TALKING SHOP: Practical Farmers of Iowa 20th Anniversary, June 30, 2005
On Politics And Practical Farming

Remarks at Practical Farmers of Iowa 20th Anniversary Field Day
Rosmann Family Farms, Harlan, Iowa

By George DeVault
Posted September 1, 2005

Rosmann Family Farms, Harlan, IA

20 Years Of Practical Farming
Inspiration of Rodale-backed Iowa farm spawns sustainable ag groups throughout the nation.

The headline in the Nov./Dec. 1984 issue of The New Farm magazine pretty much said it all: “Class Begins At ‘Nature’s Ag School.’ And no one wanted to be late for the first day of school.

“The first major field day at Dick and Sharon Thompson’s farm wasn’t supposed to start until 9:30 a.m., but visitors began arriving about 4 o’clock -- the afternoon before,” the magazine reported. The first field day at the 300-acre hog and beef farm of Dick and Sharon Thompson on Aug. 30, 1984, drew more than 500 registrants. Probably another 100 more never bothered to sign in. Visitors came from nine Corn Belt states. One Ohio farmer got up at 11:45 p.m. and drove all night -- 13 straight hours -- to get there. A group of 40 farmers from eastern Kansas rented a tour bus.

“I was overwhelmed by the extreme effort people put out to get here,” Sharon said at the time.

Dick was visibly moved. “It causes a big lump in your throat,” he said. “It was a good thing we had about half a mile to travel (to the first field), so I could get myself collected. I would have been happy with 200. If 50 people had shown up ... I guess I would have been a little disappointed.”

That’s about how many invited guests showed up at the Thompson farm near Boone, Iowa, this June 29 for a nostalgic tour and barbecue dinner.
They were there to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Practical Farmers of Iowa PFI), the pioneering sustainable farming group that grew out of that first field day.

Among the honored guests was John Haberern, president of The Rodale Institute, which sponsored that 1984 field day and helped fund some of the early research at the Thompson farm. The next year, Thompson, Larry Kallam and others inspired by that first field day founded PFI, the grandfather of many sustainable agriculture groups around the country.
Today, PFI membership totals more than 700. PFI’s annual conference last winter drew more than 370 people to Des Moines for 20 workshops on everything from crop rotations to “improving neighboring” and an all-Iowa meal.

Walking through the barnyard this June, Dick made a special point of showing off the well-used electronic scale that Rodale bought 20 years ago so Thompson could measure his yields more precisely. At dinner that evening he paid special tribute to the late Bob Rodale. Dick told the history of how his collaboration with Rodale and The New Farm
brought about a marriage of conservation and agriculture, and finally opened the eyes of top government officials in Washington to low-input, sustainable agriculture, as it was called back then.

Rodale support also let the Thompsons hire some help, “so that Sharon and I could run around and go to meetings,” Dick said. One of those meetings was with executives of the DuPont chemical company. They toured the Thompson farm at a time when two absolutely weed-free soybean fields had not received any herbicides in 25 years. Later, at DuPont’s famous Remington Farm on the East Coast, weeds had taken over some fields. “Guess I should have used Dick’s cultivator,” a DuPont official said. Research at the DuPont farm also confirmed what Dick had been saying: The more diverse the crop rotation, the more profitable the farming system.

In 1986, Thompson was in our nation’s capitol where he talked for two hours about controlling weeds -- without chemicals -- with 24 high-level USDA officials. “The thing that is interesting to me is that Dick Thompson is not theoretical. He’s a practical farmer,” Peter C. Myers, assistant secretary for natural resources, said in introducing Thompson. “He is doing a lot of good research. There is something here for everybody, so unload on him. The only trouble is, he knows all the answers.”

Such praise still rolls off of Dick’s back. “I don’t know,” he said in answer to a weed control question on the tour of his farm this summer. “I know that phrase very well.”

