a young age, Jack Erisman was determined to follow in his
father’s footsteps and become a farmer, despite his
mother’s best intentions. At a time when children were
strongly encouraged to take over the family farm, Jack’s
mother did everything she could to steer him away from farming.
But he always loved the land, and he loved the equipment;
he fondly remembers his father—“the hardest working
man I’ve ever seen”—starting up the Caterpillar
tractor. It made an impression that never left.
Jack Erisman’s father built up the farm by buying land
no one else wanted and restoring its productivity. He eventually
became one of the largest farmers in the area. The family
farm is located in Christian County, Illinois, just south
of where the glaciers deposited the best soils in Illinois.
Jack attended parochial school in Springfield and Jesuit
boarding school in Wisconsin for a classical education including
Latin, Greek, mathematics and science. For awhile he considered
the priesthood but ended up enrolling at St. Louis University
to study Liberal Arts. He found he did not care for it and
returned to the farm for a short time before joining the army
at his father’s urging. In the fall of 1961 he finished
his stint in the army and enrolled at Colorado State University
to study agricultural engineering. Before he could finish
school his father became ill and Jack once again returned
to the farm. He planted his first crop in 1963, while working
with his father. By January 1964 Jack’s father sold
out completely, and Jack was a full-time farmer.
When Jack’s father bought the land that is now the
home place, Jack’s grandfather walked over to the house
from his own place across the newly purchased land. He told
Jack’s father, “You didn’t buy a farm, you
bought a goldmine.” He held up chunks of yellow clay
subsoil. The previous owners had not farmed the land well,
and in large areas the top soil was completely washed away,
exposing the clay. The joke stuck, and the place is still
called Goldmine Farm.
The decision to transition
Ultimately, Jack’s education and life experiences
had an impact on the way he approached farming. By the end
of 1969, he had come to realize more fertilizer and chemicals
didn’t necessarily mean more profit. He also began to
consider human and agricultural history, and came to realize
that humans grew their food for thousands of years without
the benefit of synthetic chemicals. Yet the dominant thinking
was that chemical fertilizers and pesticide were now the only
way humans could hope to feed themselves. “The period
of time that agriculture has been based on chemicals seems
extremely small compared to the rest of history,” Jack
says. “The whole approach seems to be born of arrogance.
This is a giant experiment. We don’t know if we can
sustain it indefinitely.”
He started seeing the soil as a resource instead of a growing
medium to be used up like so much oil. He experimented extensively
and developed a farming philosophy that sought to build soil
quality while minimizing off-farm inputs.
By 1968, Jack had initiated conservation tillage, all but
eliminating the moldboard plow. By 1970, he had ceased using
anhydrous ammonia and insecticides, using lower rates of nitrogen—in
liquid form—and cutting chemical rates in half.
He spent the 1980s cutting back more on chemicals, learning
more about the soil and perfecting the use of sustainable
agricultural practices. This was a difficult time for farmers
in general. Jack was servicing a half-million dollar debt,
all of which he was able to pay off before making the decision
to transition to organic in the later part of that decade.
To this day Jack has never collected a single government payment.
In 1988, Jack tried converting one 40-acre field of wheat.
The next year he expanded organic practices to another 40
acres of wheat. Then, in 1990, he treated the entire farm—2000
acres—as if he where farming organically. He was told
by professors at the University of Illinois that no one had
tried to convert large scale acreage to organic, and they
honestly thought it could not be done.
Jack himself does not recommend this approach to others.
Although he had been making incremental changes away from
chemical farming the previous 10 years, the whole-hog jump
to organic with the entire farm was daunting, particularly
for Jack’s wife, Jeannie. She was uneasy about the change
and still doesn’t care for the constant experimentation
and being different from most of their friends and neighbors.
Indeed, the first years were difficult, but he had a business
plan, stuck with it and made a profit. Another boon to his
business was the gift of 180 acres he gradually received through
a family trust over 30 years.
“I have grave concerns about capital becoming more
and more concentrated in the hands of fewer corporate entities,”
says Jack. Of course, the concern is for the conservation
of the natural resources upon which future generations will
depend for food. But he also worries that modern industrial
agriculture is destroying opportunities for individual ownership.
