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
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 dead.
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 good."
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 tune."
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 Midwestern farmer.
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 enthusiasm.
"People are thinking grass-based
agriculture can be a bridge between prairie ecology and prairie
"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 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 pigs
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 livestock feeds).
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 selection
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 more efficiently.
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
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
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