Second in a series of four stories about leaders in the Practical Farmers of Iowa network.
NEXT INSTALLMENT: Vic and Cindy Madsen, NOVEMBER 25, 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 yeara 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, KS) 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












Placing seeds without encouraging weeds: A ridge-till planter is designed to minimize soil disruption, tillage passes and firming a seed-bed for surface weed seeds. The lead coulter (at right) slices through residue that is pushed off the ridge by residue guards as a horizontal disk takes out weeds or crop plants in the row. The seed drops into the furrow (after the soil opening has been stabilized by the firming rod), then is gently rolled by the press wheel to assure good seed-soil contact. The covering disks create a loose protective layer of soil over the seed to hold in moisture. Because there is no surface pressure, weed seeds are less likely to germinate quickly and weed seedings are more likely to dry up. (Drawing by John Gist, p. 34, Steel in the Field.)




Practical Farmers of Iowa

Coleman Natural Products
The Thompsons sell their beef to Coleman.

Niman Ranch
Thompson pork goes to Niman.

Henke Machine-Buffalo Equipment
P.O. Box 848
Columbus NE 68602-0848
(402) 562-0014, (800) 228-1405

Steel in the field
For details of the Thompsons’ fine-tuned weed-management system, check out chapter 14 of the book Steel in the Field: A Farmer’s Guide to Weed management Tools.
This and other books from the Sustainable Agricultural Network are available at:













“On the average,
most Iowa farmers spend $30 per acre each year for herbicide weed control in corn and soybeans. For not using herbicide for
35 years, our farm hasn’t gone to weeds. Herbicides are not
the answer, because eradication of any particular weed will only provide an opportunity for
another weed to establish itself. We’ve found that ridge tillage can reduce weed pressure by 90 percent.”

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.

Weed Control Methods

Do other farmers question the Thompsons’ data? “I haven’t had anybody argue with the numbers yet. If you wonder why everybody doesn’t farm this way, it’s because it’s easier to do it the other way. You are fully employed with this system. Sure it’s more work, but it’s not the hard, back-breaking work my dad did on the farm,” Thompson said.

Thompson said weed management is his family farm’s strong suit and enhances profitability.

“On the average, most Iowa farmers spend $30 per acre each year for herbicide weed control in corn and soybeans. For not using herbicide for 35 years, our farm hasn’t gone to weeds. Herbicides are not the answer, because eradication of any particular weed will only provide an opportunity for another weed to establish itself. We’ve found that ridge tillage can reduce weed pressure by 90 percent.”

Thompson said there are nine basic steps for ridge-till weed management, including no tillage before planting. He said it is better to use a moldboard plow in the fall, which buries manure at root level. It also buries seeds deep, where they will rot after roughly five years. Thompson uses a Kverneland BB 100 plow, which is made in Norway. “It’s the Cadillac of plows. It’s a sod plow, and its twist in the plowshare is the key,” he said.

While farmers can’t let the weeds go, they can let some grow for awhile early in the season. This way, they provide a cover crop that inhibits the growth of weeds later in the season, Thompson noted.

Handling weeds and residue:
Weed control on the Thompson farm includes cover crops, crop rotation, ridge-till planting and -- for any weeds that show up despite the precautions – a Buffalo cultivator able to handle high amounts of residue. Common components shown in this composite drawing of several brands of maximum-residue cultivators include: the leading gauge wheel lets each unit follow the soil surface; disk hillers throw soil to cover in-row weeds; the large coulter slices through residue to prevent stalk wrapping around the shank; and the wide sweep dislodges between-row weeds.
--Drawing by John Gist, p. 22, Steel in the Field: A Farmer’s Guide to weed Management Tools (Sustainable Agricultural Network, Beltsville MD: 1997)

To control weeds, Thompson recommends the use a Buffalo planter and cultivator, and an M&W rotary hoe. The rotary hoe works well for both pre- and post-emergence to achieve the lowest weed densities.

“Weed control is always a challenge, though. We had some small patches this year where Canada thistle took over the corn. The answer is not just spraying herbicides. We’ll keep working to find the right combination,” Thompson said.

How do the numbers stack up on this weed management system? “With our rotation and weed control system, the cost savings in fertility are $25.71 per acre, weed management savings are $24.47, tillage savings are $14.33, and miscellaneous savings are $11.83,” Thompson said.

Livestock production

The Thompsons’ crop production system plays a key role in their livestock operation. They harvest their corn by the ear with a corn picker, and use corn cribs to store their crop. They grind the corn with a grinder-mixer and feed it, along with most of their soybeans, to their cattle. They also feed their corn to their hogs.

The Thompsons bale all their cornstalks. They grind the corncobs for livestock bedding, and use straw in the feedlot to help control runoff.

The sows farrow in isolette units, giving the hogs access to the outdoors. “We don’t use confinement systems. We want to make our farm a good place for the animals to live and for people to live and work,” Thompson explained.

At market time, loading hogs used to be a frustration, until the Thompsons adopted a double-alley loading chute. The system was designed by Temple Grandin, a well-known animal scientist from Colorado State University. Grandin’s systems are designed to ensure that animals are handled humanely and efficiently. “The hogs nearly load themselves with this system. When we tried it, I knew we had a bingo,” Thompson said.

The hogs are sold to Niman Ranch, and the cattle are sold to Coleman Natural Products. The Thompsons sell their beef and pork as natural meat, meaning it has been raised without antibiotics or hormones.

Improving soil health

A diversified crop and livestock system is environmentally sound as well as profitable, Thompson said.
His farm’s rotation system helps break up insect cycles. Adding manure puts organic matter into the soil, which controls erosion.

Area conservationists have measured a sharp decrease in erosion on Thompson’s farm, compared to others in the area. “Our soil is different than the soil in the next-door neighbor’s field,” Thompson said.

On conventional farms, erosion can carry away 10 to 11 tons of soil per acre. On Thompson’s farm, those numbers drop to less than four tons. In addition, earthworm populations soar in alternative systems like Thompson’s. The National Soil Tilth Lab has found that earthworms per acre in a conventional system totaled 18,718, compared to nearly 1.3 million in the alternative system.

The problem of overproduction

Thompson believes that a farm doesn’t have to be large to be sustainable or profitable. In his annual report, Thompson writes that agriculture’s problem is overproduction, which lowers the farm gate price below production costs.

“The first priority [of agriculture] is stewardship of the land, not feeding the world. The answers to our agriculture problems are the exact opposite of what farmers have been told for the past 40 years. The propaganda of specializing and increasing farm size has not brought prosperity to the majority of the farmers. This kind of program has brought prosperity to agriculture business field.”

Government programs have not helped, either. “The government very seldom does what needs to be done. I think the New Farm® bill is better than the last one, but it still subsidizes corn and soybeans a lot. You’ve got to cut production—that’s the only way you increase the price.”

Adopting alternatives

In farmers’ quest for profitability, Thompson said he does not advocate a complete switch to alternative crops.

“Some people think the answer is raising vegetables, emus, buffaloes or other exotic things. I don’t think we should stop raising those things, but the rich black soil here in Iowa is suited for corn and soybeans, and feeding those to pigs and cattle. We need to focus on what Iowa can do best, and pick up some of the ways we used to do things.”

What’s Thompson’s advice to other farmers who are looking for alternatives? “Take one field at a time when you make changes, and figure out your management abilities. Adapt ideas, don’t just adopt others’ programs. Every day you can find out some little thing that shows there’s a better way to do this. Keep trying to find things that might cut costs, improve efficiencies and improve yields. That’s what keeps me going.”

Previous installments in the Pioneers of Iowa Sustainable Farming series