First in a series of four stories about leaders in the Practical Farmers of Iowa network.
NEXT INSTALLMENT: Dick & Sharon Thompson, NOVEMBER 11, 2002

The Frantzens manage for quality in soil, hogs and life
Though farming organically has been complex and challenging, the Frantzens enjoy it more today than they did 20 years ago.

By Darcy Maulsby

At right: Tom Frantzen with son James, who is a bit of an organic celebrity himself.

Editor's note

Back in August, The Rodale Institute's research team took a tour of farms in Iowa to gather information on best weed management practices (we're planning a new research initiative on weed management). They chose to visit the farms of four pioneers in on farm research--Tom Frantzen, Dick Thompson, Ron Rosmann and Vic Madsen.

We asked Darcy Maulsby, a freelance writer from Granger, Iowa, to go along for the ride and report back to us on the practices, successes and concerns of these four experienced farmers--all of them longtime members of the Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI).

(Darcy is an independent communications and
marketing specialist from Granger, Iowa. She was
raised on a farm in west-central Iowa and has written
about agriculture for more than eight years. You can
reach her at

This is the first installment in that four-part series. You should know that The Rodale Institute has a long and fruitful history with PFI. For more on our past--our shared presence at the birth of regenerative farming--check out Greg Bowman's piece.

Farm At A Glance

The Frantzen Farm

Location: Northeastern Iowa, near Alta Vista; approximately 100 miles
southeast of Minneapolis & St. Paul and about 160 miles northeast of Des Moines.
Important people: Tom and Irene Frantzen; son James, 14.
Years farming: 4th generation farmer, farming since 1974
Total acreage: 360
Tillable acres: 335
Soil type: clay loam soil of high (3% to 5%) organic matter
Crops: corn, soybeans, barley, hay, alfalfa and other forages
Livestock: hogs and cattle
Regenerative farm practices: intensively-managed crop rotations, ridge tillage, composted manure, integrated system of livestock and crop production
Marketing: Organic Valley, Niman Ranch, Stonebridge International


At Tom Frantzen’s organic grain and livestock farm in northeastern Iowa, conservation isn’t an afterthought—it’s completely integrated into the system.

To improve soil quality, the Frantzens use two rotations, including a corn-soybean-barley-hay-pasture rotation and a corn-soybean-barley-hay rotation. The forages, which include red clover, grasses and alfalfa, provide feed for cattle, while grains can be fed to the hogs. Composted manure from the livestock can later be applied to the crop land to fertilize the soil.

“What we are managing with biology is pretty complex. Farming is vastly more complicated now than it was 20 years ago. Organic farming has given us a better quality of life, though, and should give us a more stable future in an unstable agricultural industry. I enjoy what I’m doing, and I enjoy the people I work with immensely,” Frantzen said.

The importance of soil quality
A lifelong farmer, Frantzen tried conventional crop production systems on his farm near Alta Vista before switching to organic production in 1995.

“When I just planted row crops year after year, I didn’t like what I was seeing with soil quality. I believe in diversification and decided we needed to take a more holistic approach to farm management,” he said.

As a fourth generation farmer, Frantzen said he wanted to care for the land, and the farm’s livestock, the best way possible. In 1937, Frantzen’s father bought the farm’s original 80 acres. After Frantzen started farming in 1974, he and his wife, Irene, bought the farm in 1977 and now manage 360 acres, including 335 tillable acres.

They have raised their two college-age daughters, Jess and Jolene, along with teenaged son, James, on the farm. Frantzen manages the farm with the help of his son, while Irene assists with the bookkeeping.

Since 1987, Frantzen has been a member of Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), a non-profit organization that promotes farming systems that are profitable, ecologically sound, and good for families and communities.

"True, our yields are a little lower than conventional crops. I plant corn two weeks later than other farmers do, and the crop usually yields about 110 or 120 bushels an acre. It isn't about yields, though--it's about returns."

Frantzen says his 75 Angus cows ensure that his farm uses a crop rotation that improves soil fertility. “The cows are terribly important to us. I think it takes a large grass-eating mammal to ensure good soil ecology. Long-term, continuous cropping doesn’t build soil structure. Using cover crops, five-year crop rotations, livestock that graze on hay and forages, and composted manure does build soil structure. To make the farm work, you have to have good soil.”

Different management practices, like ridge tilling and proper cultivation, also contribute to soil quality.

“I’ve seen the erosion that occurs when there’s a heavy rain on long-term, continuous cropping where the soil is as hard as concrete. I’ve also seen the difference when the heavy rain falls on plowed land with composted manure that grows cover crops and hay in a five-year crop rotation. This land has good aggregate soil that absorbed the water,” Frantzen said.

Crop production systems
This focus on soil quality means Frantzen doesn’t limit his crops to corn and soybeans, as most Iowa farmers do. “In our book, that’s insanity. True, our yields are a little lower than conventional crops. In my system, I plant corn two weeks later than other farmers do, and the crop usually yields about 110 or 120 bushels an acre. It isn’t all about yields, though—it’s about returns.”

Instead of conventional soybeans, the Frantzens raise clear-hilum organic soybeans. “Stonebridge International buys these organic soybeans. SunRich has also bought them. We get about $15 per cleaned bushel of the soybeans, while the splits go for about $7. The splits run 15 percent to 20 percent of the total,” Frantzen said.

Disease and insect problems from nearby conventional fields can cause trouble in the organic fields, however.

“Soybean aphids wrecked us last year. Half the land around this area is planted to soybeans. When they get diseases and insects, we get them, too. Government programs pay for monocultures, which can lead to these problems. This means we pay for everyone else’s mismanagement,” Frantzen said.

To boost soil fertility, the Frantzens spread crushed egg shells from a local egg-breaking facility in nearby New Hampton. The shells provide calcium and a little nitrogen. Composted manure and bedding from the farm’s swine hoop houses are also spread on the fields to add nutrients.

“When I first heard about composting manure, I didn’t think it would work. I thought there would be too much manure, and not enough bedding, and you’d have a big sloppy mess. It works great, though, and hoop building manure is perfect compost material. It contains cornstalks, oat straw or barley straw. We spread the compost in the spring. We don’t spread much in the fall, because we want to let the cows graze,” Frantzen said.

To keep this rich soil in place, the Frantzens have planted a shelterbelt of trees and nut-bearing bushes around the farm to control erosion.

James, 14, writes about the daily chores that he and his dad manage on the farm. To help educate others about sustainable agriculture, the Wisconsin-based Organic Valley marketing cooperative distributes his popular “James’ Journal” newsletter via e-mail to more than 30,000 subscribes each week.

“James’ Journal helps explain to others that organic farming requires creativity, thinking for yourself, not following a recipe and believing in what you’re doing,” Frantzen said.

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