Organic Broadcaster

Longtime organic farmers from Iowa chosen as Organic Farmers of Year

By Sylvia Burgos Toftness, Bull Brook Keep

Daniel, Ellen, Maria, and Ron Rosmann accept the award as Organic Farmers of the Year at the 2018 MOSES Organic Farming Conference last month.

Conservation and renewal. Land and people. Innovation and interdependence. According to Ron and Maria Rosmann, and their family, these values and goals have guided their decisions for decades. Family and faith are the bedrock of their stewardship, commitment to social justice, pursuit of economic viability, and efforts to encourage future generations of organic farmers.

A fourth-generation farmer, Ron credits his father, Ray, for laying a good foundation in sustainable farming practices. His dad kept a large team of Belgian draft horses “because they could do work a tractor couldn’t,” Ron remembered. His parents used crop rotations even then, and, like his grandparents and great-grandparents before him, they managed a diversity of crops and livestock.

The family farm is located near the small town of Westphalia, in the southwest quadrant of Iowa. Ron returned there to farm in 1973, after earning a degree in biology, and having minored in both sociology and psychology—background that would serve him on the land, within his rural community, and far beyond.

The early 1970s saw increasing demand for America’s agricultural products, and many growers came to anticipate ever-increasing profitability. It was also a time of accelerating farm consolidation and vertical integration within the food system—conditions that did not favor the smaller family farm.

It was as the balance was shifting in the mid-1970s that Ron met Maria Vakulskas. He was attending a political meeting, and she was a young journalist covering the event for local radio. They married in 1978.

As the 1970s came to a close, the economic picture darkened for smaller producers. The farm crisis of the 1980s ripped through rural communities all across the country.

“Our income took a nosedive, and we were on our own,” said Ron, his father having passed by that time. “We had to make changes, but I felt we could do it because my dad had been a great teacher, and I had my Iowa State education. We also had our farrow-to-finish hog business in hand, and we had crop rotations in place,” he added.

More significantly, Ron and Maria shared the values that would weather the economic downturn and help them find future opportunities. They had, and still have their Catholic faith, a strong work ethic, and a belief that they could—and can —improve the future through their work.

Ron began using organic practices in the 1980s even though he sold into the commodity marketplace; there was no defined demand for organic products at that time. He grew organically because he believed it was better for his land and his health.

“I never felt comfortable with chemicals,” Ron said. “There was no way they didn’t get into your skin as you worked to unclog and repair machinery.”

The farm’s move to organics went hand-in-hand with Ron’s increased participation in sustainable farming organizations. For Ron, as for so many of the movement’s pioneers, environmental stewardship is about stepping forward with innovations tested and evaluated on the farm.

On-Farm Research
Ron and Maria began doing on-farm trials in 1985, as founding members of Practical Farmers of Iowa. They have conducted more than 40 trials over three decades. Projects examined ridge tilling, cover cropping, swine feeding, organic flax production, manure rates, and more. Ron has also collaborated with university scientists doing on-farm experiments.

By doing on-farm research “you have the numbers, real evidence for farmers to look at,” Ron explained.

He recalled a poll the Rodale Institute conducted years ago. It asked farmers to identify the type of research they would trust. Most farmers responded that they would trust on-farm research because it’s realistic and practical, Ron said.

He encourages others to conduct research because crop, produce, and livestock production is very site-specific. “How else can you understand what really works on your own farm?” You need evidence to show that your approach works, he added. For example, he found through on-farm research that ridge tillage works better than conventional tillage for weed control.

Today, Ron and Maria, and their sons, Daniel and David, grow their crops in 5-, 6-, and 7-year rotations using ridge tillage within row crops whenever possible. They have planted trees on terraced fields to promote soil health and enhance wildlife habitat. They also employ cover crops, grass waterways, and buffer strip to improve soil and water quality.

Livestock is also integral to economic and soil improvement on the farm. They feed cover crops, as well as crops that can’t be sold to the market, to the cattle and swine, thereby capturing crop value and returning nutrients via manure to the fields.

“This completes the circle of sustainability by providing ecological efficiencies,” Ron explained. “It closes the loop, and allows for more diversity
in crop rotations.”

Another strategy they use is grazing cattle within the crop rotations. They move the cattle according to plant growth stages and recovery periods. They manage hogs in a deep-bedding system that provides access to the outdoors.

Family Involvement
Daniel returned to the farm in 2007. His brother, David, followed suit seven years later. A third sibling, Mark, works for the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service. The brothers and Daniel’s wife, Ellen, continue to pursue continual improvement, farmer-to-farmer outreach, and the expansion of farm enterprises.

From a family “always involved in local politics,” Ron, Maria, and now their sons, have served many organizations in their efforts to share data and insights, promote social justice, and to advance organic agriculture on the national and state levels. In addition to being a founding member of Practical Farmers of Iowa, Ron was involved in early days of the Center for Rural Affairs and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. He served as board president for the Organic Farming Research Foundation. He has lobbied for organic research support at U.S. Senate and House committees meetings, and has testified before the Iowa legislature.

