an era when most farm
families have at least one spouse working an off-farm
job, Ron and Maria Rosmann have avoided the trend.
The two have developed a successful
system of growing and direct marketing organic crops
and livestock from their southwest Iowa farm near Harlan.
The Rosmann farm is located 100 miles west of Des Moines
and about 45 miles northeast of Omaha. With the assistance
of their high school and college-age sons David, Daniel
and Mark, the Rosmanns and one full-time employee are
carving out a niche.
“We strongly believe
in looking at the farm as a whole system. On our farm,
the three biggest challenges are weeds, insects and
fertility, but I love our switch to organics. I’ve
seen better health in our soil because of it, and the
farm has a better balance. What stops my neighbors from
doing the same thing? I think it’s the work, the
record keeping and the uncertainly,” Ron said.
Ron currently serves as the board president of the California-based
Organic Farming Research Foundation. He is also an active
member of Practical Farmers of Iowa, a non-profit organization
that promotes farming systems that are profitable, ecologically
sound, and good for families and communities.
While organic production is nothing
new for the Rosmanns, they haven't always farmed that
way. After graduating from Iowa State University in
1973, Ron returned to the farm to raise crops and livestock
the conventional way for 10 years.
Ron never forgot the lessons his father
taught him about the value of diversity on the farm,
however. “My dad bought this farm in 1939, and
he always believed in crop rotations and keeping livestock.
He never gave up on oats, cattle, hogs or hay.”
Ron said he decided to go “cold
turkey” into organic crop production and sustainable
agriculture around 1983. “I got turned on to it
by the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska. The first
year, I used no herbicides on the corn. I did that with
the beans, too, by the next year.”
Since 1994, the Rosmanns' 630-acre
farm has had organic certification. The operation includes
hogs, cattle, chickens, corn, oats, clear-hilum soybeans,
rye, barley, turnips, pasture and hay. Currently, the
farm income is derived from the direct marketing of
livestock (15 percent); grain sales (50 percent); and
organic beef and natural pork sales to other cooperatives
and companies (35 percent).
The Rosmanns raise corn on about 190
acres. Sixty percent of the corn crop is white corn,
and the family also produces organic seed for white
corn. They grow soybeans on 80 acres, barley on 85 acres,
oats on 37 acres, and have the rest of their land in
hay, rye and pasture.
“We market our clear-hilum beans
through Heartland Organic Marketing Co-op at Stuart,
Iowa. This is a cooperative of organic farmers that
has been in existence for around 10 years. Many of these
beans end up as soy flour. Some also go for tofu, if
the quality is good enough. Seed discoloration continues
to be a big problem and is preventing more beans than
ever from going into the high-quality tofu market. There
is a desperate need for research on the mottling complex
of viruses spread by the bean leaf beetle,” Ron
Some of the Rosmanns’ corn is
also processed into food. “We market our white
corn through a company in Colorado. The corn is used
to make organic white corn chips, tortillas, and masa,
which is the flour for making tortillas,” he explained.
“Some is consumed here in the U.S. and some ends
up in the European market. We feed some of our yellow
corn to our livestock, along with oats and barley in
the rations. We also sell some of our yellow corn for
the organic livestock feeding market.”
“We’ve been at this for
19 years without herbicides on most of the fields. We’re
ridge tillers. Ridge till works great on every weed
except buttonweed (velvetleaf). To help control this
weed, we’re thinking about changing rotations,
or maybe planting fewer soybeans. The buttonweeds have
been the worst in the beans,” Ron said.
While weed control can be a challenge,
keeping grain pure from genetically-modified substances
is a big issue, too, Ron noted. “We plant no GMO
white corn hybrids, but we have had a sample show up
with GMOs in it. Where did it come from? Did it come
during shipping, or during lab testing? We don’t
know for sure.”
GMOs raise concerns on another level,
Ron added. “I question whether we’ve scratched
the surface on GMO crops’ resistance to weeds
and insects. It seems like we’re getting more
disease and insect problems in crops around here. I
think we need more research on GMOs and organic crops.”
The Rosmanns feed one third to one half of their grain
to their livestock. Ron plans to start feeding more
barley and less corn in the rations. “We’re
going to sell more corn, because it brings better returns.
I also like barley in feed as a mix, but not as a single
ingredient,” he said.
To boost their profitability, the
Rosmanns intend to direct market more of their beef,
pork and poultry. “We’re always pushing
everything to make money. It helps when you don’t
have to purchase as many inputs. It keeps your costs
low. It seems like our biggest cost is trying to keep
our old equipment running,” Ron said.
The Rosmanns have converted existing
buildings to accommodate their 45-sow farrow-to-finish
hog operation. They raise Berkshire hogs with a Swedish
deep-bedding system. “By all the breed standards,
the Berks are number one in meat quality. They are also
a rugged outdoor hog,” Ron explained.
While the Rosmanns vaccinate their
hogs, they have cut back on treatments. They use no
antibiotics, and say there’s no substitute for
a production system based on good bedding. They bale
corn stalks to use for bedding.
Many of the hogs are sold through
the conventional system, although the Rosmanns’
goal is to see how many hogs they can sell through their
own direct-marketing program.
grazing for cattle
In addition to the hogs, the family has a 90-cow herd
and say they are very pleased with their cow-calf operation.
“We have Red Angus, which is
one of the best breeds around. We get our genetics from
a breeder in the county who focuses on carcass quality
and feed economics. He’s a very practical breeder
who doesn’t believe in show cattle,” Ron
The Rosmanns raise cattle outside
year-round, and the animals have access to shelter.
Calving occurs twice a year. The Rosmanns said they
strongly support rotational grazing practices, and their
finishing cattle have access to pastures. “Raising
animals humanely is very important to us,” Maria
In August, the Rosmanns plant turnips,
rye and vetch so their cattle can graze this forage
when grass pastures slow down. They say turnips provide
an excellent cattle feed.
Currently, the family is working with
researchers at Iowa State University to study conjugated
linoleic acid (CLA) and beef cattle. CLA is a fatty
acid found in beef and dairy fats that may contain cancer-fighting
substances. The study compares finishing cattle completely
on grain, versus feeding them on grass with minimum
grain finishing for the last 120 days.
“We’re trying to find
out if there’s a difference in economics and in
beef taste, tenderness and CLA levels,” Ron said.
The Rosmanns round out their livestock
operation with poultry production. The family raises
600 to 700 broilers each year.
Manure from the poultry, hog and cattle
operations is composted in a long pile in a nearby field.
“There’s no smell and no flies with this
composted manure. We spread a lot of it on our fields
in the fall,” Ron explained.