While PFI has made tremendous progress over the past two decades, Dick and other PFI members are still searching for answers to problems facing them all. And that was the meat and potatoes of the 20th anniversary field day the next day at the 600-acre Rosmann family farm in Harlan, Iowa. Ron, Maria, David, Daniel and Mark Rosmann gave about 100 visitors a close look at their work with flax, rotational grazing, organic deep-bedded swine, manure composting, ridge-till corn and beans, barley and oats with field peas for feed.

“The beauty of Practical Farmers of Iowa is that it is farmer-to-farmer,” commented Ron Rosmann.

Our Vision for Iowa

Food that is celebrated
for its freshness
and flavor
and connection
to local farmers
to seasons
to hard work
and good stewardship

Farms that are prized
for their diversity
of crops and livestock
their wildlife and healthy soils
their innovations, beauty and productivity
their connection to a rich past
and a fulfilling present
where individuals and families
are earning a good living

Communities that are alive
with diverse connections
between farmers and non-farmers;
places where commerce, cooperation, creativity
and spirituality are thriving,
places where the working landscape, the fresh air
and the clear water remind us of all that is good about Iowa

-- From The Practical Farmer, newsletter of Practical Farmers of Iowa

My fellow Americans: It is with great pleasure that I bring you a very special message today from the President ... of the United States. (Hey! That woke up the back row.)

Seriously, this message is from our leader in Washington. I’m not talking about President George W. Bush, though. While I am a registered Republican in a blue state, President Bush and I are not exactly penpals. This message is from another George. Another “Dubya,” in fact. The message I have here comes from President George Washington, the Father of Our Country ... and our first Commander In Chief.

“No measure, in my opinion, will be more conducive to the public weal than the establishment of this Society ... Much is to be wished that each State would institute similar ones; & that these Societies when formed would correspond regularly & freely with each other.”

That letter was written July 19, 1785. The occasion was President Washington’s being elected an honorary member of the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, the nation’s first agricultural society, which was founded five months earlier that year. That Society was the great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great-grandfather of Practical Farmers of Iowa. (That’s 11 greats, if you were trying to count.)

Like you, it’s members conducted on-farm research on their own farms. They had to. There were no land grant universities in those days, no experiment stations, no Extension Service and no Department of Agriculture.

Out of necessity, these men used their own land, their own equipment and their own money to search for answers to problems that plagued them all. What did these early on-farm researchers explore at the end of the Eighteenth century? Many of the same things you are studying today ... at the start of the 21st century:

How to control pests. The Mad Cow Disease of their age, the Hessian fly, was such a problem that King George III banned American wheat from entering Britain in 1788.

How to improve the soil with gypsum and marl.

New -- more profitable -- crops.

Improved livestock genetics.

Better seeds.

The relationship between crop rotation, planting clover and spreading manure. For seven years, George Logan studied crop rotations on family land that had been granted to his grandfather by William Penn. His 14 research plots proved the best rotation for southeastern Pennsylvania included Indian corn, potatoes, wheat, winter barley, clover ... and pasture.

I first learned about the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture 20 years ago when I was asked to speak about organic farming during their bicentennial celebration. I couldn’t believe it. An agricultural society -- in Philly? Yo! Youse gotta be kiddin’ me!

That’s pretty much the reaction University of Pennsylvania history professor Simon Baatz got from friends when he revealed he was writing the 200-year history of the Society. “Most people ... reacted with faint incredulity. An agricultural society ... in that sprawling industrial metropolis where farms and farmers were surely few and far between? In the fifth largest city in the United States? Even if such a society still existed (which it still does), what lessons could we learn from its past of any benefit to the history of science and American social history?”

Quite a lot, actually. Baatz’ book totals 124 pages. “The Society faced problems, difficulties, and challenges similar to those experienced by other scientific institutions in the United States.
First and most obvious, there was the eternal challenge of funding. The search of scientists and scientific societies for patronage is a leitmotif in the history of American science,” the professor wrote.

