The Welsh Family Farm
The late Bill Welsh certified his family’s Lansing, Iowa, farm organic back in the early 1980s. Bill loved to tell the story of the day he decided to go organic, because May 10th of 1981 was one of the worst and best days of his life. He was out planting corn on his farm in Northeast Iowa when his son, Gary, raced out to the field in the pickup with the news that the cows were going crazy. By the time they got back to the barn lot, 4 cows were dead and the remaining animals were tearing around the enclosure as if they were indeed crazy. Twenty-four hours, four vets and help from countless friends and neighbors later, they discovered the culprit: a piece of an empty insecticide bag, a chemical routinely used on corn, had blown into the hay shed and contaminated a bale of hay that the cows had eaten. The Welshes lost 13 cows that day but gained their future as organic farmers.
Faced with the task of building up the soils after decades of devastation from row crops grown with chemical inputs. No small feat. Their first organic crop didn’t look so good, but they were determined and continued to experiment. “We were just bull-headed enough that we were not willing to give up,” Bill would say. It speaks to his tenacity that he stuck with it—tenacity that had its foundation in what became his overarching theme: “We’ve got to stop killing our land.”
Bill molded their operation into the classic organic diversified stock farm, consisting of beef, pork, poultry, and crops. It was the way farms used to be before industrialized agriculture crept over the landscape. All the food for the animals and most of the food for the humans was raised on the farm. The manure from the animals was rotated back into the soil as fertilizer for the next crops.
Along with healthy soil as the basis of their farming, humane treatment of their animals has always been a cornerstone of their organic farm. The Welshes’ chickens are housed in a big, airy poultry barn. Large doors on two sides of the building remain open most of the time, allowing the birds free access to 40,000 square feet of fenced rye grass pasture. The building is naturally ventilated by airbag curtains that open and close according the temperature. The hogs are housed in a straw-bedded building that remains open according to weather so that the hogs can wander freely in and out as they please. Beef cattle are rotated through several pastures in which native Kentucky bluestem grass has been nurtured over the decades and remains healthy and strong as a result. Cattle are fed hay and grains over the winter when the pasture is dormant and frozen.
While the Welshes were firmly established organic producers by the mid 1980s, it wasn’t until early ’97 that Welsh Family Farms and a couple of other producers became the founding members of CROPP’s first meat pool, which grew into Organic Valley’s sister brand, Organic Prairie, in 2003. Through their long history as organic farmers, the Welshes have seen the industry through its birth and its growing pains, into its prime today. Through it all, nothing much has changed for them. When the national organic standards became the rule and organic was baptized by the USDA, the only thing that changed for the Welshes was the paperwork. The long journey was summed up neatly by a shirt the Welsh boys made for Bill on his 80th birthday. The front of it read: “Organic Farmer”. The back of it read, “Organic before organic was cool.”
Bill ran the farm with his son Gary, and now Gary and his son Clinton, carry the mantle for Welsh Family Farm. In 2008, Clint, then 22, was honored with the Generation Organic Award for young organic farmers from Organic Valley/Organic Prairie. The award recognized Clint’s dedication to farming and educating others about organic farming through the open discussion forum he helped found with other area organic farmers.
It’s all good, as far as Clint is concerned. “I wouldn’t have been able to keep working on the farm if we hadn’t gone organic. Kids I went to school with were farming with their dads but had to have another job off farm because the farms weren’t profitable. Being organic, I make a living farming full time. So does my dad.”
The Welsh family was one of five recipients of The Way We Live Award at the 2010 Iowa State Fair. Each year the award recognizes industrious Iowa families who demonstrate a daily dedication to animal agriculture and exemplify farm values derived from hard work and a love for the occupation of farming.