AN OCCASIONAL SERIES ON WOMEN IN FARMING

Leading the way in organic ag research and extension.
Seven years ago, in the heart of corn and soybean country, Kathleen Delate became America's first organic agriculture extension specialist. Since then, she's been working closely with Iowa farmers to increase and improve organic production and marketing. And now she's got tenure.

By Laura Sayre

 

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 involvement."

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."

--Jerry DeWitt
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.

"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."

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 ornamental?

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," says Delate.

"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."
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.

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."

--Bob Burcham

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 do."

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 organic premium."

"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."