Even though its members were -- and still are -- among the wealthiest men in the nation, “The Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture was never exempt from the need to present its intellectual concerns, achievements, and aspirations in ways that would generate support.

“For the Philadelphia Society to receive patronage it had to demonstrate its utilitarian function. Much of the Society’s activity in its first 80 years consisted of attempts to display publicly its usefulness to American society: the annual exhibitions, an agricultural college and an experimental farm were all worthy projects attempted with varying degrees of success. The membership of the society was exclusively patrician. Yet because the survival of the Society depended on creating and maintaining a public perception of the Society’s utility, it was forced to eschew a polite science in favor of the muddy reality of American farming and its problems.”

The reality of American farming and its problems has never been muddier than it is today.

When Farm Aid came to western Pennsylvania in 2002, the music was great, as always. But concert-goers and Country Music TV fans got gypped. They missed the real show on saving family farms. That came two days later at a nearby resort. It was the 124th Annual Convention of PennAg Industries, a trade association of 635 businesses that sell seed, feed and chemicals to farmers in Pennsylvania. The theme was:
“Seeking a Balance: Is There Room for Both Large-Scale, Commercial Farms and Smaller, Sustainable Farms?”

The first speaker was a man who does not deserve to be named. He was a former State Department agricultural analyst who has made a career -- and quite a good living -- out of badmouthing anyone who questions the status quo. He told them exactly what they wanted to hear: That we can solve all of our problems with more of the same -- piled higher and deeper. His recent book title says it all -- “Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic.”

On Page 171, under the heading “Lower Yields on Organic Farms,” he mentions the Thompson farm: “The Iowa corn-soybean farm had corn and soybean yields comparable to those of other farms in the area. But ... two years out of five each field was in oats or meadow and thus virtually out of effective production.”

Dick & Sharon Thompson's farm

That guy just doesn’t get it, does he? If the scores of newborn calves I saw prancing around the meadow at the Thompson farm last night are “virtually out of effective production,” we should all be such ineffective producers. With “this week’s tumble in prices,” as ISU market news director Doug Cooper said on the radio just yesterday, it sounds like a splendid time to start raising less corn -- and more hell.

It’s an old problem. In 1844 -- nearly 70 years after the start of the American Revolution -- John Stewart Skinner complained that American agriculture was still too “colonial.” Skinner was editor of a farm newspaper called The Plough, The Loom And The Anvil. "There is a perpetual surplus of corn, and tobacco, and wheat, and cotton, and all other products of the field. It is sold at low prices, yielding little to the producer, while destroying the man with whom it comes in competition."

Just a few years ago, Iowa State’s Neil Harl called our agriculture feudal, and our farmers “serfs.” Guess that makes us farmers the last American Colonists. Everybody else gets the gold mine. We get the shaft. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The answers to our problems have been around for a long, long time, too.

Skinner went on to say: "The plough and the harrow cannot prosper at a distance from the loom and the anvil. A home market is the great desire of every farmer and every planter. Everyone knows that the nearer he can bring his customers to him, the more valuable are his labor, his land, and their products."

Proof of that is reported regularly in USDA statistics. Since just 1990 the farmer’s share of the food dollar has shrunk from 30 cents to only 19 cents, according to USDA.

And that’s why the next speaker at the Penn Ag conference made such an uncommon amount of common sense. Dr. Fred Kirschenmann, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, brought the audience to the edge of its seats. He told them what they needed to hear: You may be next on the unemployment line.

Fully 61 percent of our agricultural commodities now come from only 163,000 very large farms, the majority of which produce under contract, he said. At the other end of the spectrum, we have 1.3 million farms with only 9 percent of agricultural sales. In the middle are 575,000 farms that account for 30 percent of production. Those are the farmers at greatest risk of getting squeezed out of business by low commodity prices and high production costs.

