Tom, Irene and James Frantzen
Organic Prairie Pork Producer
New Hampton, Iowa
Ten miles north of Newhampton, Iowa, there's a three hundred acre certified organic farm that looks much as it did when folks settled it in the 1890s. The history of its occupation has been well documented by Tom Frantzen, whose family has worked the farm since the mid-1930s.
For decades the land was managed as a classic diversified farm, a small, family operation raising several kinds of livestock as well as all the feed for those animals. It was a sustainable way to farm and it was the norm until industrial agriculture usurped the model. In the 60s, 70s and 80s, the Frantzens followed that path and farmed conventionally like just about everybody else, but the Frantzen farm today has returned to its roots.
While he’s dedicated to preservation and constancy, Tom Frantzen is all about innovation and experimentation as any good organic farmer would be. "Figuring out what crop rotation works best for our farm and our soils is part of what good stewardship is all about. We have a diversified crop rotation of corn, beans and small grains (succotash, barley, oats and wheat) as well as hay and pasture."
That innovative spirit and intense dedication to the land applies to every living thing on the farm. Several things happened that changed the way they cared for their land and their animals.
In the mid 80s Tom was mixing chemicals to spray on a field when some of the mixture splashed into his eye. Though he washed it quickly and went to the hospital right away, he's still half blind in that eye. "I realized then that this is not the quality of life I want. I don't want to have to wear plastic gloves and a suit just to dig around in my soil because of the danger of the chemicals and the liquid fertilizer that I was spreading. My children were playing in that." He decided to get rid of the chemicals.
From there they began to ask themselves the big questions: what are our goals, where are our values, where do we want to take this farm? Their answers applied not only to themselves and the land, but to the animals that depended on them as well. The animal confinement facilities advocated by the market trends of the 70s and 80s did not fit any of the answers. In 94 Tom and Irene, along with some other farmers, flew to Sweden to look at deep bedded hog facilities and saw what they could do to improve the quality of life for the hogs they raise for Organic Prairie.
Instead of standing on slats or cement in tiny pens from birth to death, the hogs have free run of a naturally lit, airy structure cushioned by two to three feet of straw. While the sows stay on pasture all summer with their piglets, they stay in the hoop buildings over winter, with access to the outdoors if they want it. If temperatures plummet or there's a blizzard, the doors are closed to retain heat and keep the animals comfortable.
The first time they switched hogs over to the hoop buildings, Tom was up at 5 a.m. to check the animals. Instead of the usual melee that would greet him at the door of the confinement buildings-squealing, fighting, bleeding animals-there was silence, broken only by the sound of animals snoring as they snuggled against each other for warmth and comfort.
The Frantzens also raise beef cattle for Organic Prairie. The herd is on pasture year round, though they're fed dried forage in winter months when the pasture is dormant and snow lies deep on the ground. When pasture is in full growth, the cows are moved daily to fresh grass to allow the recently grazed pasture to recover.
Today the Frantzen's continue to ask themselves those big questions and their children-Jess, 30 and Jolene, 27, who are both teachers, and James, 22, who will take over the farm when his parents retire-have been included in that process from early on. Today just about every farming decision Tom and Irene make is made by consensus. They don't just make decisions and say "live with it." They work together as a family.
So it is as a family that they talk about the future of the land. "If something happened to us we do not want our farm broken up or farmed conventionally. We want the farm to remain certified organic and carry into the next generation and generations to come." They've decided to put the farm into a land trust. While this means giving up pride of ownership, it gives them the joy of true stewardship and the peace of mind that the land will continue to be cared for as it should be.