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 yettergirl@yahoo.com.)

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Related articles and web sites

Websites
• Practical Farmers of Iowa Leaders in sustainable farming. PFI web site not only has profiles and research, but also contains drawings and photos by Tom Frantzen of his innovative farrowing huts, and a slide show that demonstrates hoophouse construction.
• Organic Valley Cooperative
Tom sells much of his organic pork through this Wisconsin-based marketing cooperative. His son James also contributes a popular weekly journal (found in the "kids club" section).
• Niman Ranch
Some of Frantzen's hogs are also marketed through Niman Ranch, which sells only pork from pastured hogs treated humanely and raised without hormones or sub-therapeutic antibiotics.

Farm Works Software
Check out this web site for more information on the farm management software the Frantzens use.

Articles & New Farm® Resources
• The Pig Page
Our hog resource page with articles links to information about sustainable hog production and the fight against factory hog operations
• A history of PFI
The farmers of PFI have had an enduring influence on farming around the country. Here's the story of their origins . . . and the role we at the Rodale Institute played in their beginnings.
• Frantzen profiled in Newsweek
In their Sept. 30 issue, Newsweek did a cover story on organic, and as part of that coverage they ran a piece on two Iowa farmers--one organic (Tom) and one conventional (Gary Lynch). Check it out at the Organic Trade Association site.
• Frantzen talks about a failed coop venture
Tom and other Iowa farmers started the Fresh Air Pork cooperative. Though it failed as a business, Tom draws many useful lessons from the experience, which he shares here on the New Farm® web site.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Enterprise Summary

Today, the Frantzens’ farm income is derived from:

  • hogs -- 50 %
  • cattle -- 20 %
  • soybeans -- 15 %
  • small grains -- 5 %
  • other -- 10 %

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.

Pork production methods

In addition to their crops and cattle, the Frantzens raise approximately 100 sows. From April through November, pigs farrow in the pasture. In the winter, the sows farrow inside. The Frantzens also raise hogs in three 30-foot by 72-foot hoop houses that were built in 1997.

“These buildings revolutionized the way I raise hogs. We use three feet of bedding in them, and they are low maintenance. The bedding retains nutrients that can later be spread on our fields, and you don’t get manure odor and runoff from the buildings,” Frantzen said.

The hogs are fed a ration of corn, wheat, hulless oats and okara. “Okara is ground soybeans mixed with water. This mash is cooked, and the liquid is skimmed off. The pelleted okara provides a great organic protein source for our pigs.”

Proper nutrition is a key to maintaining animal health. “We can vaccinate for anything we want to, and are required by the state to vaccinate for pseudorabies. We use herbal treatments for other ailments. We try to control disease with proper feeds, though. Little pigs like acidic feeds, and acidified pre-mix helps control E. coli.”

Membership in Organic Valley
Frantzen belongs to a seven-member pork pool through Organic Valley (www.organicvalley.com), a Wisconsin-based cooperative with more than 460 farmer-members in 17 states.

The Organic Valley pork pool is comprised of six Iowa farmers and one Wisconsin farmer. Frantzen produces 40 percent of the group’s pork. Organic Valley markets the hogs to Sioux Preme Pack in northwest Iowa.

“Sioux Preme is niche meatpacker and is a certified-organic processor. Any of our pork that is not needed to fill orders is sold conventionally. While our pork pool is small, Organic Valley’s philosophy is to ensure profitability before expansion. Because my cost of production is higher than the conventional system, I need a higher price for my pork to make a profit,” Frantzen said.

Some of Frantzen’s hogs are also marketed through Niman Ranch. (Editor’s note: Niman Ranch was started more than 25 years ago in California. In the Niman Ranch system, livestock are humanely treated, fed the purest natural feeds, are never given growth hormones or sub-therapeutic antibiotics, and raised on land that is cared for as a sustainable resource. Many Niman Ranch hogs are raised in Iowa.)

When he markets his hogs, Frantzen says the benefits of his pork production system far surpass the confinement production method.

