boone County
was a positive $103.57 per acre, but the conventional system
in the county had a loss of $43.24 per acre. We base these
numbers off Boone County cash rent and custom machinery rates
from economists at Iowa State. I get Boone County crop yields
from the statisticians in Des Moines,” Dick Thompson
He pointed out that profits and losses from his family’s
livestock operation are not included in the cropping figures
listed above. However, the Thompsons document their data in-depth
each year with an annual report entitled “Alternatives
in Agriculture: Thompson On-Farm Research.”
“If you look at the report, you’ll see I like
to use charts. You’ve got to know what’s going
on. There’s also got to be a purpose to your work. If
I were doing this just to pay the bills, I’d have been
gone a long time ago. Since we run a research farm, I’m
trying to reach the industrial farmer. I feel the things I’m
doing are closer to being right than the industrial model
of agriculture,” Thompson said.
||“We purchased everything the
salesman had to sell. The rotation was continuous corn,
with high rates of anhydrous, herbicides and insecticides.
We were building a kingdom where enough was not enough.
When sickness became the rule and health was the exception
on our farm, we knew things had to change."
Focus on Diversity
With their son, Rex, and his family, the Thompsons raise corn,
soybeans, oats and hay on 300 acres. Their crop rotation is
corn-soybeans-corn-oats-hay. The Thompsons also have 75 head
of beef cattle, and raise 120 sows in a farrow-to-finish operation.
Through the years, the Thompsons say they have focused on
working with, rather than against, the natural systems inherent
in farming. In 1985, the Thompsons helped establish Practical
Farmers of Iowa, a non-profit organization that promotes farming
systems that are profitable, ecologically sound, and good
for families and communities.
The Thompson also helped form similar groups in Michigan,
Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kansas and Missouri. “Bob
Rodale deserves considerable credit for my farming practices.
He could write what I was feeling,” Thompson said.
A large engraved stone in the corner of the family’s
yard hints at another influence in Thompson’s life.
His parents purchased the family farm in 1918, following their
marriage. The stone reads, “In Memory, Father—Ray,
1895-1972. ‘He taught me the value of work.’ Mother—Marie,
1897-1988. ‘She taught me the value of people.’”
While the Thompsons have made sustainable agriculture a
top priority, they admit they were high-input farmers from
1958 to 1967. “We purchased everything the salesman
had to sell. The rotation was continuous corn, with high rates
of anhydrous, herbicides and insecticides. We were building
a kingdom where enough was not enough. When sickness became
the rule and health was the exception on our farm, we knew
things had to change,” they said.
The transformation that started in 1968 continues today. If
you take a look inside the machine shed, you’ll find
educational displays of charts, photos and text describing
farm economics, livestock production, cover crops, soil health,
fertility, waste management and ridge tillage. This is one
way the couple shares their on-farm research data with the
public at their annual on-farm field day.
They also have a scale in the corner of the yard, not far
from the engraved stone. “This is how I collect the
data for my research and reports. The scale helps me weigh
bales, grain and more. I’d never weigh all that stuff
if I had to run to the elevator all the time to use the scale,”
Thompson also writes down detailed notes in a small notebook
he tucks in his pocket. This helps him keep track of planting
dates, cultivation dates and other farm tasks.
The importance of ridges
Ridges are a key component of the Thompsons’ cropping
system and hold the key to much of the farm’s management.
Crops are grown on four- to eight-inch ridges. There is no
tillage between the previous year’s June cultivation
and the current year’s May planting. This ridge-till
method leaves the soil undisturbed from harvest to planting,
helping to prevent weed seed from germinating. Right after
harvest, a cover crop of rye is drilled onto the tops of the
At planting, Thompson slices the tops off the ridges, killing
the cover crop and removing weeds from the row. His planter
throws rye, loose soil and weeds between the rows, which helps
suppress weed growth.
A Buffalo planter is used to plant the seeds, press them down
and cover them. “This is different from a conventional
planter, where the pattern is plant-cover-press. The conventional
system pushes weed seed down with the good seed, and leads
to more weed problems.”
Before planting oats and alfalfa, Thompson disks along the
ridges. Crops are fertilized with bio-solids from the city
of Boone and with livestock manure.
“Rotation, diversity and full employment are the keys
to this system. By keeping track of data, I’ve found
that the best crop I raise is hay, and oats are next, profit-wise.
They do better than row crops, where it’s a wash when
our yields are compared to conventional. At 91 bushels per
acre, our oat yields have 21 bushels over the Boone County
average. Our hay yields are about seven tons per acre for
the last year,” Thompson said.