Thinking Outside the Box: Farm Sweet Farm’s 35 years of organic experience means balancing priorities

by Tom Parker

When the charter bus pulled into the driveway of Ron and Maria Rosmann’s farm near Harlan, Iowa, a division surfaced between the passengers that was solidly gender-oriented. The men—farmers mostly—wanted to see the fields first, to inspect equipment, discuss techniques and complain about the weather, while the women wanted to go shopping in Farm Sweet Farm, the retail arm of Rosmann Family Farms. Not surprisingly, the women got their way.

Of the three organic farms in Iowa chosen for the Kansas Farmers Union’s Thinking Outside the Box Farm Tour series, only the Rosmann’s had a retail market selling directly to consumers. The store has been in business for six years and sells bulk spices and seasonings, kitchen gadgets, herbal teas, aprons, country-themed decor, and certified organic beef and pork in various cuts. There are even handmade reed baskets from Tanzania.

The Rosmanns raise corn, soybeans, small grains, popcorn, hay, pasture, cover crops, cattle and hogs on 700 acres. Two of their sons, David and Daniel, work the farm with them, while the youngest, Mark, works for the Foreign Agricultural Service for the USDA in Washington, D.C.. Daniel and his wife, Ellen, also run Farm Table Delivery and own and operate Milk and Honey, a restaurant featuring locally-grown meat and produce in Harlan.

The Rosmanns are known for their diversification, as well as their intensive use of research and experimentation in seeds, animals and agricultural procedures. More than 40 research trials have been conducted on the 700-acre farm within the past 30 years, some with surprising results. Their willingness to assess, appraise, evaluate and experiment were a good fit for tour series, which showcased farms that do things differently.

Outside the Box: Maria Rosmann
Outside the Box: Ron Rosmann
Left: Necessity was the mother of inventing the store: The Rosmanns’ meat sales volume outgrew the capacity of the eight chest freezers they had at the time. The Rosmanns built the store in 2012 on their property for a couple of reasons. “We wanted people to see our farm, with a real farm store on a farm,” Maria said. “Instead of shipping products, we wanted to change eating habits and opinions about organic foods,” Ron said.
Right: Ron Rosmann is a founding board member of the Practical Farmers of Iowa, having served as both vice-president and president. He is a past president and board member of the Organic Farming Research Foundation. The Rosmann family has conducted over 40 on-farm research projects through Practical Farmers of Iowa since 1987. They are conducting a replicated trial testing two varieties of corn that use nitrogen more efficiently and even produce some of their own nitrogen through the bacteria on their roots.

While some of continued shopping, Ron Rosmann led the group past the barns into a shorn pasture and a soybean field. Swallows and nighthawks dived and swooped overhead. “We have birds here, which isn’t something you see at other farms,” he said. He pointed to a line of trees growing along a fence-line. “See those trees?” he said. “We’ve got black cherry, white pine, white spruce, American hawthorn, some red oak, some concolor fir, and some shrubbery, and we keep adding a few trees every year. We’re going to have probably 1,200 feet of two rows of habitat out there.”

Farming organically is farming responsibly, Rosmann said. Providing for wildlife is as important as providing for people. Climate change is not a nebulous concept but a verifiable transformation he has witnessed firsthand over four decades of farming. Winters are warmer now with less snow, summers are slightly cooler but with higher nighttime temperatures, and annual rainfall has increased by four inches. Extreme rain events of two inches or more are becoming more frequent.

Some changes can be attributed to Iowa’s monoculture, he said. Too much tillage and chemical use have degraded the health of the soil, water runoff pollutes rivers and lakes with nitrogen and phosphorous, large animal operations emit elevated levels of methane gas, and the prevalence of edge-to-edge cropping has contributed to the loss of wildlife habitat. “Iowa alone contributes around 43 percent to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico,” he said. “We could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 50 percent if we changed farming practices.”

