October 14 , 2004: "This is the mega-research
farm where all the ISU agronomists have their research plots,"
Kathleen Delate indicates as we drive west out of Ames on
Highway 30. The 1,400-acre farm looks like a miniature replica
of the Iowa agricultural landscape: dozens of corn fields,
dozens more of soybeans, a few of alfalfa—the different
varieties evident in slight gradations of color and conformation.
"When I got here, they told me there was no room left."
Instead, Delate (pronounced "DELL-it") was given
field space at another Iowa State University research farm,
known as Neely-Kinyon, 90 miles south and west of Ames in
Adair County. Subsequent new hires in the ISU Agronomy Department
have been assigned research fields on the Ames farm, Delate
notes wryly, but the truth is, despite the drive, she prefers
working at the 160-acre Neely-Kinyon farm.
At a land-grant university heavily invested in biotech, there
are practical reasons for segregating organic research fields.
But that's not the only reason for Delate's preference. Unlike
most ISU research farms, Neely-Kinyon is overseen by a committee
of local residents and farmers who have made an explicit decision
to prioritize organic and sustainable agricultural research.
At the Ames research farm, by contrast, "there's no community
The chain of events that brought Delate to Neely-Kinyon is
emblematic of her position as Iowa's—and the United
States'—first extension specialist for organic agriculture.
The fact that her job even exists is a direct consequence
of public demand. In 1996, a group of Iowa farmers approached
ISU administrators and said they needed better technical support
for organic farming. The university responded with astonishing
swiftness, authorizing the new extension specialist's position
and even inviting the farmers to participate in the selection
process. Delate was hired the following year.
"[Kathleen's] position has
given a great boost of validity and legitimacy to organic
agriculture in Iowa. Ten years ago, when I went to a
meeting and mentioned organic, people rolled their eyes.
Now they don't roll their eyes, they raise their hands.
Organics has arrived."
ISU's extension coordinator for sustianable agriculture
From the moment she arrived, Delate has continued to solicit—and
to act on— input from farmers statewide. Shortly after
she came on board, a day-long Sustainable Agriculture Summit
was held to review research and educational priorities for
Iowa's organic farmers; the following spring, in 1998, a series
of focus groups brought organic and conventional farmers,
extension personnel, and other ag sector representatives together
in six state regions. Delate made these priorities the foundation
of her work agenda and continues to meet with a farmer-based
organic advisory committee on a regular basis.
Grassroots input, in other words—day-to-day contact
with real farmers—is of paramount importance to Delate,
and the impact of that commitment is clearly evident. In her
first three years on the job, she delivered 140 invited public
presentations on organic farming, or nearly one a week. She's
produced extension publications on organic agriculture fundamentals,
on soil quality and weed management in organic systems, and
on growing organic soybeans on former Conservation Reserve
Program ground. Thanks in part to her leadership, Iowa became
one of the top five states for organic research by 2001.
Meanwhile, Iowa's organic acreage has increased sixfold,
from 20,000 acres in 1996 to 120,000 acres in 2004. A recent
survey found that well over a third of Iowa organic farmers
plan to expand their organic acreage. Interest among conventional
farmers, too, is stronger than ever. Delate's office fields
an average of 10 calls a week from individual Iowa farmers
who want to know more about organics.
"I think the greatest impact of Kathleen's work has
been in fulfilling a distinct role of response and service
to the public," says Jerry DeWitt, who serves as ISU's
extension coordinator for sustainable agriculture and works
closely with Delate. "Her position has given a great
boost of validity and legitimacy to organic agriculture in
Iowa. Ten years ago, when I went to a meeting and mentioned
organic, people rolled their eyes. Now they don't roll their
eyes, they raise their hands. Organics has arrived."
Breaking the mold
Delate's position is a joint appointment between the departments
of agronomy (30 percent) and horticulture (70 percent); in
addition, her time is theoretically divided between research
and extension (also a 30-70 split). Delate is not required
to teach classes, either graduate or undergraduate, but in
her third year at ISU she organized an interdisciplinary course
on "Organic Crop Production"—the first course
dedicated to organic farming to be taught at the university.
