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

Buried in his bib overalls, Dick Thompson was first and foremost a farmer. But he thought like a top-notch researcher. The casket was open and he was wearing bib overalls like he always did. When I attended his funeral visitation last week, it was the first time I ever saw someone laid out for burial in bib overalls. It was appropriate. He was there so we could say goodbye to him just as we knew him and will remember him.

Dick farmed with wife Sharon and family near Boone in central Iowa for many years. He died August 17 at age 81. He was co-founder of Practical Farmers of Iowa in 1985. A believer in on-farm research and sharing information with everyone, he and Sharon hosted 41,000 visitors to the farm and conducted 52 research projects since 1987. Visitors from all over the world came to the 300 acre diversified crop and livestock farm to listen to Dick and learn about his research. The Thompsons also gave talks in other countries sharing their thoughts on alternative farming methods and sustainable ag.

MASTER FARMER, MASTER RESEARCHER: Dick and Sharon Thompson hosted 41,000 visitors to their crop and livestock farm near Boone in central Iowa over the years. Dick co-founded Practical Farmers of Iowa in 1985 and since then conducted over 50 research projects on the farm. He experimented with crop rotations, new ways to build the soil and much more. Besides hosting PFI field days, Dick and Sharon traveled worldwide presenting seminars on alternative agriculture.
MASTER FARMER, MASTER RESEARCHER: Dick and Sharon Thompson hosted 41,000 visitors to their crop and livestock farm near Boone in central Iowa over the years. Dick co-founded Practical Farmers of Iowa in 1985 and since then conducted over 50 research projects on the farm. He experimented with crop rotations, new ways to build the soil and much more. Besides hosting PFI field days, Dick and Sharon traveled worldwide presenting seminars on alternative agriculture.

Dick was most at peace on his farm wearing bib overalls and working with his on-farm research trials

Dick and Sharon were named Iowa Master Farmers by Wallaces Farmer magazine in 2003. So I did see him in a suit and tie once -- at the Master Farmer Awards Day luncheon. He was most at peace on his farm wearing bib overalls and working with on-farm research. Dick was named a Master Farm Researcher by PFI when the organization began that award in 2013. Dick last presented some of his research results at the 2013 PFI Annual Conference in Ames.~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~

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.~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~

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."~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~

Thompson helped the Leopold Center at ISU become a reality, says Kallem. "Dick became an example of the kind of non-political but very scientific way of approaching ag research that worked with the land, which was in-tune with the kind of stewardship ethic that most of our religions teach. It became the land ethic which prepared the groundwork for the Leopold Center to be established."

Thompson's on-farm research and quest for farming sustainability is based on replicated, randomized test strips

In 1987, Dick's farm was profiled in the landmark book, Alternative Agriculture, published by the National Research Council. The council reported on the role of alternative farming methods in production agriculture and was chaired by John Pesek, who for many years was head of the agronomy department at Iowa State University. Thompson kept meticulous records, conducting numerous trials and collaborating with university researchers. He led by example and shared his findings at field days. He preferred the term "alternative" rather than "sustainable" agriculture because alternative was less threatening. He called his alternative ag system "just another way to farm."

At his PFI field days and when giving presentations, Dick Thompson explained his reason for doing the on-farm testing: "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. 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."

At the end of his field days or at the end of one of his talks explaining his research results, Dick Thompson frequently added, "That's the latest word, but not the last word." In the future, you'll be hearing more from PFI about Dick's research and how others are continuing it. Go to the PFI website.