“Greater individual ownership results in better stewardship,”
Jack says.“It provides the greatest benefit and economic
balance for society.”
Jack runs a diverse operation using a seven-year rotation.
This typically starts with corn, into which a rye cover crop
is sown. The next year soybeans are planted, followed by a
small grain—wheat, oats, barley or rye. The next spring,
a grass/legume mix is over-seeded into the small grain. After
harvest, the grass/legume mix is allowed to grow and is used
for pasture and hay for one to three years depending on the
field and water access. In some fields year-five is planted
back to corn, year six to soybeans and year seven is fallow.
About one seventh of Jack’s land is idle every year.
Jack also has a 200+ head cow/calf herd that
he keeps mostly on pasture except for a few steers that are
on feed. The animals are there to complement the system. “If
we can successfully keep the animals on grass, it enables
us to use longer rotations,” Jack says. This makes the
farm less dependant on cash from grain yields. Jack sees the
good-quality perennial pasture as a key component of the system,
and gives it the potential for long-term sustainability. “That’s
the ideal, but after 20 years I’m still learning how
to do this.”
“If we can successfully
keep the animals on grass, it enables us to use longer
Jack also uses the cattle to allow his hired hands to build
their own equity in the farm. Jack usually has two hired hands
working with him on the farm. They typically stay with the
farm a long time. A couple have even retired from the farm.
One reason is the opportunity Jack allows for them to acquire
ownership in the cattle herd.
Jack admits he is still developing the system, but now sees
that the biggest challenge is sustaining it. It’s not
that Jack worries there won’t be any farmers to work
the land in the future, he just wonders who will manage it
in a way that reflects his own values (neither of Jack’s
sons is interested in farming).
Challenges of transition
Jack encountered several challenges transitioning to organic.
Originally, half the land he farmed was rented. Some of the
landlords (family members) balked at the lower corn yields
that first year and suggested adding nitrogen fertilizer.
Surprisingly, his non-family landlords were supportive of
the changes Jack wanted to make, and he eventually was given
the opportunity to purchase the land. As for the family land,
Jack did apply some nitrogen for the next three years, but
in 1993 he certified his first fields, and by 1996 the whole
farm was certified organic. Over the years, Jack’s father
finally became convinced Jack was going the right direction.
The family-owned land allowed Jack to take some risks and
experiment, but he waited until he was debt-free before taking
steps toward organic. Through good money management and some
profitable investments in the 1970s, he was able to secure
the farm and line up his personal finances in a way that made
the transition less risky.
In the temperate region of Illinois, Jack has discovered
The greatest challenge, he says, is simply trying to grow
a row crop organically during the transition years. Going
from conventional corn to organic soybeans, the challenge
is controlling weeds. In first-year organic corn, the challenge
is providing enough nitrogen. Jack talks about the land as
a living entity. He explains that, “soil that is accustomed
to chemical weed control and fertility year after year has
to have time to adjust—from a biological and biochemical
perspective—after those chemicals are suddenly removed.”
In Jack’s opinion, first-year organic soybeans are almost
not worth trying. “The weeds are too aggressive and
yields too low.” With corn, the nitrogen demands would
require many tons of compost or manure, hauled in and spread,
in order to get a respectable crop.
Jack talks to many beginning organic farmers, and recommends
they put fields going into organic into a small grain—wheat
or oats—then into grass/legume cover crop, let the land
rest in this state for a couple years and take a hay cutting
or graze if some income is needed from the field. Otherwise,
let it be. During transition, it’s important to minimize
Jack got this idea from a neighboring farmer who wasn’t
even organic. He saw Jack struggling with the transition and
told him, “Jack, you’re working yourself to death.
Seems to me you should plant some wheat and then put in some
grass/legume mix and let it sit until you’re ready to
Jack took his neighbor’s advice and it worked. He’s
now helped several other farmers do the same. “Landlords
don’t like it because they’re not getting any
income during those years,” Jack says, “But I
tell them you don’t have any expenses either. Just let
it ride, then in the third year, begin your rotation with
corn, soybeans or a small grain if desired.” This proven
strategy makes transition much simpler.
