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."
1: A certified organic producer
since 1995, Dan Specht is also a farmer-naturalist
in the tradition of Aldo Leopold. "People
are thinking grass-based agriculture can be a
bridge between prairie ecology and prairie restoration,"
he says. MORE>>
liked the idea of being able to raise crops without being
dependent on the chemical companies," says Jeff
Klinge of his decision to convert to organic production in
the mid-1990s. "It just kind of makes you feel good."
As a fifth-generation Northeast Iowa farmer, Klinge has been
producing mixed grains, forages, and livestock all his life,
and he's got the independent spirit, the massive upper body
strength and the asymmetrical hearing loss to prove it. His
father and grandfather were farmers, his brothers and nephews
are farmers. The barn where he stores his hay is a hundred
years old. He got interested in organics when he decided that
the increased returns would enable him to keep farming his
300 acres, full-time, and still make a decent living.
Klinge's first season as a certified organic farmer was in
1997. What he's realized since then is that farming organically
brings not just independence from chemical companies and the
ability to stay small without taking an off-farm job, but
also the ability to farm the way he thinks is right, without
relying heavily on federal subsidies. He's kept and published
detailed crop budgets comparing the expenses and returns of
organic and conventional management on similar soils. And
he's gotten increasingly involved in federal farm policy debates,
becoming an outspoken advocate of lowering the individual
annual federal payment limit to $50,000, for instance. (The
current limit is $360,000; President Bush recently proposed
lowering it to $250,000.)
"When [Jeff] first got into organic farming, it was
mostly about saving the family farm," says Jeff's wife,
Deb Tidwell, who teaches in the College of Education at the
University of Northern Iowa. "But since then it's become
more of a philosophical thing. I don't think he could go back."
Klinge and Tidwell both say they value the independence, the
intellectual challenge, and the sense of community that come
with organic farming.
Managing the transition
Transitioning was relatively easy for him, Klinge says, because
he had always grown small grains and forages (and had never
used any chemicals on them), so he was used to working with
longer and more diverse rotations. He was happy to give up
chemicals both because he regarded them as an unnecessary
input expense and because of environmental and health concerns.
"I worked for a chemical company while I was in college
at Iowa State," he explains. "I got burned by herbicides
once, and it left me with a bad feeling."
"There's very little
research done on small grains . . . there aren't that many
varieties to choose from. ISU has 10 to 12 corn breeders
and 10 to 12 soybean breeders and one guy working on small
Having experimented with a number of different rotations,
Klinge is currently following a three-crop, five-year cycle
of soybeans / corn / soybeans / barley / alfalfa. He plans
to reverse the corn and beans (corn / soybeans / corn / barley
/ alfalfa) because he thinks growing more corn and less soybeans
will help control erosion. His corn, beans, and barley usually
qualify for food-grade markets. He prefers barley among small
grains because it ripens earlier, it's easier to market and
it produces a better-quality straw. He also uses rye and oats
as cover crops, for weed control and to protect and build
Klinge usually saves his own barley seed and is thinking
about trying to do so for his soybeans as well, but says he'll
need to do some research on varieties first, since demand
for particular soybean varieties varies from year to year
in the food-grade markets. Like many organic grain farmers,
he laments the dearth of public breeding work oriented toward
the needs of organic growers. "There's very little research
done on small grains," he notes, and as a result "there
aren't that many varieties to choose from. ISU has 10 to 12
corn breeders and 10 to 12 soybean breeders and one guy working
on small grains."
For weed management in his organic fields, Klinge relies
on crop rotations, cover crops, a flex-tine harrow and a rotary
hoe. "My weed pressures are different than they were
before transitioning," he notes. Whereas his fields used
to sprout hemp dogbane and wirestem mully, now the troublemakers
are mainly foxtail and pigweed, with buttonweed showing up
some years, and some horseweed in the small grain.
Klinge says he finds weed management more challenging for
soybeans than for corn. He also stresses that "every
year is different." Last year—2004—was a
wet year, making cultivation difficult and narrowing the management
advantages of organic farmers over their conventional neighbors.
It's widely recognized out here that "organic does better
in dry years, conventional does better in wet years,"
as Klinge puts it.
