Clayton County, Iowa, lies along the Mississippi
River in the northeast corner of the state. It's
a rural county, with fewer than 20,000 people,
and it's not a rich county in terms of being home
to people with a lot of disposable income.
But it is rich in natural beauty, with dramatic
limestone bluffs, diverse woodlands of oak and
hickory, and remnants of native prairie sheltering
turkeys, hawks, and other wildlife. Iowa's only
federally-owned preserved land, Effigy Mounds
National Monument, lies just north of here, a
2500-acre swath of ridge and valley where the
Eastern Woodland Indians constructed burial mounds
in the shapes of bears and falcons to honor their
It also forms part of one of the nation's epicenters
of organic agriculture, where the concentration
of organic farms is approaching a critical mass--a
point at which farms of different types, processors
and other members of the ag community can support
and complement one another.
Why here? As the two longtime organic farmers
profiled in this 2-part story argue, because the
area's rolling terrain encouraged more farmers
to keep raising livestock, maintain their pastures
and keep growing small grains. "Most of the
early adopters [of organic] were livestock farmers,"
observes Dan Specht. "If you've gone to straight
commodity crops, it's a big risk to shift to organic;
it's pretty scary. If you're still growing small
grains you have a lot more confidence in your
ability to make a system like this work."
Jeff Klinge is a 5th-generation farmer who's
been certified organic since 1997. "I liked
the idea of being able to raise crops without
being dependent on the chemical companies,"
he says. "It just kind of makes you feel
do really well on grass," says Dan Specht, stepping
over a single strand of electrified wire and moving toward
a group of sows, grunting and squealing among themselves on
this misty late October day. "You can't get the combination
of minerals and nutrients out of a bag that you can get out
of a good quality pasture."
The field we walk out into is divided into three large rectangular
blocks, one at right angles to the other two. On our right
hand the sows and their boar--a mingling of Berkshire, Duroc
and Chester White, breeds that Specht says offers a good balance
of meat quality, maternal aptitude, and affinity for the outdoors--are
being worked across a vigorous green pasture of mixed legumes
and cool-season grasses, currently about 10 inches high. The
pitch of the squealing rises as we enter the field.
"It's good to keep them a little hungry," Specht
comments. "You can tell how hungry they are by the noise
they make when they see you coming." We listen to the
chorus for a few moments, and he smiles and nods. "They're
right in tune."
"It's good to keep
them a little hungry," Specht comments. "You can
tell how hungry they are by the noise they make when they
see you coming." We listen to the chorus for a few
moments, and he smiles and nods. "They're right in
We're here to supplement their pasture diet with ear corn,
drying down in the adjacent block to our left, and the sows
of course know it. As we move through the stalks, breaking
off ears, we get glimpses of young pigs, half wild, running
through the corn and scavenging what has fallen to the ground.
They're small enough to pass under the electric wire keeping
their father and mothers on the pasture, and not big enough
to knock down the stalks and help themselves to the rest of
the harvest. When we throw the ears to the big pigs it sets
off an orderly riot of feeding, the sows chomping away with
Conservation and community
Clearly, this is not your typical Iowa pig operation, although
it's not all that different from what you might have found
here 50 or 75 years ago. In fact it's difficult to say whether
Specht, who is in his early 50s and grew up on a farm two
counties south of here, represents a new or an old kind of
He owns 500 acres spread across two farms, including about
160 acres of native woods. In 2004 he grew 15 acres of open-pollinated
corn, 30 acres of soybeans, and 80 acres of barley. He pastures
60 sows, farrowing about 1000 pigs a year (45 litters in the
winter, 60 in the summer), and grass-finishes 80-90 cattle
annually. He's farmed organically since 1983 and has been
a certified organic grower since 1995. He was among the first
farmers to sell organic pork through Organic Valley/CROPP,
based just across the river in Wisconsin.
He's also a farmer-naturalist in the tradition of Aldo Leopold.
He can identify just about every native species in the prairies
and woods of Northeast Iowa. If he's out moving cattle or
making hay or planting corn, he'll also be bird-watching.
When he describes his seasonal farming schedule he interweaves
items like "wean summer pigs" with "start of
hawk-watching season" (both in September). In his spare
time, he gets together with other members of what he calls
"the eco-ag activist community around here" and
collects and disperses prairie seed.
With a degree in biology, Specht has worked with researchers
at the University of Northern Iowa (including Laura Jackson
and Daryl Smith, director of UNI's Native Roadside Vegetation
Center) on questions like how to use grazing livestock to
encourage native species on intact prairie. "People are
thinking grass-based agriculture can be a bridge between prairie
ecology and prairie restoration," he says, with soft-spoken
"People are thinking
grass-based agriculture can be a bridge between prairie
ecology and prairie restoration."