(Forty-three on-campus students enrolled; another 125 people
signed up via the university's remote-access network.)
Delate came to ISU uniquely qualified to serve both the traditional
agronomic and the specialty horticultural farming sectors.
After taking a bachelor's degree in agronomy and a master's
degree in horticulture from the University of Florida in Gainesville,
she entered Miguel Altieri's pioneering agricultural ecology
program at the University of California at Berkeley. Her dissertation
research focused on the use of wild and weed plant species
as trap crops and as habitat for beneficials. After completing
her Ph.D., she held a postdoc appointment at the University
of Hawaii and then worked as an assistant extension specialist
on Hawaii's Big Island. In Iowa, she's overseeing organic
research in field corn, sweet corn, soybeans, grapes, peppers,
cucurbits, and medicinal herbs, as well as multi-year, multi-crop
organic systems projects.
She also brings to the job a broad cultural fluency. Delate
comes from a large extended family spread across Florida,
Delaware, and the Midwest. As a girl, she spent summers visiting
cousins in southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa. With Midwestern
roots and professional experience on both the East and West
Coasts, she's as comfortable among the hardworking local women
who staff Iowa's small-town extension offices as she is giving
a paper at an international scientific congress. In the past
few years, she's secured grant monies from sources as diverse
as the National Institutes of Health, the USDA, Gerber Foods,
and the Engelhard Corporation.
say that I've got at least four strikes against
me," she says, ticking off on her fingers.
"I'm a woman, I work on organic ag, I do
extension, and I speak my mind."
Nevertheless, you can tell from talking to Delate that she's
in the habit of challenging conventional expectations. "I
say that I've got at least four strikes against me,"
she says, ticking off on her fingers. "I'm a woman, I
work on organic ag, I do extension, and I speak my mind."
(ISU has one of the most widely-respected extension services
in the country, but extension is still considered by some
to rank lower on the totem pole than research.) Even as an
undergraduate, Delate says, she recalls being asked by paternalistic
professors why she was interested in soybeans—wouldn't
she rather study a nice horticultural crop, maybe something
Interestingly, when I asked Delate if she felt she's faced
greater barriers as a woman or as an organic ag specialist,
she hesitated. It was difficult to say. When she arrived at
Iowa State in 1997, there were just three other women on the
agronomy faculty, out of a total of 75 or 80. A couple more
women have been hired in agronomy since, and women have traditionally
been somewhat better represented in horticulture, but big
academic ag still has a long way to go to reach gender parity.
Fortunately, however, Delate is far from alone as she seeks
to convert one of the nation's richest agricultural states
to organic production. The Leopold Center for Sustainable
Agriculture, a public institution housed at ISU and headed
by long-time organic farmer and spokesperson Fred Kirschenmann,
has been a steady supporter of her research. She regularly
collaborates with Jerry DeWitt and other members of the ISU
Sustainable Ag Program. ISU's vice provost of extension, Stan
Johnson, is another key ally. And then there are the farmers
themselves, who seem perfectly satisfied with the organic
ag specialist they asked for and then hired.
An organic research farm
When we arrive at Neely-Kinyon, three of Delate's student
workers are collecting data in a field of cucurbits. Andrea
McKern will be a senior in the fall and has been working with
Delate since her first year at ISU; Vanessa Salvador is a
summer intern from the University of Lleida, near Barcelona
in Spain, where she studies composting systems; David Rosmann,
who just graduated, is the oldest son of Ron and Maria Rosmann,
who farm 638 certified acres near Harlan, an hour away, and
who have been leaders in Iowa's sustainable farming community
since the early 1980s.
At the heart of Neely-Kinyon's
organic research program . . . are the Long-Term Agroecological
Research fields, or LTAR. Delate designed LTAR as a
direct response to research priorities voiced by farmers
. . . Results from the first three years . . . Organic
yields are the same as conventional, but costs are lower,
and thanks to strong organic price premiums—especially
for soybeans—returns are much higher.
The squash field is part of a variety trial undertaken in
collaboration with the organic seed company Seeds of Change.
