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
“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,”
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
||"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
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
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
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
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,”
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
“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
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
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
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,”
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,”
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,
“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
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.”