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
Making the transition
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,”
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
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
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,”
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 said.
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 said.
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
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
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,”
the meat business
The Rosmanns have found a viable way to build a successful
farming enterprise while providing customers with organic
meat--a product that more and more consumers believe is a
The Rosmanns have a customer base of more
than 100 from their promotional brochure alone. “We've
got people calling us asking if they can get copies of our
brochures,” Maria said.
The family started marketing their meat
a few years ago through the Iowa Acupuncture Clinic in Des
Moines. “They believe in the importance of eating healthy
meat, and we were able to develop a client base through them,”
The Rosmanns deliver pork, beef and chicken
to the clinic about every six to eight weeks. “We usually
have 30 to 35 orders each time, and each customer usually
buys $100 to $150 of meat each time,” Ron said.
The secret to the high-quality meat comes
from the processing, as well as the production, Ron explained.
“We age the beef for 21 to 24 days at 32-34 degrees
F. This consistently improves the meat's tenderness, flavor
and shelf life. Major processors like IBP only age the meat
overnight, and people's biggest complaint with most beef is
that the quality is inconsistent.”
The process is quite different from the
way large packers like IBP handle meat. “They spray
the carcasses with water and freeze it, because they don’t
want shrink. Adding water to the carcass can create a breeding
ground for bacteria, though,” Ron said.
The Rosmanns have also found a strong ally
in the Amend Packing Co. of Des Moines, which has helped them
promote and sell their meat. This three-generation, federally-inspected
operation custom-butchers the Rosmanns' cattle and processes
meat in a time-honored way that produces a premium quality
carcass. “The company was skeptical about our product
at first, but they have become one of our biggest sales promoters
for the last three years,” Ron said.
The Rosmanns keep some of their meat in
cold storage at Amend Packing, which is located 100 miles
east of their farm. The family also freezes meat in a state-inspected
storage facility at their farm.
contact with customers
The Rosmanns' have a wide customer base for their beef, pork
and poultry. “Physicians buy our product, and chemotherapy
patients say it’s the only beef they can eat. Younger
people like the fact that it's organic, while older people
say it tastes like the beef they remember eating as a kid.
They say this is the way meat is supposed to taste,”
The Rosmanns deliver meat once a month to
specialty grocery stores and health food stores in Des Moines,
Ames and Omaha. “We also do some food-service catering
with Iowa State University through Practical Farmers of Iowa.
Iowa State is starting to serve our beef one night a week
at the residence halls,” Ron noted.
The Rosmanns market all the cuts. The beef
is available in quarters, halves and the whole animal. Different
cuts, including steaks, roasts, stew meat and ground beef
are also available in a variety of different packages.
“We’ve found a way to use up
everything from the meat we sell. A kennel in Des Moines buys
the meat bones, we sell the pork lard, and we compost the
beef tallow here at the farm,” Ron added.
The best way to build a customer base is
to build trust, Ron emphasized. “People want to know
where their meat comes from. We want our customers to see
how our animals are raised. We're not just livestock producers.
We build relationships, so we get to know our clients over
time and establish trust.”
The Rosmanns periodically invite their customers
to visit their farm to see how he livestock are raised and
help customers understand why the animals are produced this
One snag in the beef market is the way sales
of organic beef have flattened out in recent years, Ron said.
“Natural beef has a 10- to
12-year advantage in the whole-foods stores. Consumers think
there’s no difference between organic and natural beef.
There is a difference, since natural just means no antibiotics
and no hormones. Organic beef is priced higher than natural
beef, and consumers are staying with the natural beef, since
it’s a product they know and like,” he explained.
Concerns about premium beef markets aren’t the only
challenges facing farmers like the Rosmanns. Current government
programs have created a big problem for agriculture, Ron said.
“We need to move toward the concept
of a conservation security program. Right now, the farm bill
is paying farmers to overproduce corn, soybeans, wheat and
cotton to get subsidies. It doesn’t make sense. As long
as we have a subsidy, which I think we need due to world markets,
that subsidy needs to be based on conservation, not production,”
Subsidies that encourage overproduction
and unbridled expansion have taken a severe toll on rural
America, Ron added.
“Look what they’ve done to our
rural society—they’ve destroyed it. When you raise
subsidies, landlords raise their rent. Land around here is
selling for $2,200 an acre, and cash rent is running $150
to $170 an acre. When land comes up for sale or rent, the
really big farmers snap it up and get bigger. Why should young
people go into farming, when they can quickly go into debt
getting land and buying equipment? Where’s the next
generation of farmers going to come from? I can’t think
of one young guy who has started farming recently in our county.”
Ron said his family's goal for their business
is to stay small and sell more of their beef, pork and poultry
locally, from Des Moines to Omaha. The Rosmanns are also working
to create a farming enterprise that their three sons may want
to take over in the future.
“Farming is our profession, not a part-time job. So
many conventional farmers are encouraging their kids not to
come back to the farm, but we've been able to create something
for our kids to come back to, if they want. We’re trying
to teach them as much as possible about the farm,” Maria
“We’ve learned a lot
through the years with this type of farming,” Ron added,
“but there’s a lot to keep learning.”
Previous installments in the Pioneers
of Iowa Sustainable Farming series
3, 2002: Vic and Cindy Madsen run a diversified
operation in southwest Iowa that emphasizes customer relations
& direct marketing
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