TALKING SHOP: Innovative Farmers of Ohio, Mt Vernon, Jan. 16 - 17, 2004

Sustainable farming’s pioneer couple
share the basics from their Iowa farm

Dick and Sharon Thompson want the insights from their 37 years of hard work, head scratching and research to encourage other farmers to adopt and adapt for greater sustainability.

By Melissa Brewer
Posted March 19, 2004

S p o n s o r B o x
Innovative Farmers of Ohio

Innovative Farmers of Ohio (IFO) is dedicated to promoting -- through research, education, and community-building activities -- an agriculture that preserves and strengthens the economic, social, and environmental well-being of Ohio's farms, farm families, and rural communities, and protects and improves the health and productivity of Ohio's land's and waterways. It serves as a bridge to sustainable agriculture for many farmers and institutions.

IFO facilitates on-farm field days, learning circles and on-farm research. It builds support for local food systems as one of 14 members of the Ohio Food and Farm Network. It is housed at the Stratford Ecological Center in Delaware, Ohio:
www.stratfordecological
center. org

Contact info:
Innovative Farmers of Ohio
3083 Liberty Road
Delaware, OH 43015
740-368-8552
ifoh@aol.com
www.ifoh.org

 

Hog health, Canada thistles and bad boots still challenge Thompson management

For the Thompsons, challenges remain. They have been unable to find a successful freeze-branding system for their cattle. At present they have cattle with brands from four different years, none of which can be read in the winter. Pneumonia in the herd also has been a problem.

They have experienced a high death rate in their hogs because antibiotics are not being used. Pathogens have built up in the hog facility despite efforts to limit them by putting lime on the ground after cleaning. The hog operation might require a break, Thompson said.

Another struggle comes with the Canada thistle and its invasion of pasture ground. But with a combination of science and biodynamic timing, things are looking up, Thompson said. He’s committed to do as researchers recommend: chisel hard, three to five times, in 21-day intervals. He chisels in sync with the moon cycles, or at least at high moon. Most of Thompson’s soil disturbing is done at night to minimize weed growth.

Always the problem-solver, Thompson admits that he has been unable to “de-feet” an ongoing boot problem. Today’s farm boots are just not cutting it, he said. Once made with rubber, they are now made with PVC. Thompson has yet to successfully repair the reoccurring crack above his toes that forms in the new, less pliable, material.

But unless bad boot material is a more difficult problem than the other issues on their farm, it will not be long until the Thompson’s figure out a fix through energy, innovation and determination. These traits brought them prior success, and have made them an inspiration and a mentor couple to sustainable farmers across the country, according to Laura Ann Bergman, IFO executive director.

 

MORE INFORMATION
For background on Thompson on-farm research, see the November, 2002, story Proof positive that regenerative ag can out-perform conventional.
MT. VERNON, Ohio—Cover crops and crop rotation are sure foundations on which a stable sustainable farm is built. Although finding the perfect system for a farm may never really be achieved, Dick and Sharon Thompson of Boone County, Iowa, look to be well on their way.

During the recent Innovative Farmers of Ohio (IFO) 11th annual conference, the Thompsons shared their success stories and struggles with farmers looking to make the transition to profitability.

“We’re going to show you some fantastic numbers, but I don’t want this to be intimidating,” said Dick Thompson at the start of his first session. “I don’t want you under the chairs or under the tables hiding. This is to bring hope and promise. We just figured up that this is year 37 since we made the switch, and if I haven’t made any progress in 37 years, I’m not showing you much hope in the program.

“There’s no way that we can come here and pretend that we have it all figured out,” he said. “We ask people to adapt pieces of what we say or what anybody else says. I strongly do not recommend somebody adopting our whole program. Every farm is different.”

"There’s no way that we can come here and pretend that we have it all figured out . . . We ask people to adapt pieces of what we say or what anybody else says. I strongly do not recommend somebody adopting our whole program. Every farm is different."

Success at the Thompson farm has come with time and hard work. The couple began farming in 1958. After 10 years of conventional farming they made the switch to sustainable agricultural practices. Their 300-acre farm now consists of cattle, hogs and a five-year crop corn-soybeans-corn-oats-hay rotation. And after years of conducting on-farm research the Thompsons have found a profitable farming system that has increased their net income by $152 per acre.

