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 rotations."
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 other
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 tillage.
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 plant something.”
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 for certification.
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
“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
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 for himself.
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
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 rows.
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
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
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
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 schedule
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 mix
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
|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 on conditions.
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 rotation.
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.”