By Tom Parker
As the big charter bus inched into the narrow entrance to Rolling Acres Farm, one passenger pointed to a blue-and-white “Proud Member of Practical Farmers of Iowa” sign and quipped, “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”
Indeed they weren’t, which was a rare thing in itself. For until recently, virtually all field excursions and farm tours sponsored by the Kansas Farmers Union showcased agricultural operations within the state of Kansas. The organization’s latest farm tour series, “Thinking Outside the Box,” amended that tradition to include farms beyond the state’s borders, such as a shrimp farm in south-central Nebraska, and three farms in southwestern Iowa.
The series spotlighted farms that, in the words of David Nees, “have the motivation to try different things and not be afraid of change.” Whether reducing inputs and emphasizing soil health in row crops, increasing diversification, exploring marketing opportunities to enhance market returns on investments, or, in one case, adapting farm implements to localized soil conditions and specialized planting procedures, each farm—Rolling Acres Farm (Atlantic), David Nees Farm (Early) and Farm Sweet Farm (Harlan)—were chosen for their decades of experience and leadership in innovative production and marketing strategies.
The two-day trip concluded with a tour of Farmall-Land USA, Avoca, Iowa, a 26,500 square foot museum featuring 150 International Harvester full-size tractors, pedal and toy tractors, artist’s prints, and other IH memorabilia. Funding was provided by the Kansas Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Alternative Crops, Kansas Farmers Union and a USDA NIFA Food Safety and Modernization Grant.
Since 1976, Denise O’Brien’s Rolling Acres Farm has been involved in organic production and cultivating local food markets.
The first stop was Rolling Acres Farm, owned by Denise O’Brien and Larry Harris. Since 1976 they have been involved with organic production and cultivating local food markets in Atlantic, Iowa, and Omaha, Neb. In addition to producing a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers, they raise antibiotic- and hormone-free turkeys and chickens. She is currently running as a candidate for the Iowa State Legislature.
Compared to the endless miles of corn and soybean fields the bus had passed, the farm was a veritable wildlife refuge. Wooded areas rang with birdsong and the chattering of squirrels. Bees swarmed around the flower beds.
As O’Brien led tour participants to the high tunnels, they passed a greenhouse and several long tables piled high with freshly-pulled garlic. A flatbed trailer was heaped with onions that had been picked that morning. “We’re really pleased with the onion crop,” she said. “They were raised from seed, which we can do now that we have a greenhouse.”
When O’Brien met Harris in high school, he told her that he wanted to be a farmer like his father and grandfather, though instead of conventional farming he wanted to transition into organic. Surprisingly, in the corn and soybean culture of Iowa, his parents were agreeable. Harris’ older brother had already expressed his interest to leave farming so that left Harris to carry on a tradition dating back a century.
O’Brien, on the other hand, knew nothing about farming. She was a city girl, but something about Harris’s plans resonated with her. “Something in me was already there, something that made me want to be a farmer,” she said.
They started with two acres of strawberries, a quarter acre of asparagus, an apple orchard and a you-pick-it raspberry patch. Dairy cows replaced Harris’s cow-calf operation. Three children followed as the farm expanded. Then the dairy industry tanked in 1995, so Harris went to work off-farm as a crane operator, and O’Brien learned how to operate the equipment, make repairs, plant crops and manage the farm’s daily affairs. She was no longer a farmer’s wife; she was a farmer in her own right.
Over the years, they scaled back from 425 acres to 17, but high tunnels have allowed them to grow more in less space. Their signature acquisition, though, was a moveable four-season high tunnel anchored to a pair of rails. Though it looked complicated and heavy, four people could move it easily by hand. In its western position, warm-season vegetables are planted, and in fall the tunnel is moved to its eastern position for cold-season crops. “I can harvest until December or January, when things go dormant,” she said. “In March everything starts all over again.”
Next was Rosmann Family Farms, owned by Ron and Maria Rosmann. Their 700-acre farm, certified organic since 1994, is known for its direct marketing, diversification, and research and experimentation. The Rosmanns raise corn, soybeans, small grains, popcorn, hay, pasture, cover crops, cattle and hogs, and operate Farm Sweet Farm, an on-farm store marketing directly to consumers.