When Jack first started in organic farming, there was no
federal Organic Rule and certifiers across the country each
had slightly different set of rules. Jack, with a group of
other producers involved in organic agriculture, founded the
Illinois OCIA (Organic Crop Improvement Association) Chapter.
He was in charge of overseeing the writing of the new organization’s
by-laws. At that time, OCIA was a national organization with
a well- established set of organic standards and procedures
Still, there were problems in the early days—double
billing, lost paperwork, delays in receiving certification
and steadily increasing percentages demanded by the national
OCIA. Eventually, Jack changed certifiers with good results.
Today, with one set of organic standards administered by
the USDA, many farmers—especially small-scale vegetable
farmers marketing directly to consumers—are choosing
not to certify. Their customers trust them and are willing
to pay whatever price the farmer sets. But certification has
become an essential part of Jack’s marketing plan. He
sells his organic grain into the national and international
markets, and certification allows him to capture the premiums
that make organic profitable. The marketing of his organic
grain is a vital and enjoyable part of the process for Jack.
He’s confident that he could be successful growing vegetables
and selling them at the farmers' markets and restaurants,
but he’s chosen not to go that route. Jack is a successful
grain and livestock farmer who uses organic certification
to document his production practices and capture a higher
price for his harvest. Having a good working relationship
with your certifier is one of the keys to making the process
“Keeping good, detailed records is absolutely essential,”
says Jack. Total openness and honesty are the best approach
when dealing with certifiers and inspectors. Don’t try
to hide anything. Most certifiers will work with you to solve
problems. Jack also recommends talking to other organic producers
to learn about the different certifiers and to gain a sense
of how they work with producers. Are they available to answer
questions when you need them? Are they prompt and organized
with paperwork? Ask about all the costs.
Jack’s gradual transition to organic production—from
when he decided to go for it—took about 10 years, and
he’s continually looking toward the future. He spent
countless hours diagramming his fields and devising a crop
rotation for the next 30 years (the plan has been modified
since then). “It’s always in flux,” says
Jack. “A good pasture might be kept in pasture longer
than planned if it’s doing well.” As new technology
comes along, and Jack’s knowledge of the system increases,
adjustments are made.
Jack’s first inspector was Jim Riddle, a man still
considered to be one of the top organic inspectors in the
world. At that time it was not against the rules for inspectors
to give advice on organic practices. Jack picked Riddle’s
brain during the day-and-a-half inspection.
Social history of transition: Influences
Jack’s father had a natural knowledge about land and
how to farm it and make it pay. He built up the farm and eventually
became one of the largest farmers in the area. “He had
an incredibly strong work ethic. Work was everything,”
remembers Jack. “He was extremely competitive and shrewd,
but he was a risk-taker.” As he talks about his father,
Jack doesn’t seem to realize how strongly the words
describe him and the course of farming that Jack has chosen
In addition to his parents, Jack cites other progressive
Illinois farmers who influenced him along the way. There was
C.J. Fenzeau, whom Jack met in 1970. “He was like an
evangelist,” remembers Jack. In the 1980s it was Gary
and Jim McDonald from Mason City, Illinois. Over the years,
Jack has been involved with sustainable agriculture organizations
and other groups rich with farmers willing to share knowledge
and exchange ideas. There was also New Farm magazine
and the writings of Robert Rodale. “I still have many
of the old issues laying around,” he said. He also read
Plowman’s Folly, the classic book by Edward
Faulkner about restoring the health of the soil through proper
incorporation of plant residue. “I’ll never forgot
the impact that book had on my thinking.”
Jack began farming in the midst of the chemical revolution.
It was an exciting time in agriculture; 1964 was the first
year Jack used, among other things, anhydrous ammonia. In
1965, he got a huge corn crop using anhydrous. The years following
that large boost were never quite as good, and Jack spent
time wondering why he couldn’t do it again. During that
time a couple neighbors really pursued the chemical route.