If that trend continues, Kirschenmann said, one scenario for Iowa is that vast areas will be largely depopulated. Only 130 production units of 250,000 acres each will dominate the state.

Will the managers of those mega-farms come to you for their supplies? he asked the input suppliers. No way! Like Wal-Mart, they will buy only from the low-cost supplier -- and you will be out of business. That may happen within 50 years, some experts say. Kirschenmann fears we might have only 15 years left.

“What kind of future do we want?” he asked.

It’s up to producers and consumers to decide, because we are, in fact, “co-producers,” as Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini describes us. We are all in this together. We can stay with a failed economic system of subsidies, or develop new production and marketing systems that are better for farmers, consumers and the environment, as well as new public policies that support communities, instead of commodities and corporations.

Practical Farmers of Iowa started a modern-day agricultural revolution. In the last 20 years, scores of similar groups have sprung up around the United States and other countries. And they now “correspond regularly & freely with each other,” just as President Washington wished they would.

The one I know best is the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. I am a life member and have served on its board of directors for four years. Like PFI, PASA’s main focus is on-farm education, field days and practical demonstrations of more profitable production and marketing systems. But like the Philadelphia Society before it, PASA quickly learned the hard way that we ignore politics at our own peril.

The factory hog farm lobby tried to sneak into Pennsylvania a few years ago by proposing an amendment to our Right To Farm law. PASA members blitzed key legislators. Our food customers joined the fight.

Legislators, it seems, take public comment as seriously as a heart attack. They figure that for every person who makes a phone call, writes a letter or sends an e-mail, at least 100 more feel exactly the same way. The fight went right down to the wire. After 15 straight hours of bickering, the House adjourned at 12:30 a.m., on Thanksgiving Day, without a vote and the bill was dead.

A similar stunt almost worked last year when much the same language was slipped into a popular crime bill that few legislators bothered to read closely. PASA rallied the troops again. And the governor killed the bill with a veto.

And that’s just at the state level. Imagine what’s going on right now at the national level. The Washington Post reported last week that the number of registered lobbyists has doubled since the year 2000. We now have 34,785 registered lobbyists in our nation’s capitol. Starting salary is close to $300,000 a year. Corporations large and small are doubling or tripling their lobbying budgets. They see the next few years as a rare opportunity to get exactly what they want from Washington.

With work starting on a new farm bill, all of us involved with sustainable agriculture need to be represented as much as possible. I have a hunch we will be.

Of the hundreds of photographs I’ve shot of Dick Thompson over the years, my favorite photo shows Dick behind a podium at USDA headquarters in Washington, explaining his practical -- profitable -- farming system. Over his right shoulder towers the American flag and a life-sized portrait of President Ronald Reagan. Before him, various under-secretaries and government scientists sit around a big table scratching their ... unbelieving ears.

Mr. Thompson went to Washington. Washington listened. And today we have SARE, Kathleen Delate at ISU and at least 100 other very good things that we couldn’t even begin to imagine 20 years ago.

Wendell Berry says eating is an agricultural act. Chef Alice Waters says eating is an economic act. They’re both wrong, or at least only partially right. Eating is the ultimate political act. How we Americans spend -- or don’t spend -- our food dollars speaks louder than the levers we pull in voting booths.

With your practical focus on people, profit and permanence in agriculture, Practical Farmers of Iowa has more going for it than the Philadelphia Society ever did. Why, just the Thompsons’ 2005 annual report is nearly twice as long as the Philadelphia society’s 200-year history. Remember, the Philadelphia society was made up of the landed gentry and soon ended up farming the farmers. That’s why in 1823 a rival farm group wrote in its constitution that all of its officers “shall be PRACTICAL FARMERS.”

So, when PFI’s bicentennial rolls around 180 years from now, I have a hunch there will be a lot more to celebrate. You may even get the president at the time here for the party. Who knows? That’s the funny thing about our government. When people lead, sooner or later, our leaders follow, starting with President Washington.