Maria has served on many church committees, and since 2008 has served on the Iowa State Farm Service Agency Committee. She, Ron, David, Ellen, and Mark have also served as advocates in the Pew Charitable Trusts’ campaign to Congress against antibiotic overuse in U.S. livestock production.

Over the years, Ron, Maria, and their sons have made hundreds of presentations to groups large and small in an effort to share what they’ve learned, describe the challenges, and to build support for organic agriculture. They trace their advocacy work back to 1983, when Ron and Maria decided to stop using pesticides. This helped set in motion the start of Practical Farmers of Iowa. David is now a second-generation PFI board member.

Ron, Maria, and their sons are frequently approached to participate in committees and task forces, advisory groups, and boards, as well as to speak at gatherings large and small. “I believe it’s because we believe, and live, our responsibility to be stewards of the land and livestock,” Maria said. “When you start with one effort, other doors open.”

Ron and Maria have hosted more than 35 fields days on their farm, events highlighting on-farm research results, livestock management and genetics, marketing strategies, and farm policy issues. The family hosts a major farm tour and dozens of small group tours on their farm every year. Visitors have come from across the country, as well as from Japan, China, Lithuania, Argentina, Brazil and North Korea.

The family devotes time to public policy and civic work “because we offer something better through organic agriculture,” Ron said. That “better” arises from a holistic approach that encompasses sustainable production, creative marketing, improved quality of life, and revitalized community.

Innovative Marketing
Rosmann Family Farms is a marketing trailblazer. It gained momentum by being one of the first provide certified organic beef in their market area. They private labeled their pork and beef 21 years ago, direct marketing to individuals and distributing to retail stores in distant cities. Demand and herd growth eventually called for a different distribution approach—and an opportunity to change local attitudes about certified organic, Ron said.

In 2012, armed with a degree in journalism, as well as newsroom and public relations experience, Maria opened “Farm Sweet Farm,” the family’s on-farm retail store. Located four miles outside the city of Harlan, Iowa, their on-farm store has become “a destination spot” for high quality food and non-food products, Maria said.

In addition to selling their own certified organic beef, pork, eggs and popcorn, Maria sources Iowa wines, local honey, fair trade coffee, salsa, spices, barbeque sauces, and various crafts. “We’ve carried over 1,500 different items at the store,” Maria said. The largest percentage has come from their local area, Shelby County.

It must be in the blood. Maria’s grandmother operated a small grocery store, which was squeezed out by the emergence of big box stores several decades ago. Maria is encouraged by the growing acceptance of organic foods.

The Rosmann sons have worked to extend and expand the family’s enterprises built on their continued commitment to environmental stewardship, social and economic justice rural revitalization.

David, who stayed behind to run the farm while Ron, Maria, Daniel, and Ellen attended the MOSES Conference to accept the award, has been assuming more and more of the daily operations. He plans to build the dairy herd this year, renting land that he will eventually have certified organic.

Mark, who is based in Washington D.C., sources fair trade coffee from several countries for Farm Sweet Farm. Having served in the Peace Corps in Honduras, he shared his passion for international development with his parents. His son’s experience in Honduras led Ron to travel there later to assist in community development projects.

In addition to managing a flock of 200 laying hens, Daniel and Ellen launched, own and manage Milk and Honey restaurant, and they own and operate Farm Table Procurement and Delivery. Both businesses are in Harlan.

“There’s a great need to feed our own communities,” Daniel explained. Milk and Honey specializes in serving local foods, including meats, eggs, and popcorn from the family farm. This expands awareness of the farm, its foods and production methods, Daniel added.

Farm Table Procurement and Delivery buys local produce, milk, meats and other products and sells them to urban restaurants and buyers from Omaha to central Iowa. “Re-establishing local distribution is a huge challenge, but may be the biggest opportunity,” Ron added.

Future Vision
Ron and Maria feel fortunate their children are involved in agriculture. “They have helped Ron and me continue to pursue our goals,” Maria noted. Their children truly value the diversity on the farm, she added.

Looking forward, “I’m encouraged by all the young people who want to farm, and who are challenging the values and norms of large-scale agriculture,” Ron said. David pointed to the number of economic and environmental incentives available to farmers who start small and keep their capital investments modest.

To these beginning farmers, they offer encouragement and some advice. “Have an open mind. Be willing to try new things—but don’t make changes all at once. Learn from your mistakes and never give up,” Ron said. “If you start to view the farm as a whole farm system, you’re on the right track.”

 

Sylvia Burgos Toftness and her husband raise 100% grass-fed beef on Bull Brook Keep near Clear Lake, Wis. She is on the board of MOSES, and hosts Deep Roots Radio (www.bronxtobarn.com/deep-roots-radio).

 

From the March | April  2018 Issue

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