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
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
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
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.)
Farmers of Iowa
Coleman Natural Products
The Thompsons sell their beef to Coleman.
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.”
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.
: For 35 years, he and his wife have been faithful
to a way of farming that enhances the soil . . . and the
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
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
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
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
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
“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,”
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
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.”
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