In 2002, the Thompsons saw their largest labor and management return of the last 15 years. Their five-crop rotation gave them a $228-per-acre advantage over the Boone County conventional farming system of a corn-soybean rotation. Without government programs, the Thompsons had a $200 return per acre while conventional farmers had a negative $28 return, according to the Thompson on-farm research report.

And while many farming elements are important to the Thompsons’ success, crop rotation and cover crops are key. The method of crop planting has enabled the Thompsons to minimize nutrient losses and soil erosion while maintaining a controlling balance for insects and weeds.

“The word of the day is rotation,” Thompson said during his second session. “Rotation of crops, rotation of tillage, rotation. The only place that you can’t use it is in marriage … otherwise, it’s a pretty good word.”

"The word of the day is rotation. . . Rotation of crops, rotation of tillage, rotation. The only place that you can’t use it is in marriage . . . otherwise, it’s a pretty good word."

In rotation of tillage, the Thompsons use ridge-tillage during the three years of row crops--corn, soybeans and corn--and then level the ridges off with a disc. They use a chisel plow to work on Canada thistle and then a field cultivator is used in the spring.

Later a flex harrow is dragged ahead of the drill to help increase orchard grass in the hay planting for a weed-suppressing sod crop. The Thompsons use a pulverizer (that firms the soil) behind the drill to increase oat yields. They use a moldboard plow to incorporate the hay crop after its contribution, and the rotation starts again.

Along with their crop rotation and systematic tillage rotation, the Thompsons also have looked to cover crops to help increase profits. After analyzing years of research, the couple has found a cover-crop system fit for their farm.

“If you came to our farm the first of May, nine out of the 10 fields would be green either with cover crops, pasture, or hay crops,” Thompson said. “And the one field that we plow in the fall -- that would be black. Maybe we can do something about that.”

Thompson uses rye to bridge from hay to begin the rotation with corn. After the hay is plowed under, twin rows of rye are planted on the ridges as a fall cover crop. The rye is planted in 6-inch intervals at about 20 pounds per acre, equating to about a $2.50-cost per acre. In the spring, the 4-inch to 6-inch tall rye is cut and left on the field to serve as weed control. A Buffalo planter is then used to dislodge the rye roots as it places corn under loose soil.

"If you came to our farm the first of May, nine out of the 10 fields would be green either with cover crops, pasture, or hay crops . . . And the one field that we plow in the fall -- that would be black. Maybe we can do something about that."

This system limits tillage, which in turn reduces compaction and weed growth, Thompson said. When the ground is stirred, farmers get weeds because buried seed is exposed to sunlight.

Early weeds also can serve as a cover crop for the corn, but they have to be controlled. “Use weeds as a cover crop, early, then take them out,” Thompson said. After the corn is harvested, the oats and hay serve as a cover crop for themselves.

Cover crops chosen by a farmer should be based on particular needs, agreed Ben Stinner, who was on hand for the presentation. Stinner is the W.K. Kellogg endowed chair of the agroecosystems management program at Ohio State University. Farmers want a cover crop that will provide photosynthesis in times of little activity and will work to provide needed nutrients.

Rye grows in late fall and in early spring when it is cold and other grasses are not growing. Rye also has a root system that will grow farther down into the soil and absorb nutrients that are lacking in the top layers of the soil, Stinner said.

A farmer in Ohio might choose a different cover crop than the rye used by the Thompsons. It depends on the field, and Iowa and Ohio lands differ, Stinner said. Iowa fields are higher in potassium and calcium, at least in the top layer of the soil. Soil potassium levels in Ohio are spread more evenly throughout the soil strata because of the state’s wetter climate and water movement through soil.

At the same time, a farmer should consider cover crops that parallel farming practices. For instance, while tillage adds oxygen to the soil, it is not the only way to get oxygen. Diverse crop rotations and additional organic matter also play a role in oxygen movement.

Good management systems will help to establish a farm that can withstand hardships from weather and management slips. For instance, having higher microbial activity in the soil will help build an internal capacity to better hold nutrients, Stinner said. So in tough years, those fields will be able to carry the farmer and provide more stability. Basically, mistakes can be made and the farmer can still survive.

Success comes down to balance, Thompson said. Farmers need a balance between crops and animals; weeds and insects; tillage and nutrients; sun and rain; spirit, body and soul; work and play. These and others values create true balance, including a balance in the bank account.

Melissa Brewer is a freelance agricultural writer from Wooster, Ohio. She is a 2003 graduate from The Ohio State University.