As for pests, Klinge says he believes his crop rotations
and other whole-farm organic management strategies do a lot
to minimize damage. In 2003, for instance, most Iowa farmers
had aphids in their soybeans, but his were not so bad, suggesting
that his fields harbored stronger populations of beneficial,
predatory insects to keep the aphids in balance. He's also
developed a few specific practices for specific pests, like
leaving an uncut strip to serve as a trap crop for leaf hoppers
when he swaths his alfalfa. He got that idea from some research
done by an Iowa State University graduate student in cooperation
with Practical Farmers of Iowa. For a 40 to 60 acre field,
Klinge leaves a strip about 25 feet wide by 100 to 150 feet
long. "One year the leaf hoppers were really bad, and
they ate through that and then reestablished in the field,
but generally it seems to work," he says.
guys let smaller things bother them, because they're working
on such narrow margins. Organic farmers are more tolerant
of some loss. Our yields are a bit lower, but we can afford
it because the crops are so much more profitable."
A lot of the difference in management between conventional
and organic farming comes down to attitude, Klinge emphasizes.
"The conventional guys let smaller things bother them,
because they're working on such narrow margins. Organic farmers
are more tolerant of some loss. Our yields are a bit lower,
but we can afford it because the crops are so much more profitable."
With regard to the much-maligned paperwork that comes with
being an organic farmer, Klinge admits that "it's a little
more than I would like, and I can see how it might be daunting
to people at first." After a while, though, he says,
"it just becomes part of your routine." Having his
farm inspected also took some getting used to. "The first
time I was inspected, I showed the inspector the cleanest
parts of my fields, where I had gotten the best weed control,"
he recalls, "and they suspected I had been using herbicides!
After that, I learned to show the worst along with the best."
Over the years, Klinge adds, the whole inspection and certification
process has gotten smoother. In his first few years, getting
certified through OCIA, he experienced some frustrating documentation
delays; later, after switching to the Iowa Department of Agriculture
and Land Stewardship (IDALS) for certification, he got stuck
when he discovered that IDALS hadn't yet received accreditation
through IFOAM (the International Federation of Organic Agriculture
Movements) and his buyer needed IFOAM accreditation to ship
the crop overseas. Fortunately, those kinds of glitches are
getting rarer as the organic sector matures.
Doing the numbers
Klinge can speak with authority about the profitability of
organic over conventional farming on his farm because he's
got the data to prove it. Beginning in 1997, his first certified
year, Klinge and Tidwell have tracked expenses and returns
on their organic fields versus their conventional fields (while
the farm was still in transition) and then on their organic
fields versus on Jeff's brother's conventional fields on a
neighboring farm. The results have appeared annually in the
Practical Farmers of Iowa newsletter (www.practicalfarmers.org),
and they're pretty dramatic.
In 1997, for instance, Klinge logged a net profit on his
organic corn of $206.72 per acre, versus $29.05 per acre on
his conventional corn. In 2003, his net profit on organic
corn was $147.13 per acre versus $13.94 per acre on his brother's
conventional corn. For soybeans in 2003, the figures were
$96.94 net profit per acre for organic versus a net loss of
$53.34 per acre for conventional. In the same year, Jeff made
$200.33 per acre on his organic alfalfa and $20.69 per acre
on his organic barley, neither of which is grown on his brother's
Klinge's records confirm
what most organic grain farmers understand: Machinery and
labor costs are higher on the organic side, but these are
more than balanced out by the herbicide and fertilizer expenses
on the conventional side.
In general, Klinge's records confirm what most organic grain
farmers understand: Machinery and labor costs are higher on
the organic side, but these are more than balanced out by
the herbicide and fertilizer expenses on the conventional
side. Yields are somewhat lower on the organic side, but this
is more than offset by higher sale prices. Other expenses—land,
crop insurance, seed—are usually about equal.
The missing factor in such a cost comparison, of course,
is federal farm payments, which compensate conventional farmers
for their lack of market profitability, courtesy of the U.S.
taxpayer. Although there's nothing stopping organic farmers
from collecting base payments on their corn and soybeans,
organic farmers sacrifice much of their eligibility for subsidies
by adding non-payment crops like forages and small grains
to their rotations. In other words, the current structure
of U.S. farm programs forces farmers to choose between farming
for good stewardship and farming for maximum federal income.
Faced with the social and environmental effects of such a
system throughout his neighborhood, Klinge has gotten politicized.
Both Klinge and his friend and fellow Clayton County organic
farmer Dan Specht serve on the federal farm policy committee
of the Minnesota-based non-profit Land Stewardship Project
have traveled to Washington, D.C., for meetings and briefings
and stay abreast of agricultural legislation and appropriations
as the bills move through Congress. (Click
here for a report on their most recent trip to the Capitol,
March 6-9, 2005.)
