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
“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,”
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
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,”
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
“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.