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

An unassuming guy, Dick was deeply religious and he studiously applied scientific principles to what he did on his farm. He had a master's degree from Iowa State University in animal science. He and Sharon and son Rex (who farms the farm today) raised hogs and cattle, fitting with their diversified crop rotation and allowing them to get by without using commercial fertilizer and hardly any pesticides.

The Thompson farm is not an organic farm; but rather it's a sustainable farm

Using ridge till, cultivation and crop rotation to control weeds, instead of relying on herbicides, the system and various practices he used were similar to an organic farm, but the Thompson farm is not an organic farm. When necessary Dick used spot treatments of herbicides, spraying field areas where weeds were getting out of control. In some years he made late-spring applications of nitrogen fertilizer to corn.

Dick tested and adopted Bt corn, genetically modified to protect against insects. USDA organic standards don't allow genetically modified crops. Sewage sludge isn't allowed either if you want a farm to be certified organic. The Thompsons have for many years applied sludge to their land to help build soil fertility instead of buying commercial fertilizer. They haul sludge from the City of Boone's waste treatment plant and mix it with livestock manure to create compost and then apply this mix to their cropland.

Over the years, applying the sludge/manure mix and also plowing down clover and alfalfa increased the farm's soil organic matter a lot. Fields on this farm are generally about 6% organic matter content now compared to 3% organic matter for many of the neighboring farms.

His work focused on improving soil health, preventing soil erosion and managing crop nutrients

Dick is remembered by the other co-founder of PFI, Larry Kallem. "Dick became a spokesman for a way of farming that offered an alternative to conventional farming. People came to his farm from all over the world to see how he did things; to learn about his system of alternative agriculture. Dick influenced thousands of people."