relationship is foremost: "It’s
important that customers know where our farm is
and who the farmers are who raised their food,"
says Cindy Madsen, pictured here with Vic. "Once
you form this relationship, the customers identify
you as almost part of their family."
If you visit Vic
and Cindy Madsen’s farm southwest of Audubon, Iowa,
you’ll hear a rare sound for a modern farm—the
clucking of chickens.
In an era when most chickens are raised by the thousands in
large confinement barns, a flock of poultry in the barnyard
is a notable sight. The birds are one component of a farm
that has not bought into the “get big or get out”
philosophy of agriculture.
The Madsens farm 300 acres, which is a very small operation
by today’s conventional agriculture standards. The Madsens
have learned, however, that you don’t have to farm thousands
of acres to support a family.
The family raises corn, soybeans, barley, oats and hay, along
with hogs and chickens. To round out their diversified operation,
they would like to add cows or sheep. Currently, the Madsens’
farm income is derived from the direct marketing of poultry
and pork (25 percent); pork sold to Niman Ranch and on the
open market (25 percent); grain sales (20 percent); government
payments (15 percent) and hay sales (5 percent).
Direct sales of meat, and a focus on relationship marketing,
are a big part of the Madsens’ business.
“You have to have a relationship with your customer.
It’s important that customers know where our farm is
and who the farmers are who raised their food. Once you form
this relationship, the customers identify you as almost part
of their family. We host farm tours so our customers can see
where their food is grown. This is a working farm, not a show
farm,” Cindy said.
way of farming
The Madsens share an agricultural heritage. They both grew
up on Iowa farms, and Vic has farmed since 1970.
In 1975, the couple purchased the farm where they currently
live and where they raised their three sons. They are the
third family to manage the farm, which was established in
1886. The farm is located approximately 70 miles northeast
of Omaha and 70 miles west of Des Moines.
The Madsens became interested in sustainable agriculture when
their boys were growing up.
“When the kids were little, they wanted to help on the
farm, but we were always telling them, ‘Don’t
go near the equipment, don’t go near the chemicals.’
It dawned on me that the only safe time they could be in the
field was when we seeded oats. It seemed like we were giving
them a very negative view of farming. We decided we wanted
to find a way that would let the kids become more involved,”
Sustainable agriculture provided the answer. “Sustainable
agriculture is a whole different mindset. To me, it’s
more people-friendly, and it’s safer,” Vic added.
Today, Vic and Cindy provide the majority of the farm labor
and management. Their two older sons, Jeff and Mark, are not
involved in the operation. Their younger son, Eric, 19, helps
with farm work on weekends and during the summer months.
Unlike the corn-soybean rotations that many Iowa farmers use
today, the Madsens raise corn, soybeans, barley, oats and
hay. They do not plant genetically-modified crops.
The Madsens have 23 acres of organic production, but they
use herbicides, when necessary, on the remaining crop land.
“This year, we had heavy weed pressure, so I used more
herbicide. While we’re not purists, we do prefer to
use as little herbicide as possible. You can use one-third
less nitrogen if you place it properly and time the application
right,” Vic said.
In recent years, the Madsens have raised corn and soybeans
on their organic acres. They have sold organic soybeans to
Heartland Organic Marketing Co-op in Stuart, Iowa.
and poultry production
The Madsens have 40 sows and use three deep-bedded hoop buildings
in their farrow-to-finish pork production system.
Their swine herd includes Berkshire, Yorkshire and Chester
White genetics. “The Chester White/York genetics mean
hardy, prolific hogs. A study from the National Pork Producers
Council shows that Berkshire genetics provide the highest
eating quality,” Vic explained.
Some of the Madsens’ pork is sold to Niman Ranch, and
the rest is direct marketed. (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 are raised on land that is cared for as a
sustainable resource. Many Niman Ranch hogs are raised in
The Madsens have also raised poultry for 16 years. Each year,
they have about 100 layers and raise 900 broiler chickens.
Most of the poultry is sold locally, within a 30-mile radius
of the farm. The Madsens also sell some eggs.
“We don’t feed our livestock hormones, drugs or
meat by-products. We use barn lime and good sanitation to
keep our animals healthy. For the chickens, we use a poultry
feed pre-mix that contains no meat-and-bone meal but has extra
vitamins and minerals. This makes a big difference. When we
started feeding the chickens this product, they really perked
up, and showed brighter, whiter feathers,” Cindy said.
The Madsens’ poultry is processed nearby in a state-inspected
facility in the small town of Kimballton, Iowa. Their pork
that is direct-marketed is processed in a state-inspected
plant in Atlantic, Iowa. Because the meat is not federally
inspected, it cannot be sold outside of Iowa.
The Madsens’ products are not organic, due to the customer
base in Iowa. “If we went organic, I’d have to
add quite a bit to the cost of my chicken. The population
around southwest Iowa isn’t like the customer base in
Chicago, or even West Des Moines. We don’t have a lot
of affluent, dual-income couples like you find in metro areas.
We have to sell our products at a price people can afford,”
Farms attracts customers
For more than five years, Cindy and Vic have direct-marketed
their meat in a variety of ways—either directly off
the farm, at area farmers’ markets, or through a community-supported
agriculture (CSA) system near Ames, Iowa. (Called the Magic
Beanstalk, the CSA is run by someone else. The Madsens simply
supply their products to this CSA.)