Outwardly, the farm resembled its neighbors with expansive fields of corn and soybeans, but in places dense stands of woods bordered the fields and fence lines were stitched with trees. The trees were provided for wildlife habitat, Rosmann said.
Like O’Brien, Maria Rosmann had no farming experience when they were married 40 years ago. That lack of experience was telling when she chose the date for the wedding: September. No amount of persuasion could make her change her mind, so they were married, she said, “between silage and soybeans.”
The store was Ron’s idea when they ran out of freezer space for the organic beef and pork they were selling both locally and to grocery stores. They built it themselves using repurposed materials and opened six years ago. Two of their sons, David and Daniel, work on the farm, 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.
Experimentation with seeds, procedures and animals has been a hallmark of their operation, Ron said. “We’ve done over 40 research trials on our farm over the last 30 years,” he said. “They’re randomized and replicated, with livestock sometimes, where you can get the results and believe them.”
For instance, rigorous field tests proved that an aphid-resistant variety of beans consistently yielded less than a non-aphid-resistant variety.
Trials comparing conventional till to ridge till showed five to seven times more broadleaf weeds when using conventional till. This year they started experimenting with hybrid rye, a variety that has been found not only to yield twice that of winter annual common rye, but also gets rid of salmonella in chickens and provides a high fiber diet for sow gestation. “It could become the third grain we so desperately need,” he said.
Ron Rosmann’s 700-acre farm is known for its diversification, direct marketing, and research & experimentation. Certified organic since 1994, they raise corn, soy, small grains, cattle and hogs and run an on farm store marketing directly to consumers.
Farming organically has its challenges, but the payoffs extend far beyond the borders of their farm. “We’re trying to keep and create and change community,” Ron said. “That’s one of the biggest pluses, knowing we’re taking care of creation. We have no intention of ever going back to conventional. It’s not even in our thought processes.”
David agreed. “We’re doing things here not just for today but for the future, because it’s worth it,” he said. “We’re not going to quit.”
The first day concluded in Harlan with dinner at Milk and Honey. Early the next morning the tour proceeded to the David Nees Farm, near Early, Iowa.
David Nees is known for his great weed control, his ability to creatively use modern equipment efficiently in an organic operation, and for his decades long focus on developing healthy soils.
The farm has been certified organic for 34 years with 950 acres of row crops and alfalfa. Nees is known for his weed control, his ability to creatively use modern equipment efficiently in an organic operation, and for his decades long focus on developing healthy soils. His son, Andrew, farms with him.
A lifelong distrust of agricultural chemical use steered Nees into organic farming. His grandfather died of cancer when Nees was ten years old, and that stuck in his mind. “There’s so much cancer in the world, and a lot of people think it’s linked back to the chemicals,” he said. “I thought as I got older that if I started farming, I didn’t think I’d use chemicals.”
Following graduation, he worked eight years in construction until seeing an ad for a field day at a local organic farm. Impressed, he went home and told his father, who was still farming, that it all made sense. His father agreed. He quit construction and started farming.
“I guess the good Lord put that idea in my head,” Nees said. “It’s been a blessing for me.” His work earned him an environmental leader award from the county in 2014, when, prior to shaking hands with the governor, he was told that he was organic before organic was cool. “Back 30 years you never heard of organic, and now it’s pretty much mainstream,” he said.
Organic has been a blessing financially, too. Both he and his son are able to farm full-time.
Their use of specialized implements, some modified in their welding shop, fascinated tour participants, most of whom were farmers. They pored over every detail of the minimum-till rotary hoe, the flame cultivator and the smart till, a vertical tillage tool. Many of them had never seen such a machine. Its harrow was adjustable, Nees said, so you can decide how much residue to leave on top of the soil. “It makes a big difference,” he said.
He still thinks of his grandfather and how some things have changed while others seem timeless. “We have so many improvements from what we had back then, from implements to seed genetics and GPS for driving the tractor,” he said. “It’s a lot better than what grandpa had in that aspect. But it’s still basically crop rotation like grandpa knew. It’s the way he did it.”