Second in a series of four stories about leaders in the Practical Farmers of Iowa network.
NEXT INSTALLMENT: Vic and Cindy Madsen, DECEMBER 3, 2002

Proof positive that regenerative ag can
out-perform conventional

Dick and Sharon Thompson have 14 years of hard data showing that their sustainable farming practices have yielded $146.81 more per acre each year than conventional fields in the same county.

By Darcy Maulsby

Editor's NOTE

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

Dick Thompson : For 35 years, he and his wife have been faithful to a way of farming that enhances the soil . . . and the bottom line.
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.

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 or premiums.

“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 said.

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 said.

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 ridges.

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.

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