Shelby County, Iowa
Call him the accidental farmer: Ron Rosmann never intended to run his dad's operation. He left the farm and went to college at Iowa State, and although he started out in farm operation, "I didn't exactly like it." He switched his major, and graduated with a degree in biology with a double minor in psychology and sociology. He was applying to graduate schools in 1973, when his dad tried one more time to hook him on the family farm.
"He was going to retire, and I was his last hope for passing on the farm. I told him I would try it for a year. I found I liked working outside; I liked the independence; I liked being in a community where you weren't just a number, but you could make a difference. Then I decided, shoot, I was sick of school." He's been on a tractor ever since. More, with his wife, Maria, and their three children, Ron has been a pioneer organic farmer.
The early 1970s, he remembers, were optimistic times for farmers. "It was the boom years. We thought we couldn’t get enough crops in the ground because the whole world wanted our crops. We were going to export our way into eternal nonending profitability." Then came the 1980s farm crisis.
At the beginning of that decade, Ron invested in a hog confinement operation, and although interest rates were high, his hog operation protected him from some of the worst ravages of the 1980s. Ultimately, however, consolidation, vertical integration, and the growth of big agribusiness worked against family farmers like Ron. "We were at the mercy of a marketplace that was becoming uncompetitive," he says. Something had to give.
Ron isn't one who’s content to sit back passively and react. He's interested in the political and social affairs of rural America. In 1986, he helped found the Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), whose mission is to "research, develop and promote profitable, ecologically sound, and community-enhancing approaches to agriculture." From his background in biology, Ron has retained a curiosity about how things work—and a healthy skepticism for unproven methods.
As a result, he's always been an innovative farmer. Although he farmed conventionally and ran a 1,500-hog confinement operation, he was always willing to put new ideas to the test: He was an early proponent of crop rotation, and he built his confinement shed to operate on solar power and used straw bedding long before others adopted the practice. In the same spirit, he began to question the excessive use of petrochemicals on the farm.
"I never liked using pesticides for the health reasons. You couldn’t wear gloves and get the nozzles clean, so you were always drenching your hands in the stuff. I never got sick from it, but some people had extreme symptoms. It scared me."
Moreover, the tight margins of the 1980s provided a strong economic incentive to experiment with new methods. Ron and his colleagues at PFI began exploring what he calls low-input sustainable agriculture: "We were trying to decrease our cost of production, do less harm to the environment and ourselves, and increase our net return." At the time, Ron recalls, "organic was a four-letter word," but their research inevitably led them to organic farming processes. In 1983, Ron "went cold turkey on herbicides and pesticides" on his crops. But without a developed consumer market for organic produce, he and early converts like him sold their products to conventional markets. In the early years, he remembers, his only organic customers were a busload of Japanese buyers who came through the county to source a supplier of organic soybeans.
Slowly, however, consumer awareness caught up to mavericks like Ron. Today, demand for organic foods are higher than ever before, fueled by people who, like Ron, want cleaner, healthier food, and a greener planet. "Our goal is to create the highest quality, safest food possible to eat—and we eat it ourselves. That has been our goal all along."
After he felt comfortable growing organic crops, Ron turned his attention to his livestock. In 1990, he started a rotational grazing program with his beef cattle. The science behind raising organic livestock is that when animals live normal lives and eat a typical, healthy diet, they develop strong immune systems and enjoy improved health. Only in crowded systems, where animals are herded together into unsanitary holding tanks does it become necessary to introduce drugs to prevent disease. Frightening diseases like Mad Cow are directly attributable to factory farming practices. Unlike organically raised cows, these animals are fed animal byproducts and distributed rapidly throughout the industrial food chain.
On his farm, Ron noticed the difference right away. "These are contented animals. They’ve got all this fresh grass with rotational grazing, and the calves are growing like crazy. They have the slick hair coats. They're happy." Still, he worried at first that his cows would get sick without drugs. Early on, he tested the herd for worms, and he expected the worst: that without their usual dose of medicine, he would find a full-scale infestation. Not true. "The tests showed that we’re doing well. After that, I started getting confident in the cow’s own immunities."
If organic practices could lead to healthy cows, why not pigs? A few years ago, Ron learned about the Swedish deep bedding system, an alternative to factory-style confinement. Ironically, Sweden was an early exporter of the factory system—with pigs penned in small, slatted cages and liquid manure removed mechanically from below. Deep bedding takes a different approach. Pigs are separated into social groups and penned together in spacious compartments. Instead of concrete or slats, the pigs bed on layers and layers of straw, which is comfortable, stimulating, and reduces both odors and disease. While he learns the system, Ron has dropped the number of hogs he handles from 1,500 to 50. "There's a whole lot to learn, and there's always something to improve. There's never a boring day." Given the success of his operations to date, it seems likely that Ron’s hog operation will eventually pay dividends.
Ultimately, Ron's organic farm—crops, cows, and hogs—intersects with his desire to promote what he calls "rural justice issues." He figures that sustainable, organic agriculture that provides a decent living for farm families like his can restore rural life. "I was never satisfied just being a farmer; I always wanted to do more than that," he says. "I want to influence change and promote things that we shouldn’t have lost—family farms, small communities, vibrant rural economies, school systems that have kids in them." Today, there's a growing number of consumers who share his dream. The fact that they can actively support it while providing their families with safe, healthy, and delectable organic foods, is just the icing on the cake.