He recalls their shoes being yellow with Treflon. Later, those
same farmers died of cancer and everyone said it was the chemicals
that killed them. Jack traces his first thoughts of sustainable
agriculture to that event.
Jack has always been an innovator. “I was the first
to pull a tool bar with an anhydrous ammonia tank,”
he remembers. He was willing to try things that others thought
were impossible, but he was always careful not to endanger
his livelihood by the experimentation (including going organic).
Jack considers sound financial management to have been a key
to his success as a farmer and an on-farm researcher. "If
I manage wisely, I can afford to experiment with the farm.
Not every acre has to make me what the average is." That
is, as long as the whole farm breaks even, Jack counts his
experiment on parts of the farm as progress. These small successes
and failures have each played a role in developing Jack’s
current organic system.
Sometimes opportunities to learn just present themselves,
like in 1967—a very wet year. Jack didn't finish harvesting
until February. At that time farmers always fall-plowed, but
this year they just couldn’t get to it. In 1968 he was
faced with plowing 600-700 acres of corn in the spring before
planting. “I didn't know how we were going to do it,”
Jack recalls. “I decided to chisel plow and we put a
V-8 engine [a DVT-573 International turbo charged engine]
into a 5020 John Deere. We went out and chisel plowed 1,200
acres in the spring.” He proved to himself and neighboring
farmers that you could spring chisel, something then considered
That experience lead to other things. "I had all this
residue on the land,” Jack remembers. “The Elanco
guy [herbicide dealer] said, 'You're going to have to double
your chemical application.’” Jack ignored the
advice, reasoning that the residue would impede the growth
of weeds. It worked, but he paid the same price many organic
farmers have paid. “I was a trash farmer,” Jack
says. “It probably cost me a half-section farm”
because of a landlord's preference for bare soil between the
In 1980, Jack’s father tried to talk Jack into quitting
the farm. Jack was 40 and couldn’t imagine doing anything
else. “My father told me, ‘you’ll never
make as much money in farming as I made.’ He could see
then where farming was headed.” Jack decided to stick
with it anyway and try some new things. “I’m not
that comfortable unless I’m trying something new,”
Jack says, a trait he inherited directly from his father.
In the end, there were very few major events or individuals
who influenced Jack, but there were countless little things
that, when combined, subtly altered his view of the world
and the work he does in it.
Jack was instrumental in the formation of the earliest sustainable
agriculture organization in the state—the Illinois Sustainable
Agriculture Society (ISAS). The organization sprang up from
a group of farmers looking for information on alternative
farming systems. At that time, there wasn’t much out
there, and they got a less-than-enthusiastic response from
the University of Illinois. The farmers of ISAS went to the
university to seek research-based information on farming more
profitably with less dependence on chemicals and other external
inputs. At the time, organic agriculture was still relegated
to the realm of the ’60s hippie movement.
Then ISAS farmers began doing their own on-farm research.
The university provided some help in designing projects, but
mostly ISAS was on its own, organizing meetings and field
days to share what they were learning. Jack was a leader from
the beginning. He already had many contacts at the university
and in state government and other agricultural agencies. ISAS
membership gradually increased and, eventually, sustainable
and organic agriculture gained a level of legitimacy in Illinois.
Other regionally based farmer-led organizations grew out
of ISAS, with on-farm research and field days being the main
activities. Later, these groups joined forces under an umbrella
group called the Illinois Sustainable Agriculture Network
(ISAN). Conferences were held and funds were eventually secured
to help expand on-farm research and outreach activities. Jack
always maintained a leadership role in these organizations
and is considered a driving force in the Illinois sustainable
farming movement. These groups helped pass legislation that
secured $750,000 in annual grant funds for programs that promote
sustainable and organic agriculture throughout the state.
A matter of principle
As a rule, government payment programs are very important
to grain farmers; with persistently low prices and steadily
increasing costs, most grain farmers would not see a profit
without them. Jack does not participate in government programs
for philosophical reasons. He has built waterways and terraces
on his farm without financial assistance from the Soil Conservation
Service. “Why should I ask the government to help me
with something on my own land that will bring me benefit?"
