Imbedded in the older generations of farmers here in Iowa are certain skills that were practiced and understood and shared. This was before the introduction of the post WWII chemical companies that in time would become the seed companies. There was a bona fide love of the land, and with it, a celebration of rural community and of family. A future for the American family farmer that transcended the introduction of commercial agriculture corporations.
The Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), based in Ames, have been in the business of getting the American family farmer back on this track for the past 25 years. When I looked for a non-profit in sustainable agriculture to highlight, I was immediately impressed by PFI because politically, they’ve got the balance right. The Practical Farmers of Iowa are endorsed by both the Farm Bureau (conservative) as well as Farm Aid (Willie Nelson, Neil Young, etc.).
“We have a hugely diverse audience,” explained Executive Director Teresa Opheim. “Conventional farmers down to bio-dynamic farmers, fruit and vegetable farmers, corn and soy bean farmers – and what really brings them together is an eagerness to learn, to try new things on their farm, to improve their farming systems [and] an openness to share information with each other.”
Which is where “Field Days” come into play, such as the PFI Grazier’s Day Event held recently on the Koether family cattle ranch in McGregor, Iowa. Here farmers from across the state congregated to witness demonstrations on how to bring their operations chemical free, the importance of building soil, as well as the joys of old-school herd dog demonstrating.
I spoke with young, conventional dairy farmer Adam Martins, who was genuinely impressed with what he saw. When asked if he saw organic, holistic farm management as a viable option, Adam responded, “I really like this method – it’s a lot more practical – taking cows and putting them out [to pasture] – it’s better for the ground, it’s better for the cows.”
One of the differences between conventional and sustainable (grass fed) animal agriculture, can be measured in the longevity of the maternal animal’s life span, which observers note can be three times longer utilizing a sustainable production system.
While few people would argue the merits or the methods of organic farming for both the animals and people involved, the real question comes down to the brass tax – profitability – or as local farmer Craig Tritten noted during a question and answer session out on the ranch, “You’ve got to do something besides building soil – you’ve got to stay alive, too.”
The man with the microphone, six-generation cattle rancher Greg Koether, who took his family ranch organic back in 1982, responded, “Hopefully, at the end of the day, at the end of the season, you put just as many pounds on those cattle, even though you’ve used them as a tool for a few days, the ground’s better for it, and the cattle are as good or better than they would have been … grazed on that short grass we used to think was proper.”
When you talk about demand, the pendulum is finally starting to swing in favor of organic farmers, as seen most readily in the market price of milk which has dropped in the past year from $23 to $9 per hundred pounds, for conventional milk, versus $30 to $28 for organic milk, respectively. A trend that has brought some relief to PFI member and local organic dairy farmer Dan Beards. When asked how he saw the future of the American family farm, Dan explained, “Well in our particular case, I think it looks great.”
“Because you’re thinking long-term and you’re using a set of guidelines to make decisions,” expounded Greg Koether. “And those guidelines are essential – especially in today’s [economic] climate … In this ultimate pursuit of a goal that you’ve set out – that’s what holistic resource management is all about.”
Asked what the ultimate goal of his family run ranch is, Greg smiled before answering in one, quick sentence. “That’s easy; to work as closely as possible with mother nature, in order to create a sustainable and profitable food production system, while providing a quality lifestyle for future generations.”