A Practical Farmer Who Showed the Way

Posted by in Blog | 0 comments

By MARK BITTMAN

Dick Thompson was a farmer near Boone, Iowa, whom I kept meaning to visit but did not. That was a mistake; he died on Aug. 17 at 81.

He will be missed, in no small part because he embodied the clear, pragmatic kind of thinking for which Midwestern farmers were once known, before so many became beholden to Big Ag.

Thompson began farming in the 1950s and was anything but beholden. He challenged every assumption and, especially as he matured, never accepted the reigning “wisdom.”

But when he first started working his 300 acres, he was a farmer’s son with degrees from Iowa State University and an enthusiastic member of that first generation of farmers to embrace industrial techniques. He set about modernizing his parents’ farm with a vengeance: “We purchased everything the salesman had to sell,” he said, meaning every line about intensive farming and every chemical it took to support it. Ten years later, disappointed with the results — the work harder and less satisfying than anticipated, the damage to land and animals greater — Thompson and his wife, Sharon, began thinking about going their own way, which turned out to be both more progressive and more classical. (The two are inexorably entwined in the future of farming, as far as I can tell.)

They weaned themselves from chemicals; they integrated more of Thompson’s father’s methods, including a crop rotation of corn, oats, hay and soybeans (as opposed to the far-more-common corn only or corn and soybeans); and they integrated animals back into the landscape — a real no-no in the monoculture style that dominates Iowa — eventually producing humanely raised, antibiotic-free meat and pork, which they sold locally.

They were changing to what Thompson called “a more balanced farming system” that reduced erosion, improved soil health and saved money.

Thompson said, “Get along, but don’t go along.” He refused to believe that chemicals (and government subsidies, which he eschewed) could solve every problem that confronted them.

In the mid-’80s he was a co-founder  of the Practical Farmers of Iowa (P.F.I.), and between then and his death, he and his wife showed more than 40,000 visitors how a relatively small farm could support a modern family while stewarding the land. Farming in Iowa is not as monolithic as most Easterners believe, but there are not many shining beacons of sustainable agriculture; Thompson was one.

He was not, however, an organic farmer. He used herbicides when he believed they were necessary, he occasionally augmented his compost with chemical fertilizer, and he was even a convert to BT (genetically modified) corn. But he strongly believed in natural soil amendment through the use of manure and cover crops (and the application of sewage sludge, which the city of Boone was happy to supply him), and he steadily increased the organic matter in his farm’s soil to about twice that of neighboring farms.

He kept impeccable records, allowing him to demonstrate to anyone who cared to look that his relatively low-tech and (by Iowa standards) small farm yielded between $150 and $200 more per acre than those of his more conventional neighbors. He knew, and said, that “Every farm is different.” But he also said, “You cannot buy the answers in a bag.” The farmer, in short, has to know the land; there is no one-size-fits-all.

The arguments that farms must necessarily grow big, monocultural and chemical-dependent were never based on the kind of pragmatic, trial-and-error farming done by Dick Thompson. They were based on the need for Big Ag to sell products, and so successful was that campaign that “intensive” farming — which is truly intensively chemical, intensively wasteful and intensively destructive of land, air, animals, even diet — has become ubiquitous.

Yet it’s clearly not working. Nearly every week new findings showcase the fragility and high cost of the industrialized food system and its inability to deal with the rapidly increasing effects of climate change. Take the Federal Crop Insurance program (F.C.I.C.), for example. In 2011, F.C.I.C. paid out nearly $11 billion, a record, due largely to flooding; in the 10 years before that, annual payouts were around $4 billion. In 2012, the effects of drought forced F.C.I.C. to smash the just-set record: payouts were $17.3 billion.

The program itself is flawed, of course; it rewards risky behavior like planting in flood- or drought-prone or easily eroded areas, where crop failure might not come as a surprise but is compensated anyway. Equally important, F.C.I.C. fails to encourage or even acknowledge that farmers who invest in improving their soil — as Thompson did — suffered far less damage in recent years when bad weather hit.

In almost every Midwestern state, in 2012, 80 percent of crop insurance payouts were because of drought; yet those effects can be mitigated by attention to healthy soil, which should be the farmer’s fundamental craft. A new paper by the Natural Resources Defense Council (“Soil Matters”) describes these issues and ultimately recommends that F.C.I.C. “launch a pilot program that reduces premium rates for farmers who apply low-risk/high-reward farming methods to reduce the risk of crop loss.” Think of this as an insurance policy reduction for the equivalent of nonsmokers or safe drivers.

Not everyone can be a pioneer like Dick Thompson. The last 45 years of his farming career demonstrated that if the “system” will not allow us to do what’s right — that is, move toward sustainability and away from damaging the land — then we need to question whether the system is right. Calling a willingness to question industrial agriculture “pie in the sky” is a form of fatalism that has kept us from moving toward sustainability and resilience for 50 years.

Government programs should not be rewarding foolhardy, risky and damaging behaviors, but rather those that support farmers whose work strives to minimize environmental impact while still providing them with a good living. Farmers, in short, who work with the earth rather than seek to dominate it.

Supporters of “intensive” agriculture will say that big, monoculture farms make more money because they’re able to make better use of labor and capital resources. Dick Thompson showed this isn’t true. It can appear to be true only if you discount the effects this kind of agriculture has on the environment, the human race and other animal species. We can’t afford to do that.

And that’s what Dick Thompson was about: he tried to figure out a system that would work for the farmer, the land, the animals and the customer. This is not an intractable balance, if you think about it. He did. More should.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/03/a-practical-farmer-who-showed-the-way/?smid=fb-share&_r=1