"Prairie soils and timber soils mix on this farm,"
Specht observes when we arrive at another property, one which
he rents from a woodworker and former farmer whose commitment
to natural resource conservation is every bit as strong as
Specht's own. His landlord, says Specht, "works harder
at taking care of his woods than anyone I know. The farm has
been in his family since the 1940s, and it's never received
agricultural chemicals—and you can tell by the diversity
of plant species here." The landowner specifically sought
Specht out as a tenant because he wanted an organic farmer
managing his land.
Of his own decision to start farming organically, Specht
says, "I just felt it was the right thing to do."
His eyes were first opened to the environmental effects of
ag chemicals by reading Rachel
Carson's Silent Spring as an undergraduate; but
he also had personal experience, as a conventional farmer,
with acute pesticide toxicity. "After I sprayed I would
experience flu-like symptoms for a few days--diarrhea, headaches.
I've seen pets poisoned from drinking water out of the upturned
lid of a chemical container, cattle killed from licking the
seed boxes on a planter," he recalls.
He regularly goes fishing and eagle-watching along the Mississippi,
just minutes away from his farm, and it visibly pains him
to think about the persistent agricultural chemicals--some
of them banned 20 years ago--lying in the sediment beneath
that noble river.
At the same time, Specht recognized that the rolling land
he farms was better suited for forage production than for
row crop production. "I could see going 100 percent grass
except for my corn-breeding," he says, although at the
same time admitting that even dedicated graziers—including
the New Zealanders—believe it's good to keep some arable
in the rotation. "It invigorates a pasture to break it
into grain occasionally. The really productive clovers need
rotating every four to five years."
Breeding open-pollinated corn--and feeding
On the pig farm, Specht has developed a rotation that goes
breeding corn / sow pasture / small grain (generally barley).
Unlike ruminants, pigs do need some grain: About 12 bushels
per pig to a finishing weight of around 250 lbs., he says.
The high price of organic grain has forced organic livestock
farmers like Specht to get creative in their feeding strategies.
He likes barley, for instance, as a feed for larger hogs,
because it has a higher and better-quality protein content
than corn, including more lysine (a limiting factor in many
Small pigs can't digest barley, but hull-less or naked oats
are "almost a perfect pig starter," he points out,
and wheat, too, makes a good hog feed. Specht also makes use
of organic processing by-products--waste butter, cheese, half
and half, and powdered sour cream from Organic Valley's Chaseburg
Creamery across the river, waste organic corn meals from Integrity
Mills in Cresco, Iowa. "There are good deals to be had
on organic by-products," he says, and it's nice to close
the other side of the loop between organic farmers and processors.
then there's his corn. Specht's goal is to develop
a food-grade, milling-quality open-pollinated
corn for a premium market.
And then there's his corn. Each year, Specht grows 10 acres
of production corn and 5 acres of breeding corn, all of it
open pollinated. In the fall, he makes a daily chore out of
selecting the best ears to plant the following season and
feeding the culled ears to his gestating sows on pasture.
"It takes just a third of a bushel—about 24,000
kernels, or about 40 ears—to plant an acre of corn,"
Specht points out, so there's plenty of opportunity to exert
Specht's goal is to develop a food-grade, milling-quality
open-pollinated corn for a premium market. He's been collaborating
with Walter Goldstein of the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute
in East Troy, Wis., who has been breeding OP corn for organic
farmers for a dozen years or more. "Walter's germplasm
is really broad-based, so there's lots to work with,"
Specht explains. "He started with 30 different Native
American varieties, plus an old open-pollinated strain from
an old guy out in Nebraska. I got in after Walter did most
of the hard work."
In company with other OP corn enthusiasts, Specht believes
that non-hybrid corn offers real promise for small-scale,
independent and organic farmers. In the first place, of course,
it saves farmers the expense of buying seed corn every year.
But it also means that farmers can develop their own lines,
locally adapted to their own growing conditions. It offers
added protection against the possibility of GM contamination
of seed sources, and it gives organic farmers, in particular,
access to desirable crop characteristics no longer present
in most hybrid varieties. Trials conducted at Michael Fields
since 1989 have shown that OP corn yields are just 15 to 20
percent lower on average than hybrid yields, but that OP corns
typically have higher protein content and utilize soil nutrients
Because the horny endosperm
is much denser than the inner starch layer, Specht's corn
is heavier than average. He laughs: "[one guy] told
me I'm growing bullets out here."