Cindy also travels to the Des Moines Farmers’ Market
26 weeks of the year to sell food items from Audubon County
Family Farms. Comprised of four farm families from the Audubon
area, the group supplies pork, poultry, vegetables, fruit
and honey. (The Madsens supply pork and poultry only.) Cindy
handles the marketing for Audubon County Family Farms.
She uses a three-panel bulletin board, complete with photos
from the farms, to attract customers. The display highlights
Audubon County Family Farms’ motto of “products
raised by environmentally-friendly methods to protect the
air you breathe, the water you drink and the health of your
“People love to look at those photos of the baby pigs
and chickens. It’s amazing the way those photos get
conversations started. People will say, ‘Oh my grandpa
had nesting boxes like that,’” Cindy said.
Audubon County Family Farms is not a CSA or a cooperative,
but it’s a group of farmers who have found a workable
solution for marketing their products, Cindy added.
“We’ve been somewhat successful, and we keep gaining
new customers all the time. We make about three-fourths of
our profit by selling at farmers markets, and about one-fourth
of our profit by selling direct. We’ve been able to
cooperate well, and we help promote each other’s products
in various markets. We also divide up the cost of farmers
market stall fees.”
Once customers try homegrown products from the Madsens and
Audubon County Family Farms, they are hooked, Cindy said.
“Word of mouth has really helped our business. Once
customers try our foods, they keep buying it. They say they
like the quality and taste of the meat. It’s neat to
hand customers a product you’ve raised, without the
product having to go through three or four middlemen.”
Customers also appreciate the way the Madsens cater to their
needs. “Our system gives us the flexibility to handle
custom orders. If a customer wants bone-in loins, we can have
it cut that way,” Cindy said.
tours prove popular
Marketing farm-grown foods through direction sales requires
a lot of time and dedication.
“You have to be available when the phone rings to take
orders, and you have to travel to bring your products to the
farmers’ markets. You also have to like people and be
able to work well with them. The effort pays off, though,
when you form a relationship with your customers. They’ll
ask ‘What’s going on at the farm this week?’
They want to know the story of our farm,” Cindy said.
This is one reason the Madsens offer tours of their farm to
customers. “City people especially like coming to the
farm. It’s a ‘wow’ experience for them.
When our customers’ kids or grandkids come to the farm,
they visit the pigs, and we give the kids rides on the tractor.
They can help gather eggs, too,” Cindy said.
Sometimes the farm visits are an eye-opening experience for
everyone. “We’ve found out that many city kids
are petrified of farm animals. Some of the little kids are
scared to death of baby chicks and scream when they see them.
As a livestock producer, that surprised me about how out of
touch many people are with agriculture,” Vic said.
The farm tours provide an excellent learning experience, according
to Cindy. “People love the farm experience, and this
gives us a chance to help educate them. The three main questions
people have is: 1) Do you raise your animals yourselves? 2)
Do you use hormones? and 3) Do you use antibiotics? They want
to know how our animals are fed, and we can show them how
we raise our livestock.”
While sustainable agriculture offers both farmers and consumers
many benefits, the system poses challenges, as well. The changing
structure of the livestock industry has made it much more
difficult for independent, family farms to remain competitive,
“It was a huge error allowing the packer ownership of
livestock. Companies like IBP and Smithfield have far more
resources and legal counsel than USDA’s Packers and
Stockyards Administration. As the meat companies control the
market, we’re losing our infrastructure here, including
stockyards and local livestock buying stations. As long as
this situation continues, people in sustainable agriculture
will have to bypass the conventional market system and direct-market
their products,” Vic said.
Direct marketing is not free from complications, though. “There
are a lot of state agencies involved in regulating direct
marketing for food. We understand that the goal is to ensure
safe, health food, but there are so many different interpretations
of the rules. We’re caught in the middle and sometimes
get the runaround. Regulators need to be reading off the same
page. The rising cost of permits to sell our products at farmers’
markets is another area of concern,” Cindy explained.
Making enough money in sustainable agriculture to maintain
the business and support a family can be tough, Vic added.
“What’s promoted as sustainable agriculture can
have very low rates of return. There can be lots of time involved
for the money you make. You have to do the math. Our hens
only make us $3.50 an hour, but we enjoy them and they add
something to the farm. You do have to find farming systems
that are sustainable but still generate profits.”
To help make ends meet, Cindy works a couple of part-time,
off-farm jobs, including delivering newspapers and bookkeeping.
For people who want to try sustainable agriculture, the Madsens
offer some advice. “You don’t want to have too
high of expectations right away. Sustainable farming is like
any business—it can take two or three years to get a
customer base and build the business. It doesn’t happen
overnight,” Vic said.
Don’t count on federal government programs to help farmers
improve their financial situation, either, emphasize the Madsens.
“The government programs encourage selling lots of stuff
for a small margin. Most farmers don’t have time for
sustainable agriculture when they have to keep producing to
sell lots and lots of low-value products. We need government
programs that pay on a per-person basis, not a per-acre basis,”
The Madsens say high-volume production is not a goal they
have for their farm. “You have to adopt the mentality
that you will practice sustainable agriculture and make it
work. We are a micro business out here selling a small amount
of product to a small number of buyers. We don’t want
to expand into a more industrial system, because we want to
be small enough that we always have direct contact with our
customers,” Cindy said.
Previous installments in the Pioneers
of Iowa Sustainable Farming series
11, 2002: Dick and Sharon Thompson have 35
years of hard proof that regenerative agriculture can outperform
25, 2002: Tom & Irene Franztzen manage
for quality in soil, hogs and life