The New Farm® and innovative Iowa farmers
present at birth of PFI

Back in 1982, Dick Thompson and the Rodale Institute established a relationship that lead to the creation of Practical Farmers of Iowa -- and helped change the face of farming.

By Greg Bowman, New Farm® editor

The farming pioneers in our four-part series have influenced the sustainable farming movement far beyond Iowa – even before they were serving on a national organic farming board (Rosmann) and being featured in Newsweek magazine (Frantzen, issue of Sept. 30, 2002). Farmers from many states – and nations -- learned about innovative farming systems at the Thompsons’ or saw their first hoop-house for hogs at the Madsen farm. And all four farmers in our series have been active in PFI for over 15 years.

I first experienced Sharon and Dick Thompson when they spoke at the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association’s conference in the late ‘70s. I was struck by their energy and enthusiasm that seemed to come from a decision, early on, to liberate themselves from the conventional agriculture “box.” They were experimenting with compost, tillage and cover crops. Their passion was matched by their documentation, which has only gotten better and deeper over the past 20-some years, as has their understanding of the spiritual values that underlie their approach to farming.

They soon established a reputation for wanting to share information, to turn their farm into a “show and tell” site for alternative agriculture. The Regenerative Agriculture Association (a Rodale Institute program which published The New Farm® magazine at the time) started running stories about their work in 1982, and sponsored the Thompsons’ field day in 1984. When talk of starting a farmer group “interested in learning to use environmentally sound farming practices that are profitable” turned to reality, New Farm® lent its mailing list to the cause that became the Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI). The Thompsons were members of a five-person steering committee that founded PFI in early 1985.

The fledgling PFI co-sponsored a three-day roving series of “Practical Farming” workshops at three locations in Iowa with the RAA in 1985. The Thompsons told their story, and Dr. William Liebhardt of the Rodale Institute explained “The Conversion Project” strategy to maintain income during transition away from chemical-intensive farming. (Liebhardt was research director at the time, and is just now completing a one-year “reprise” in that role. You'll hear more from him later on the New Farm® web site.)

Ron Rosmann was in the audience at one of those first workshops, and has been with PFI ever since. Also in the crowd was Vic Madsen. He and Tom Frantzen joined PFI the next year, and started on-farm research with PFI in 1987.

Many other sustainable agriculture groups have supported PFI in its journey to become a national leader in farmer-oriented on-farm research and the creative development of farmer-oriented farming and marketing systems. The group has persisted in seeking viable options for family-scale farms during times of accelerating consolidation in the conventional farming economy.

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