Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Outsmarting the Drought :: Dick Thompson

Dick Thompson is a man that I've never met, but he is one that I have often read about. Mr. Thompson was the founding force behind Practical Farmers of Iowa and still is deeply involved in the research and field studies down in the organization. In the article linked below he shares how he beats the drought through diversification instead of relying on crop insurance and other payments. I think this statement of his from the article sums it up best, but you should read the whole thing for yourself ...
"In 1988, our bean yields were 17 bushels over county average, our corn yields were 27 bushels over county average - so, I rest my case."
I think our farmers and the entire country would benefit from Mr. Thompson's approach, but those are just my thoughts ... let me know what you think!

Having a Profitable Farm Year, Rain or Shine


Rich said...

I've read about his farm online on sites like the Rodale Institute, and his ideas are interesting but you have to realize that he also has some unfair advantages that a lot of farms don't have.

He stopped buying fertilizer, but he was getting bio-solids (or sludge) applied to his farmland for almost free from the local town. Bio-solids might make a farm more profitable and might be a good source of nutrients, but it isn't readily available to everyone. Of course, that doesn't mean that his ideas about crop rotation aren't valid.

I can already see the difference in my fields from my simple rotations (and converting to no-till doesn't hurt). And, as my confidence builds and if we get some decent rains sometime in the future, I think I will see even better results (I'm chomping at the bit waiting for a wet summer so I can double crop some sorghum-sudangrass after the wheat, and rotationally graze it over the summer to really build up my organic matter levels)

I bought crop insurance for the first time last fall after last summer's drought, because I couldn't afford to take the loss of planting a wheat crop and not harvesting anything.

It was a hard decision to make, but it was either buy insurance to cover my expenses, or not plant any wheat and give up that part of my income. If I lived in corn country, it would be an even harder decision to make, and I would probably be making the decision to buy insurance every year.

At least I had a few options that some farms don't have, I could have waited to plant grain sorghum the following spring, I could have hoped for a little rain and grazed the volunteer ryegrass and then the crabgrass that would have came up in my fields, or I could have planted something for hay the following summer.

It's hard enough to plant wheat and only having the options of grain-only production, grazing-only production, baling it as hay, or a dual purpose goal of grazing and grain. I can't imagine only having the option of planting corn and harvesting it as grain.

Ethan Book said...

Sure the "human fertilizer" makes a difference and each area of the country has different difficulties to face. But, I think the key here is that in his location and with his resources he diversified and makes do with what works for him.

Maybe he won't do as well on grain this year, but his hay will bring a mint if sells it and for a while at least he was probably doing well with his cattle.

The thing I find most interesting (or sad) is how the different agricultural organizations are at odds with each other on some major issue. When ethanol is discussed you have the corn lobby really excited and the cattle organizations worrying about raising prices ... interesting ...

Anonymous said...

My grandfather (a Scot who moved to Vermont) believed in maximum diversification. He made it through the Depression without anyone in his family realizing there even was a Depression.

I am only on an acreage in Iowa, but try to emulate my grandfather's principles.

Firstly, we bought on a piece of ground that has a spring and well. They are still going strong enough to keep my vegetable garden producing everything as normal.

Secondly, I rotate all crops I grow, even within the vegetable garden.

Thirdly, no manure or garbage (as opposed to trash) ever leaves the farm. Some manure can be used immediately (rabbit or goat) and some manure and all garbage must be composted for a while, but all ends up back in the growing areas.

Fourthly, diversification of crops is essential. The drought has given me bumper crops of grapes, raspberries, and herbs of all kinds. Wet years produce more orchard fruit and greens. I don't stop at just those crops, though. I tap my maple trees for syrup in the winter and collect and process wild fruits (plums, wild raspberries, etc).

I have had goats, rabbits, and hens. If space allowed, I would add pigs and sheep. (I would pasture both, using strip grazing and rotation of animals through the grazing strips.)

Fifthly, my farm buildings are set up for maximum ventilation in the heat, but can be closed up tightly against prevailing winter winds.

Sixthly, labor is an intensive effort. To keep layer production up, for example, I put out gallon jugs of ice for the hens on days over 93 degrees. I also keep the layers' water cold and replenish it frequently. This keeps egg production steady. Conversely, I provide light, heat, and unfrozen water in the winter. Summer or winter, I collect eggs multiple times a day to ensure maximum freshness.

If any of these ideas can help some smaller farmers, please use them. I know it's different for soybean and corn producers with huge plantings, but surely at least the rotation would help.

And may it rain upon us all soon.

Farmer Doug said...

Great information - and extremely detailed at that! Thanks so much for sharing.

"Farmer Doug"
Ladysmith, B.C. Canada

Julia Emmers said...

I think that crop diversification is just as useful and sensible as eating healthy and exercising. You don't do it because it guarantees that you will never have a health problem, you do it because it greatly decreases the chances of those problems. I still feel safer (especially with larger operations) having some kind of crop or agribusiness insurance on top of understanding your areas climate and soil, and knowing your crops.

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