When I ask what's needed to get more farmers converting to
organic, Klinge says without missing a beat, "Commodity
payment limitations and full funding for CSP." "There's
so much money available for big farmers," he laments,
pointing to the online farm subsidy database created by the
Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org/farm)
for corroboration. Even programs like EQIP that were intended
to encourage good farming practices are being hijacked to
fund things like manure management systems for CAFOs, he says.
Klinge advocates the creation of a rule requiring farmers
to have a minimum of a three-year, three-crop rotation to
be eligible for any federal ag program, as well as modest
incentive payments for farmers transitioning to organic. "I've
taken some young farmers around here to meetings [about organic
farming], but it's hard. It's hard to talk a banker into supporting
what they would need to do to transition."
The soils around here are some of the best in the region,
Klinge says, but they're also fragile, subject to erosion
and poorly suited to continuous cropping of corn and soybeans.
The growing popularity of soybeans over the past few decades—encouraged
by commodity payment programs—has been particularly
damaging, he notes. "When I finished high school in 1968,
if you didn't know where the soybean fields were around here
you couldn't find them," he says. "Now they're everywhere."
Although soybeans are not as demanding of nutrients as corn,
they leave behind little residual plant material to protect
the soil after harvest.
all this grain below the cost of production, then we ship
it overseas, which drives farmers in those countries out
of business, so they move to the cities in search of jobs,
and because of that jobs here get moved overseas."
Subsidies hurt rural communities in indirect ways as well,
Klinge adds: "Farmers produce all this grain below the
cost of production, then we ship it overseas, which drives
farmers in those countries out of business, so they move to
the cities in search of jobs, and because of that jobs here
get moved overseas."
At the moment, Klinge markets his soybeans through Stonebridge
Ltd. and his corn through Integrity
Mills and elsewhere. He actively encourages other farmers
to consider transitioning to organic and doesn't waste time
worrying about the potential narrowing of price premiums.
"I think there will always be a premium. Demand is picking
up too, which should balance increased supply. More and more,
we're selling to the U.S. market instead of overseas, which
I'm glad to see, because I think those markets will be more
In addition to his organic crops, Klinge raises non-organic
feeder cattle in a small feedlot for Laura's Lean Beef, a
natural beef company based in Kentucky. He finishes about
500 head a year, buying the cattle as yearlings or younger
(between 550 and 800 lbs) and feeding them for 120-150 days
on purchased non-GMO conventional corn and his own organic
alfalfa. "They're not organic, but I'm getting a good
price," he explains. "If I was purist. . . I might
insist on doing organic cattle, but I think you've [also]
gotta watch the bottom line." (The cattle also supply
the manure that Klinge composts and spreads on his fields,
mostly in the fall on ground going into corn the following
One of the couple's goals for the future is to help expand
local markets for the food they raise. "This is a very
poor county, and it's tough" to have to choose between
marketing locally or figuring out transportation to market
farther afield, says Klinge. Good urban markets in Des Moines
and Minneapolis, or university-town markets in Iowa City and
Madison, are all two to three hours' drive away. "Locally
produced meat should be locally available," Tidwell adds.
"We should have community-based facilities where local
people can have good careers and serve local markets."
With that goal in mind, a few years ago Klinge and Tidwell
joined with other community members to work on a feasibility
study for a regional, state-of-the-art organic meat processing
facility. (The nearest meat processor certified for organic
is in Edgewood, on the southern Clayton County line.) They
identified production priorities, did a market assessment,
and even traveled to New Zealand—where the meat packing
industry adheres to first-class standards for hygiene, worker
safety, and humane animal handling—to tour farms and
"If you're in organics
there's a community of people that get together regularly
to talk about what's happening, what's working, and that's
So far, those plans have yet to come to fruition, but the
project is representative of the practical idealism of the
organic community in this area. Tidwell emphasizes that the
cooperation and idea-sharing among organic farmers and activists
is a major factor in their overall quality of life. "If
you're in organics there's a community of people that get
together regularly to talk about what's happening, what's
working, and that's exciting."
Klinge agrees, adding that he finds organic farming at once
more challenging and more rewarding than conventional farming.
"There's always problem solving in farming, but there's
more in organic farming." "I think we've seen more
wildlife and less erosion since transitioning," Klinge
concludes, looking out over his fields at the end of harvest.
"It's a nice feeling to put in cover crops, to get the
soil covered up for the winter." Fifteen years ago he
might not have thought about that, he says; but being an organic
farmer "changes how the farm looks, and how you look
at the farm."