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."
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,"
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
"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
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,"
"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
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
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 (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."
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
"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."