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A sustainable legacy

DANIEL LOOKER 08/23/2013 @ 11:48am Business Editor

A great farmer leader died on August 17, 2013 at the age of 81. Farmers outside of Iowa may not have heard his name. Yet future generations may be quite familiar with the legacy of Dick Thompson.

Thompson was co-founder of Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), an on-farm research organization that lives up to its name.

Thompson's 300-acre crop and livestock farm near Boone, Iowa inspired the founding of PFI in 1985. He gave valuable insight into sustainable agriculture methods to the more than 41,000 visitors who came from many nations to field days and events that he and his surviving wife, Sharon, organized.

The unassuming Thompson defied stereotypes. He was deeply religious, and studiously applied the scientific method to almost everything he did on the farm. Well-educated, with a master's degree in animal husbandry, he came to reject the use of most commercial fertilizer and pesticides, returning to his father's five-year crop rotation of corn, soybeans, corn, oats and hay on the cattle and hog farm that his son, Rex, runs today.

Despite similarities to an organic farm, Thompson's farm is not organic. Thompson tested and adopted Bt corn, which is genetically modified to produce an insecticidal protein. Genetically modified crops aren't allowed by USDA organic standards. Nor is sewage sludge, which the Thompsons get from the city of Boone and mix with livestock manure before applying to their land. Thompson believed that everything taken by crops should be replaced. Over the years, those soil amendments and plowdown clover and alfalfa increased the farm's organic matter to about 6%, double that of nearby farms.

Thompson was years ahead of most of agriculture with his strong interest in cover crops. He tested fall-seeded oats and rye, and acknowledged failures as well as successes in his ridge tillage system. "Rye ahead of corn and manures on top of ridges in the spring is not sustainable," he wrote in his 2009 research report, an update of many years of annual summaries of his work. Some of it had financial support from the Rodale Institute and Jean Wallace Douglas through the Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture. He also cooperated with USDA and ISU researchers.  

Thompson with wife Sharon in 2006.

At times Thompson used spot treatments of herbicides for weeds and he sometimes made late-spring nitrogen fertilizer applications. Even though he kept an open mind about agricultural technology, he was skeptical of the need for large amounts of purchased inputs.

"Using replicated and randomized test strips that run the length of the field and are farmer manageable, has helped us to determine what practices are right for this farm," he said. "Every farm is different; you cannot buy the answers in a bag. What we share is the research from our farm; others have to decide what is doable for their farms."

Thompson's lifelong quest for farming sustainability began one day in 1967 when he was cleaning his hog waterers. He heard a voice telling him to "get along but don't go along." After 10 years of profitable but stressful conventional farming, he had a sense that God was going to show him how to farm.

Larry Kallem, the retired head of a trade group for Iowa's cooperatives, helped Thompson start PFI. After his friend died last week, Kallem described him as "a curious, highly principled, wise and humble man" who "changed lives for the better."

In his last, 2009 research report, Thompson and his family said "This is not the final chapter on sustainable or alternative agriculture."

Yet, as all of agriculture begins to focus more on soil health, conservation and managing nutrients, Thompson's work may be a Genesis.

Thompson is survived by his wife, Sharon, three sons: Roger and wife, Barb, Rex and wife Lisa, all of Boone, Iowa, and Ryan and wife, Duanna of Ogden, Iowa, a daughter, Renae VanZee of Ankeny, Iowa; 11 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. 

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"I like sewage" 08/30/2013 @ 11:16am I like the concept of returning used crop material to the soil. Even looks like he planted a tree or two.

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