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5/28/2017 A Practical Farmer Who Showed the Way - The New York Times

A Practical Farmer Who Showed the Way


ByMarkBittman September 3, 2013 9:00 pm

Mark Bittman on food and all things related.

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 farmers 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


Thompsons fathers methods, including a crop rotation of corn, oats, hay and

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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 dont 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
farms 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

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is truly intensively chemical, intensively wasteful and intensively destructive of


land, air, animals, even diet has become ubiquitous.

Yet its 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 farmers 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 whats
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.

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Supporters of intensive agriculture will say that big, monocultural farms


make more money because theyre able to make better use of labor and capital
resources. Dick Thompson showed this isnt 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 cant afford to do that.

And thats 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.

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