He has gone to government agencies for information, but he
would consider it hypocritical to accept money from a program
that he doesn’t believe is right.
Likewise, the Erismans do not buy medical, life or crop insurance.
"I lost about $70,000 in crops over 32 years, but I figure
I would have paid $700,000 in crop insurance over the same
time; $70,000 is a reasonable crop loss over three decades.”
As their debt load diminished, Jack cut back on term life
insurance. He does purchase workman's compensation, Social
Security and other benefits for his hired men. He decided,
however, that the odds are better just to pay medical bills
than to purchase family medical insurance. Jack points out
that his parents paid insurance their whole lives, but when
his mother contracted cancer the company dropped them immediately.
Crop rotations are an important part of the organic grain
and livestock system on Jack’s farm. It is a controlled
diversity, a carefully planned sequence of cash crops, cover
crops, hay, pasture and livestock that strives to balance
the biological and geographical resources and processes operating
on the land. At the same time ownership issues, storage capacity
and marketing forces are taken into account when considering
the rotation. Jack spreads out a large sheet of paper onto
which he has drawn an elaborate table of years and crops.
It all fits together with the precision of an engineer’s
When translated to the landscape however, the plan becomes
little more than a set of general guidelines. Enter the need
for flexibility: The engineer’s mind gives way to the
realities of weather, pests, weeds, shifting markets and shifting
perspectives. It still works, but the final product doesn’t
look much like the original plan. If Jack were a house builder
that might be a problem, but when working with natural systems,
the real limits of the farmer’s control over the factors
of production become evident. This is true for the organic
and conventional farmer alike. Where the conventional farmer
avails himself of chemical and genetically engineered technologies
to overcome the irregularities of weather, pests and fertility,
the organic farmer uses rotations.
Jack’s fields are roughly divided into seven groups,
in order to balance acreages and build in a geographic distribution
for storage purposes, rainfall and forage needs and to satisfy
his landlords, who want diversity within their landholdings.
Jack uses a repeating sequence of two seven-year rotations
that differ slightly and amount to an actual 14-year cycle.
There are many potential variations built into the plan. The
subtle shifts are a testament to Jack’s intimate knowledge
of the land, its needs and potentials. He is producing a crop
but at the same time improving his soil, protecting the water
and building up a healthy and productive landscape to pass
on to future generations.
Jack Erisman's rotation
Rye cover crop sown after harvest, or spring
Small grain sown after harvest in fall
Wheat, cereal rye, spelt, barley, triticale, or
oats in the spring; all overseeded with grass/legume
Hay or Pasture,
or seed production
|60% grass by volume, if field will be used for hay or
pasture. Another option for this year would be red clover
or alfalfa seed production.
|Same as Year-1
|Same as Year-2
|Land is left idle while rye is growing
|Same as Year-2
|Same as Year-3
Hay or Pasture
|Same as Year-4
|Same as Year-5
|Same as Year-6
|For hay, pasture or seed production. From here, could
go back to a year-1 corn or year-8 soybean, depending
here for more details
Like most grain farmers in the Midwest, Jack’s fields
are not contiguous. Many distinct fields make up his entire
farm, all within five miles of each other, but all differ
in size, shape and biological characteristics. Furthermore,
each field is at a different stage in the rotation. In theory,
Jack has roughly one-seventh of his land at each stage of
the rotation each year. This arrangement gives Jack lots of
diversity and flexibility across the farm each year, something
conventional grain farmers do not enjoy with the typical corn-soybean
Cover crops are essential because of the complexity of Jack’s
rotation and the benefits derived from a growing stand of
grasses and legumes on the soil. Having eliminated synthetic
forms of fertility, cover crops are part of the strategy for
building up tilth and nutrients for cash crops. They also
protect the soil from wind and water erosion, increase soil
organic matter, keep weeds from taking over and provide extra
forage for grazing beef cattle when needed. Jack always uses
a grass/legume mix for cover cropping. Grasses used are rye
(cereal), ryegrass, orchard grass, perennial ryegrass and
timothy. Legumes used are primarily alfalfa and various clovers.
