A farmer and master on-farm researcher, Dick Thompson died on Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013, at Israel Family Hospice House in Ames. Dick, 81, was the co-founder of Practical Farmers of Iowa and a guiding light for the PFI organization since its founding in 1985. He farmed with his family near Boone in central Iowa. Dick and his wife Sharon were named Iowa Master Farmers by Wallaces Farmer magazine in 2003.
Dick and Sharon hosted more than 41,000 visitors and conducted more than 52 research projects on their farm since 1987. On-farm research is at the heart of Practical Farmers of Iowa's farmer-to-farmer organization, and since the organization's inception, Dick led the way. Dick and Sharon were recognized as Master Researchers of Practical Farmers in 2013, and Dick last presented his research results at the 2013 PFI Annual Conference in Ames.
PFI began an Iowa Master Researcher Award for its members and the first such awards were presented in February 2013. Eleven members of PFI were selected to receive them, including Dick and Sharon Thompson.
In 1968 Dick Thompson decided to develop a more sustainable way of farming
Interviewed for an article in Wallaces Farmer in 2003 when he was named a Master Farmer, Dick Thompson explained why he decided to change to what he termed "a more balanced farming system" in 1968. He said he wanted to move to a more 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 purchased chemicals, and thus 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 to be too extreme, too much too fast."
While Dick Thompson was clearly first and foremost a farmer, one might argue that he had all of the qualifications of a topnotch researcher. Since 1986, he experimented with new rotations and new ways to build the soil. Much of his work with PFI was to spread the word about what he and other innovators were doing.
Dick and Sharon hosted many field days for PFI on their central Iowa farm
Dick raised crops and livestock with his family. In addition to hosting many field day events for PFI, he and Sharon traveled worldwide presenting seminars pertaining to farming and agriculture. In earlier years Dick was a 4-H leader and helped with the 4-H swine department at the county fair. He served on the Boone County Fair Board and as a Soil and Water Conservation District Commissioner for Boone County. His life was his farm and he loved agricultural research.
According to Dick, "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 added: "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."
"Dick Thompson was a curious, highly principled, wise and humble man," says PFI co-founder Larry Kallem. "He was exceedingly generous with the knowledge he gained in a lifetime of on-farm research into profitable and constructive farming practices. He mentored many hundreds of people and affected the lives of thousands, some of them in other parts of the world, as they sought to follow what he did. He changed lives for the better."
Dick Thompson was a skilled teacher as well as a listener and learner
Jeff Klinge, a farmer and Practical Farmers board member, says that Dick's "recordkeeping and willingness to share it set an example for us all. Dick had great people skills and was both a teacher, and listener and learner. He was a key personality in our lives." According to beginning farmer James Frantzen, "Dick will forever be in our hearts and memories as PFI grows another 25, 50, 100 years."
Dick and Sharon farmed with their son Rex on a diverse 300-acre crop and livestock farm. Dick and Sharon started farming in 1958 with high inputs of purchased fertilizer, herbicides and insecticides that were required with their continuous corn program. In 1968, they changed back to a corn-soybeans-corn-oats-hay rotation. Among their most well-known studies was a comparison of labor and management return for their five-year rotation, which they showed to be continuously more profitable than the return for corn-soybean rotations in Boone County from 1988 to 2012. To view Dick's research results, visit the PFI website.
Funeral services will be Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013, at 1:30 p.m. at Central Christian Church in Boone. Dick was preceded in death by his parents. He is survived by Sharon; three sons: Roger and wife Barb, Rex and wife Lisa, all of Boone, and Ryan and wife Duanna of Ogden; a daughter Renae VanZee of Ankeny; 11 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.
Friends may call at the Central Christian Church, 803 Greene St., Boone, on Tuesday from 4 until 8 p.m.; the family will be present from 6 to 8 p.m. Visitation on Wednesday morning will be at the Schroeder Memorial Chapel in Boone, at Sixth and Marshall Streets, from 8 to 11 a.m. and then at Central Christian Church from 12:30 p.m. until service time at 1:30 p.m. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be directed to the family for a memorial to be decided at a later date.
Founded in 1985, Practical Farmers of Iowa is an open, supportive and diverse organization of farmers and friends of farmers, advancing profitable, ecologically sound and community-enhancing approaches to agriculture through farmer-to-farmer networking, farmer-led investigation and information sharing. Farmers in the PFI network produce corn, soybeans, beef cattle, hay, fruits and vegetables, and more. For additional information, call (515) 232-5661 or visit the PFI website.