When making his selections in the field, Specht considers
stalk, ear and kernel characteristics: Is the stalk firm,
straight, not too tall? Does the ear turn down as it ripens,
with the husk loosening? Are the kernels more orange than
yellow, indicating a high horny endosperm and low starch content?
At the end of the season, he goes back through all his saved
ears, reselecting for seed quality, using a dog toenail clipper
to slice open the hard kernels and examine the starch-to-endosperm
ratio. Because the horny endosperm is much denser than the
inner starch layer, Specht's corn is heavier than average—in
fact, it's shown the highest test weight of any corn analyzed
by his local elevator or by Integrity Mills. Specht laughs:
"[one guy] told me I'm growing bullets out here."
Specht thinks he could
be just a year or two away from a marketable, food-quality
OP corn. "I've got what they want but I don't have
enough consistency yet,"
When he has his final ear selection, he shells them out with
a hand cornsheller, keeping the top cut for his breeding field
and using the rest to plant his 10-acre production field.
He also gets it tested for density and for milling characteristics,
working with Integrity Mills to analyze the latter. Specht
thinks he could be just a year or two away from a marketable,
food-quality OP corn. "I've got what they want but I
don't have enough consistency yet," he says.
Grass-fed (organic) beef
Specht's primary cattle grazing farm is a narrow strip of
land stretching for more than mile along one of Clayton County's
characteristic oak-fringed ridges. The 320 acres are divided
into 8 paddocks of varying size, the largest being about 70
acres. Specht moves his herd of 135 head from paddock to paddock
every few days, down one side of the ridge and back the other.
With 8 paddocks, that gives him a return interval of around
30 days, which gives the grass plenty of time to recover in
the lush Iowa growing season.
Specht favors rapid rotations in part for management of internal
parasites. "The organic graziers in New Zealand have
a theory that it takes five days for the worm eggs to hatch
and become strongly infective, so if you keep your cattle
moving every five days or less, you can reduce the impact
of parasites," he explains. For external parasites like
lice, which can be a problem in the winter, Specht puts out
a pile of diatomaceous earth mixed with salt. The cattle lick
the mixture and spread it around with their tongues, eliminating
the lice within a few days.
The grazing farm has dense, south-facing shelterbelts that
enable the cattle to seek protection in cold weather without
barns or sheds, Specht says. He tries to make as little hay
as possible, preferring to stockpile grass and make haylage.
He also occasionally uses the cattle to freshen his pig pastures,
since pigs require lusher pastures than cattle and don’t
eat forage down to the ground the way well-managed cows can.
Specht's cattle are managed organically and are entirely
grass-fed. He buys his feeder cows from an organic farmer
with a cow-calf operation in the next county to the north,
and markets the finished animals through Thousand Hills Cattle
Company, a grass-fed beef operation founded by a man named
Todd Churchill and based in Cannon Falls, Minn. Thousand Hills
participates in the Midwest Food Alliance's third-party certification
system, and guarantees that the cattle it handles are 100
percent pasture-fed, are humanely treated, and receive no
antibiotics or hormones.
"We have doctors
in Minneapolis-Saint Paul who are prescribing our grass-fed
meat for their patients with high cholesterol," he
says with some pride.
The arrangement suits Specht because he knows that his beef
is being sold fresh, not frozen, to customers who value its
quality. "We have doctors in Minneapolis-Saint Paul who
are prescribing our grass-fed meat for their patients with
high cholesterol," he says with some pride. He's also
getting a better price for grass-fed, non-certified organic
beef than he was previously getting for non-grass-fed, certified
organic beef. (A key factor in the grass-fed beef market is
that USDA meat-quality standards are biased toward grain feeding.
The highest grades, prime and choice, are based on fat marbling
that is difficult to achieve without feeding some grain, so
if buyers are grading and pricing according to those standards,
graziers will get lower prices for their meat.)
Ideally, of course, Specht and his fellow Northeast Iowa
organic farmers could develop additional local markets for
their products, and not have to sell beef as far away as Minneapolis.
Specht says he does sense increasing support for organic and
grass-based agriculture from non-farming members of the local
community. Many of the farm veterinarians he knows, for instance,
though they may have been initially skeptical, have grown
increasingly receptive to organic methods. "They have
to deal with the consequences of confinement on a daily basis,"
observes Specht. "They know what's wrong with the dominant
system. I don't see my vet much."
Other people in the community might have less direct contact
with animal confinement systems, but they still perceive consequences.
Awhile back, Specht says, he had a guy out to give a quote
on putting up a grain bin, and when he saw Specht's pigs on
pasture he said, "'now that's good to see. Most pork
doesn't taste like anything anymore.'"