Other research fields here are dedicated to variety trials
for organic corn, soybeans and wheat, and organic pest management
strategies in peas, beans, winter squash and sweet corn. In
another soybean field, Delate and her students are investigating
the relationships between bean leaf beetles, bean pod mottle
virus, and seed staining, which reduces the value of soybeans
sold for processing into tofu or soymilk. Other fields are
simple production trials: this year, for instance, the Neely-Kinyon
farm put in a small field of flax, a crop once common in parts
of Iowa but now almost unknown.
At the heart of Neely-Kinyon's organic research program,
however, are the Long-Term Agroecological Research fields,
or LTAR. Delate designed LTAR as a direct response to research
priorities voiced by farmers in the 1998 regional focus groups.
The 16-acre field includes 42 randomized blocks of organic
and conventional corn, soybeans, oats, and alfalfa. Three
rotations are being compared: conventional corn-soybean, organic
corn-soybean-oat, and organic corn-soybean-oat/alfalfa-alfalfa.
All are managed according to standard regional practices.
In the organic rotations, composted swine manure from a deep-bedded
hoop house system is applied before corn, winter rye is used
as a cover between corn and soybeans, and additional weed
management is by tractor cultivation and bean-walking. In
the conventional rotation, weeds are managed with herbicides,
and the corn receives urea fertilizer according to ISU recommendations.
Results from the first three years of LTAR were published
in the American Journal of Alternative Agriculture in June
2003. What they found is what's slowly becoming the great
open secret of farming in the Midwest: Organic yields are
the same as conventional, but costs are lower, and thanks
to strong organic price premiums—especially for soybeans—returns
are much higher. Even when organic premiums are excluded,
returns are better in organic rotations except when the price
of compost is high. "Now the farmers say, we knew that,
let's move on, but we needed to get that established,"
A handful of researchers have reported weaker results for organic.
But "you've got to look closely at any side-by-side organic
and conventional comparison trials," Delate cautions. "There's
a learning curve; and if the farm managers don't know what they're
doing it's easy to get poor performance on the organic crops."
Some published studies comparing organic and conventional production
have used inappropriate rotations—eliminating soybeans,
for instance, the most profitable organic crop—and then
concluded that organic was not competitive.
||"you've got to look closely at
any side-by-side organic and conventional comparison trials,"
Delate cautions. "There's a learning curve; and if
the farm managers don't know what they're doing it's easy
to get poor performance on the organic crops."
On the day I visit, at the end of July, Neely-Kinyon farm
manager Bob Burcham is finishing up the organic oat harvest.
He reports that the crop tested at 37 pounds per bushel, with
a yield of around 100 bushels per acre. It's not long past
lay-by—the point in the season when the corn and soybeans
canopy over the rows and farmers can no longer cultivate—and
you can feel in the air the mixture of satisfaction and relief,
the quiet pride in the clean, even rows of healthy plants.
Burcham has been an employee of the ISU research farm system
since 1988; before that he farmed on his own account as well
as holding other jobs. "Neely-Kinyon is a fairly typical
Adair County farm" in terms of its natural resources,
he observes. "The loess here is only four or five feet
deep." An unimaginable wealth of fertile topsoil in most
parts of the country, this is shallow by Iowa standards, where
in some areas the fine, friable soil goes down 20 feet.
The place still feels like a typical farm, too. Sadly, the
university knocked down the old farmhouse rather than bear
the expense of maintenance, but old Mr. Kinyon still keeps
a garden near where the house used to stand, and the tall
shelterbelt trees around the Morton buildings give the place
the feeling of a farmstead.
Later, Delate, Burcham, the students and I all have lunch
together in the local café in Greenfield, and you can
tell by the reception there that Neely-Kinyon is an accepted
and even a valued feature of the local community. People look
up and nod; they don't stare. The waitress flirts with David.
"Neely-Kinyon is becoming
the place to go to learn about organic research. We do get
people looking across the fence."
I try to keep Burcham talking. Delate's arrival in 1997 marked
the beginning of his exposure to organic practices, and he's
become a genuine if soft-spoken convert. Attitude counts for
a lot, he says. "I think if you go into it with the idea
that it's going to work, then it will." "Neely-Kinyon
is becoming the place to go to learn about organic research.
