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."
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
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
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,"
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
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
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."