The final installment in our 4-part series about leaders in the
Practical Farmers of Iowa network.

Family builds healthy relationships with customers
through organic grains, meats

The Rosmanns expand opportunity by intensifying management.

By Darcy Dougherty Maulsby

The Rosmann Clan: Ron and Maria Rosmann of Harlan, Iowa, with sons (from left) David, Mark and Daniel, grow organic crops, beef, hogs and poultry in southwest Iowa.

Farm At A Glance

Rosmann Family Farms, Ron and Maria Rosmann and Sons

Location: Harlan, Western Iowa; approximately 45 miles northeast of Omaha and 100 miles west of Des Moines
Important people: Ron and Maria Rosmann and sons David, Daniel and Mark
Years farming: Ron has farmed since 1973, following his college graduation
Total acreage: 630
Tillable acres: 630, although the Rosmanns put about 120 acres into rotational pastures for grazing their organic beef herd
Soil type: Silt loam soils with slopes generally in the C and D range, meaning 8-11 percent and 11-13 percent. The farm includes well-drained fertile soils with Marshall on the upslopes, Monona on the side hills and Judson in the valleys. Organic matter ranges between 3-4 percent.
Crops: White and yellow corn, oats, clear-hilum soybeans, rye, barley, annual forages including turnips and hairy vetch, pasture and hay.
Livestock: hogs, cattle and chickens
Regenerative farm practices: Crop rotations, composting hoop house hog manure for field crops; ridge tillage
Marketing: Heartland Organic Marketing Co-op, direct marketing from the farm, and some pork is sold through a local Berkshire marketing network

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"By all the breed standards, the Berks are number one in meat quality. They are also a rugged outdoor hog."

--Ron

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"What stops my neighbors from doing [organic farming]? I think it’s the work, the record keeping and the uncertainly."

--Ron.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Enterprise Summary

Today, the Rosmanns’ farm income is derived from:

  • direct marketing of livestock (15 percent)
  • grain sales
    (50 percent)
  • organic beef and natural pork sales to other cooperatives and companies
    (35 percent).

 

 

 

"Look what [subsidies] have done to our rural society—they’ve destroyed it. When you raise subsidies, landlords raise their rent."

--Ron

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"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."

-- Ron

 


In 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.

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,” Ron said.

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.”

Pork production

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.

Rotational 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 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.

Expanding 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 superior food.

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,” Ron explained.

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.

Direct 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,” Maria said.

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 way.

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.

Challenges and goals

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,” Ron said.

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 said.

“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

  • December 3, 2002: Vic and Cindy Madsen run a diversified operation in southwest Iowa that emphasizes customer relations & direct marketing
  • November 11, 2002: Dick and Sharon Thompson have 35 years of hard proof that regenerative agriculture can outperform conventional
  • October 25, 2002: Tom & Irene Franztzen manage for quality in soil, hogs and life