We do get people looking across the fence."
When I ask what he finds hardest about farming organically,
he says, "Not planting in the spring when everybody is
else is out there. And sometimes, seeing other farmers spraying
herbicides from their air-conditioned cabs after being out
all day walking beans or cultivating on an open tractor. But,"
he adds, "you can see the difference in these soils,
you can smell the difference in the tilth."
What farming could be
The next day, Delate takes me down to visit the Rosmanns'
farm in western Iowa. Ron and Maria Rosmann and their three
sons—Mark and Daniel along with David—farm 638
contiguous acres near the tiny town of Westphalia. They've
been farming sustainably since the early 1980s and have been
certified organic since 1994.
Ron Rosmann was on the search committee that hired Delate
and supports her position that sustainable should mean organic,
and organic should mean certified. "A lot of what they're
doing at Iowa State is applicable to organic," he allows.
Mark Honeyman of the animal science department, for instance,
has done a lot of work on alternative swine production systems,
including deep-bedded hoop houses. "But certification
makes all the difference in the world."
Closely involved with the Practical Farmers of Iowa throughout
the 1990s (he served as president from '89 to '90), Rosmann
was among the early agitators for a more organic agenda. Japanese
markets for organic tofu soybeans were just opening up then,
and would prove to be a turning point for organic farming
in the Midwest. "If you use 90 percent less pesticides,
or you're almost organic, you don't get the premium,"
he observes. "And if you don't get the premium, you're
crazy—you're never going to make that much money."
After lunch, all five Rosmanns, Kathleen, Vanessa and I go
on a tour of the farm. It's what would once have been called
a typical Iowa farm: They grow corn, soybeans, small grains,
Sudan grass, and hay; raise a few hundred organic pigs a year,
farrow to finish; and pasture 80 feeder cows. But although
the outlines are traditional, the details are cutting edge:
The Rosmanns' corn and soybeans go into the high-value organic
food processing market to become organic vodka, grits, tortillas,
corn chips, and soybean protein mix. Most of their small grains,
hay, and forage go into the livestock; the meat is marketed
directly to consumers from Des Moines to Omaha.
Delate and the Rosmanns discuss corn varieties and pest populations,
but both crops and livestock—to borrow a word Rosmann
uses repeatedly—look phenomenal. Some people argue that
organics have an advantage in more marginal agricultural areas,
but here you could be convinced that the opposite is true:
Blessed with these soils, why should anyone farm conventionally?
The 'big three' priorities for organic research agreed upon
at the sustainable ag summit when Delate arrived still hold,
Rosmann says: weeds, fertility, marketing. There's also an
increasingly urgent fourth: livestock. "I've been asking
for an organic livestock specialist since I got here,"
Delate nods. In addition, Rosmann would like to see more on-farm
and systems research. He echoes what other experienced, thoughtful,
and successful organic farmers have said to me: Organic management
works, but we barely understand why or how.
The effort to get the land-grant research and extension system
to devote more resources to organics, then, is as much about
pressuring an entrenched system to pay attention to the needs
of its original constituency as it is about improving production
methods. Further adoption of organics depends on attitudes,
not production challenges, Jerry DeWitt told me recently.
||"We ought to have 20 researchers
like Kathleen . . . It's a tribute to the organic community
that we're seeing as many farmers transitioning as we
That means attitudes all along the line, from the research
associations to the financial credit community. Despite her
stellar credentials, formidable energy, and excellent writing
skills, for instance, Delate has to defend her work nearly
every time she submits a paper for publication. "First,
they say you can't compare organic and conventional rotations
because they're so different. Next, they say you should always
have a chemical control. Then they say you can't include the
"We ought to have 20 researchers like Kathleen,"
Fred Kirschenmann had said when we stopped by the Leopold
Center the day before. "Take your typical Iowa farm of
300 to 700 acres. That farmer has given up animals, is dependent
on government subsidies, grows only corn and soybeans, and
is debt leveraged. It's a big risk for him [or her] to make
the transition [to organic], to go three years with no premium.
It's a tribute to the organic community that we're seeing
as many farmers transitioning as we do."