“Pigs need access to the outdoors. There are three things a pig needs to do, including run around, build a nest and chew on things. A pig can’t do this in a confinement crate. When a pig is raised in confinement, all it ever sees are the pen, a slatted floor, a waterer and a feeder. When pigs are raised outside, they see lots of new things all the time. Unlike the confinement pig, getting sorted and shipped to market is not too traumatic, because the pig is not stressed out by the experience.”

To ease the process even more, Frantzen uses a special sorting and loading system designed by Temple Grandin, the well-known animal scientist from Colorado State University. Grandin’s systems are designed to ensure that animals are handled humanely and efficiently. “It works beautifully in all kinds of weather,” Frantzen emphasized.

When hogs raised in confinement systems are sent to market, the process is much different, Frantzen said.

“The pigs are frightened, and the chaos continues at the packing plant. Some don’t survive the trip to the packing plant. For the ones that do, they are often so upset they don’t stun well. This is terrible, because the lines in the commercial plants run four times faster than the lines at niche plants like Sioux Preme Pack. When we asked the plant manager at Sioux Preme Pack how many pigs like ours died from stress in the trailer, in transit or at the plant, he couldn’t think of any.”
"The pork customers we sell to give us glowing comments about our pork. That’s good, but we also need more consumers to understand that demanding the Wal-Mart way means animal treatment will be marginal. It’s a big issue. To move more organic products, we need people to understand the story behind the meat they buy."

The way animals are treated on the farm and at the packing plant is a story consumers need to know, Frantzen emphasized. “The pork customers we sell to give us glowing comments about our pork. That’s good, but we also need more consumers to understand that demanding the Wal-Mart way means animal treatment will be marginal. It’s a big issue. To move more organic products, we need people to understand the story behind the meat they buy and know that our animals were treated right.”

Marketing groups like Organic Valley are vital to organic producers, Frantzen added. “We would be destroyed in the conventional market without them. You do give up some independence and have to learn a new way of thinking. It’s like a dance between the marketer and the producer, and you have to think about the partnership.”

Record keeping makes a difference
In all types of production agriculture, keeping good records is critical. “This is vital when you are raising value-added products. Not keeping good records in organic farming is like taking an altimeter out of an airplane and flying at night,” Frantzen said.

Since he purchased a computer in 1999, Frantzen has used various software, including Farm Works and an accounting program, to track data and manage inventory. Frantzen also maintains electronic maps of his farm. The notations section allows he and son James to detail the activities in each field. Each entry is dated, and planting dates, the type of seed planted, labor costs, how many hours were put on the tractor, etc. At the end of the year, Frantzen prints the detailed records for each field.

“We have a dial-up connection so I can also get on the Internet. I probably spend about an hour a day on the computer. It takes discipline to keep records on a daily basis, but good records help you make the decisions that really matter. They help me understand where the weak links are on this farm and what needs improvement,” Frantzen said.

Current challenges
While the Frantzen family is able to run a successful business, health insurance is a big issue that causes concern.

“We pay a lot for health insurance. It’s one of the biggest problems facing independent farmers and the middle class,” Frantzen said.

Another area of concern is the hog market, Frantzen said. “Hogs are the money makers, and our pork pool needs to expand. Increased marketings are a must. We need more winter pork production, too, for the marketing pool. We will probably go to a deep-bedding farrowing system where we put farrowing huts in a greenhouse.”

In addition to the challenges posed by Iowa winters, Iowa’s population base creates another issue for sustainable agriculture, Frantzen said.

“Here in Iowa, diversification is badly needed, but we don’t have the population base to support local markets like populated urban areas can. In our county [Chickasaw County], we only have 12,000 people.”
Nevertheless, the benefits of sustainable agriculture continue to outweigh the challenges, Frantzen added.

“People told me to go into this system for the quality of life, not the money. I like the way we’ve been able to get away from chemicals and develop a better business plan. We are fully employed and are not looking to expand. I think there probably is a future in it for my children, if they want to farm. There would be no future for them in a traditional agricultural system.”