Outside the Box Tour: Rosmann Family Farm

The farm has been pesticide-free since 1983. It was certified organic in 1994, certified for organic beef in 1998, and certified for organic pork in 2003. Because of the rolling terrain, the Rosmanns incorporate more than 50 designated crop fields based on contours, drainage, waterways, terraces, turn strips and field borders.
Crop rotations are a critical aspect of the farm’s success, Rosmann said.

“Traditionally, the most important rotation for us as organic farmers has been corn, soy, corn, soy, small grains, two years of hay,” he said. “Why do we have corn, soy, corn, soy? Well, I suppose we’re guilty of 10 dollar corn, and 18 dollar soybeans. Because then you can pay bills.”

After 35 years of farming without pesticides, however, those rotations are changing due to the prevalence of giant ragweed. The weed is becoming increasingly difficult to control without resorting to chemicals, and that, Rosmann said, is something that isn’t being considered. “We have no intention of ever going back to conventional farming,” he said. “It’s not even in our thought processes.”

For now they’re experimenting with different crops and rotations, including the addition of hybrid rye. Only six farmers in the country are using it now, but already it shows immense potential. “It could become, if there’s luck in the cards, that third grain we so desperately need,” he said. According to a plant breeder he trusts, European tests have shown that hybrid rye yields twice as much as winter annual common rye, and because of its high fiber content it’s being used in 60 percent of sow gestation diets and from 20 to 30 percent of hog rations from nursery pigs on up. Hybrid rye has also been successful at removing salmonella from chicken egg shell manure.

Outside the Box: Milk & Honey Restaurant, Harlan Iowa
Outside the Box: Milk & Honey Restaurant, Harlan Iowa
Son Daniel Rosmann and his wife, Ellen, also run Farm Table Delivery and own and operate Milk and Honey, a restaurant featuring locally-grown meat and produce in Harlan. Tour participants enjoyed dinner at the restaurant.

Rosmann took them over to a new hog barn built two years ago. Before going organic, the farm raised 1,000 to 1,500 hogs, he said, but there was a concern over continuing that number without using antibiotics. The first 10 years were very good, but then problems started plaguing the operation. Sows weren’t getting bred, the quality of boars was dropping, and experiments with different breeds never panned out.

“I hate to admit it, but we’re down to 140 pigs,” he said. “Some of it is due to too much work. Instead of farrowing in March and April and May, we need to farrow in February and March, and then in late August and September. We simply have to make it work with our schedule. We also have to get those sows bred during that time, and we have to put more time in being here for the farrowing, which we did this spring and it paid off, but then all of a sudden we got busy with field work, calving, because we have all these cows—here comes these excuses. You farmers know what it’s like. You can’t get everything done. Anyway, we’re trying to change that, given enough time.”

“If we didn’t have livestock, it would be totally different,” Rosmann’s son, David, said. Rosmann agreed. “Maybe we’re too diversified,” he said. “So what does the future hold for us here? I don’t know for sure.”

“The future is how much work we want to put in to make it work,” David said. “A lot of what’s happening in agriculture today is how do I make my life easier so I can have a life like everyone else seems to have? And it’s created a detachment from the farm.”

In his grandfather’s day, everyone worked the same hours and did a lot of the same work, and it created a sense of community within the farming sector. Now, the argument for genetically modified crops is that farmers can spend more time with their families and less time in the field. It’s a compelling argument, he said.

“It’s tricky to continue it this way, especially when I have a wife who works full time in Omaha, a two-year-old girl and a baby on the way in September,” David said. “How do we make this worth it so my daughter or Daniel’s kids can either take this up or find another way? We think it’s definitely worth it. We’re not going to quit. I see how we’re leaving the land better than some of our neighbors. I’m grateful that we’re doing things here not just for today, but for the future, because it’s worth it.”

Outside the Box Tour: Rosmann Farm
2018-11-15T17:25:21+00:00