Holding on to the family farm
As a fifth-generation Iowa farmer, Jeff Klinge's primary motivation for going organic was to find a way to boost profitability without expanding his acreage. But he's found there are other rewards as well.

By Laura Sayre
Posted March 17, 2005


Jeff Klinge & Deb Tidwell, Farmersburg, Iowa

Organics in Iowa:
Clayton County

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 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."

Part 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.

"I 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 grains."

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 his soil.

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.

"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."

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 conventional farm.

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.

Getting political

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 (www.landstewardshipproject.org), have traveled to Washington, D.C., for meetings and briefings and stay abreast of agricultural legislation and appropriations as they 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.

"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."

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."

Market issues

At the moment, Klinge markets his soybeans through Stonebridge 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 stable."

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 year.)

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 facilities there.

"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."

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."