He Was Growing Cover Crops Before Covers Were Cool

Iowa Farm Scene

Iowa lost one of its pioneers in sustainable agriculture, Dick Thompson, co-founder of Practical Farmers of Iowa, who died Aug. 17 at age 81.

Published on: August 27, 2013

Interviewed for an article in Wallaces Farmer in 2003, Dick explained why he decided to change to what he described as "a more balanced farming system" in 1968. He wanted to move to a sustainable system, one that reduced erosion, improved soil health and saved him money. In 1968 he switched from a continuous corn and a corn-soybean rotation and went back to using a crop rotation of corn-soybeans-corn-oats-hay.

Thompson was one of the first farmers in his area to reduce the use of purchased chemicals, and thus he raised eyebrows in his community. "Our withdrawal from chemical inputs did not speak to our neighbors," he said. "Most of our financially stressed farmers perceived the change too extreme, too much too fast."

Experimenting with new rotations and new ways to build soil, he was planting cover crops and experimenting with various kinds of cover crops in different management systems long ago. Attending his field days over the years, I remember how he would explain cover cropping and the need for cover crops. Hardly any farmers were planting cover crops back then. Today acreage in cover crops is growing by leaps and bounds.

Dick and Sharon hosted many field days for PFI on their central Iowa farm

Dick Thompson was way ahead of the rest of agriculture on use of cover crops. He tested fall-seeded oats and rye in his ridge-tillage system. His research reports told of failures as well successes. Some of his work had financial support from the Rodale Institute and some came from Jean Wallace Douglas, by way of the Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture. Thompson worked closely with USDA researchers and those from nearby Iowa State University in Ames.

The family made a wonderful arrangement for the casket that illustrated Dick's corn-soybean-corn-oats-hay rotation. Pallbearers were all PFI members: Vic Madsen,

Ron Rosmann, Tom Frantzen, Dave Williams, Larry Kallem and Dick's neighbor Jeremy Gustafson. As I talked with folks who knew Dick quite well, they recounted how he influenced their thinking, not just about farming but about life.