To maintain organic certification organic farmers must use
organic seed, and this applies to cover crops as well. Demand
for organic cover crop seed has increased as more farmers
have moved to organic. Consequently, the price of seed has
doubled. This has increased the costs of planting cover crops
substantially. Planting some species at recommended rates
would cost Jack $50 per acre. To keep costs down, he plants
at lower rates, uses whatever is available, and grows some
of his own seed. Still, it is a challenge. When you consider
that Jack has around 500 acres planted with grass/legume cover
in any given year, that’s a lot of organic seed to grow
or source from organic seed companies. “There’s
a real hole in organic seed production,” he says.
Farming more than 2,000 acres, Jack is dependent on equipment
to accomplish all the necessary tilling, planting and harvesting.
Over the years he has tried everything, and he doesn’t
rule out any equipment, including the much-maligned moldboard
plow. “There’s a place for the moldboard plow
in this system,” Jack says, explaining, “It really
comes in handy when going from pasture to row crops, breaking
up root balls and such.” But Jack knows the variety
of tillage equipment and how to use it.
Equipment companies often come to Jack to hold field demonstrations
on his land for their newest line of machines. They come because
Jack has fields that aren’t planted fencerow to fencerow
in corn or soybeans. “They come and do their field day
and then leave the equipment for me to use over the next year,”
says Jack. He constantly keeps an eye out for new ideas in
equipment that will help him do a better job.
There is certain equipment Jack says he cannot live without,
such as the close-space, notched-bladed disk. Another important
tool is the high-residue rotary hoe. Jack also uses a high-residue
cultivator. But the tillage picture is all over the place.
In places where he can’t plow, Jack works a lot of his
ground with a disk and a chisel. Again, the issue in so many
of his fields is dealing with well-established grass and the
hard root-balls it forms. Breaking those up to prepare a good
seed bed for crops is an important task, and Jack will use
any piece of equipment that gets the job done.
Crop selection and variety choices have a lot to do with
market demand. “For instance,” says Jack, “If
I had any organic food-grade white corn now, I’d practically
be able to name my price, where a couple years ago I could
hardly get rid of it.” But the same volatility is true
of conventional white corn. Jack doesn’t grow everything
on contract, but he watches what contracts are doing before
deciding what to plant.
He almost always goes for food-grade quality on all his crops.
If he doesn’t get food-grade he looks to sell into the
feed market. There are particular difficulties with raising
organic food-grade oats. The buyers of food-grade oats are
very strict and the premium for organic oats is not that great.
Jack can raise a good oat crop, but bran bugs routinely come
in, and their presence in the harvested oats is not appreciated
by organic food-grade oats buyers. “By the time they’ve
docked you for the bugs and storage and whatever, there goes
your premium,” says Jack. Still, he’s able to
market lots of feed-grade oats through local feed stores and
to individual horse owners. He’s grown many different
varieties, particularly of corn, but notes that many of the
specialty varieties don’t yield as high, and so the
premiums being offered are an important determining factor.
Jack saves as much seed as is practical, given market demands
and economics. He's experimenting with open-pollinated corn.
It has a higher feed value and would enable him to save his
own corn seed, but open-pollinated lines don’t have
the high yields that hybrid varieties have.
Looking ahead, looking behind
“I still feel very strongly that our ag research needs
to be holistic…that we need to look at the basic biology
of the plants and soil to see what they can do without labeling
it ‘conventional’ or ‘organic,’”
Jack declares. His mindset towards research and farming is
ecological at its core and typical of successful organic producers,
who have made the switch from an industrial paradigm to a
holistic one. For example, synthetic chemical inputs are no
longer judged merely on their value as a convenience or production-enhancing
tool, but also by their impact on the system as a whole.
Jack believes modern agriculture has severely altered the
elements and cycles and resources upon which agriculture itself
depends, so much so that ag research needs to go back to the
basics and start with clean slate. “We have to step
back 100 years and start over,” he says. “It’s
not the same land. As researchers and producers, that’s
our challenge today.”