News / Economy

Old Ways Help Iowa Farmer Beat Drought

Iowa farmer Dick Thompson uses diversity to survive droughts and other natural disasters. (VOA/S. Baragona)
Iowa farmer Dick Thompson uses diversity to survive droughts and other natural disasters. (VOA/S. Baragona)
TEXT SIZE - +
BOONE, Iowa — Unlike most of his Iowa neighbors, farmer Dick Thompson isn't expecting the US government to help him survive the drought.

While others depend upon federally subsidized crop insurance, Thompson relies on old-fashioned farming methods to see him through.

As drought scorches U.S. corn and soybean harvests, most American farmers protect themselves from major financial losses with federally subsidized crop insurance.

This year's insurance payouts are expected to top last year's $10.8 billion in damage from droughts and floods.

The federally backed program is the backbone of the farmer safety net Congress is considering as it debates the Farm Bill, an enormous five-year package of legislation encompassing agriculture and nutrition policy.
Traditional Methods Help Farmer Beat Droughti
|| 0:00:00
X
Steve Baragona
August 29, 2012
Corn and soybean crops are suffering across the U.S. Midwest this year in the worst drought in decades. But most U.S. farmers will not suffer much because they have federally-subsidized crop insurance to help cover their financial losses. It is a tool that is not available to most growers in the developing world. But one farmer in the state of Iowa - the heart of corn country - chooses not to have insurance. He has stayed in business without it, through decades of ups and downs. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look at how he does it.

Thompson, 80, says he will see none of it.

"I have never bought crop insurance since we started to farm," he says.

On his own

Thompson also foregoes many of the tools of modern agriculture. He uses few chemical fertilizers and weed killers. He doesn't grow genetically modified crops.

"I'm old-fashioned and I'm proud of it," he says.

And yet, Thompson says his farm is more profitable than his modern-farming neighbors.

That success has inspired researchers like Matt Liebman at Iowa State University to study how farmers can succeed with such a contrarian approach.

"The reason we're doing this is because of what he's doing," Liebman says. His research fields at Iowa State University mimic much of what you find on Thompson's farm.

Diversity

One explanation is crop diversity, something lacking on many Iowa farms today.

Corn and soybeans carpet the Iowa landscape.  Many farmers grow nothing else. And when those crops do poorly, as they will in this year's drought, payments from crop insurance keep farmers in business.

Instead of crop insurance, Thompson protects himself the old-fashioned way.  

While he grows corn and soybeans, he also raises hay and oats, along with cattle and hogs.  

His oat crop was harvested before the drought hit. His third crop of hay sits scattered in round, shoulder-high bales on what will be next year’s corn field.

"I think it's common sense," Thompson says. "You've got diversity and you've got some protection there. If one crop doesn't do well, maybe the other one will make up for the difference."

Losing ground

What Thompson calls common sense used to be common practice on Iowa farms. 

But the amount of land used to grow hay is half what it was two decades ago. Oats have fallen by nearly 95 percent.

Livestock disappeared, too. The number of farms with cows decreased by half between 1982 and 2007. The number with hogs fell by more than 80 percent.

Thompson says that is a mistake. "If I'd sell the cows, I would be like everybody else around me, corn and [soy] beans," he says.

The livestock difference

Thompson will not sell off his herds because his cows and hogs are good for more than income. They also provide the manure to fertilize the soil, eliminating the need for chemical fertilizers.
Unlike many farmers, Thompson still raises livestock and says that's one of the keys to his success. (VOA/S. Baragona)Unlike many farmers, Thompson still raises livestock and says that's one of the keys to his success. (VOA/S. Baragona)
x
Unlike many farmers, Thompson still raises livestock and says that's one of the keys to his success. (VOA/S. Baragona)
Unlike many farmers, Thompson still raises livestock and says that's one of the keys to his success. (VOA/S. Baragona)

And the manure helps the soil hold water, another form of insurance in a drought, according to Iowa State University researcher Rick Cruse.

"It really adds to the condition of that soil that does favor crop growth, particularly under stress conditions," Cruse says. "And that's the kind of conditions we're experiencing this year."

And they are conditions farmers everywhere are more likely to face in the future with climate change.

Triple win

Matt Liebman says his research shows that Thompson has lessons for everyone.

"Looking toward diversity, crop-livestock integration, the careful stewardship of the soil, making the best use of every drop of rain that falls, those are lessons that we should know here.  And they're even more important elsewhere," he says.

Thompson says it takes more work to farm this way than with chemicals and crop insurance, but he thinks it's worth it.

"I think it's a better way of taking care of the land and the environment and the pocketbook," he says. "You can have all three."

Thompson says the old-fashioned ways might still be the best.

You May Like

Wikipedia Proves Useful for Tracking Flu

Technique gave better results than Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Google’s Flu Trends More

Turkish Law Gives Spy Agency Controversial Powers

Parliament approves legislation to bolster powers of intelligence service, which government claims is necessary to modernize and deal with new threats Turkey faces More

Video Face of American Farmer Changing

Average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Face of American Farmer is Changingi
X
Mike Osborne
April 18, 2014
The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Face of American Farmer is Changing

The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Donetsk Governor: Ukraine Military Assault 'Delicate But Necessary'

Around a dozen state buildings in eastern Ukraine remain in the hands of pro-Russian protesters who are demanding a referendum on self-rule. The governor of the whole Donetsk region is among those forced out by the protesters. He spoke to VOA's Henry Ridgwell from his temporary new office in Donetsk city.
Video

Video Drones May Soon Send Data From High Seas

Drones are usually associated with unmanned flying vehicles, but autonomous watercraft are also becoming useful tools for jobs ranging from scientific exploration to law enforcement to searching for a missing airliner in the Indian Ocean. VOA’s George Putic reports on sea-faring drones.
Video

Video New Earth-Size Planet Found

Not too big, not too small. Not too hot, not too cold. A newly discovered planet looks just right for life as we know it, according to an international group of astronomers. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Copts in Diaspora Worry About Future in Egypt

Around 10 percent of Egypt’s population belong to the Coptic faith, making them the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. But they have become targets of violence since the revolution three years ago. With elections scheduled for May and the struggle between the Egyptian military and Islamists continuing, many Copts abroad are deeply worried about the future of their ancient church. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky visited a Coptic church outside Washington DC.
Video

Video Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support

During the two months of deadly anti-government protests that have rocked the oil-rich nation of Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition of trying to initiate a coup. Though a small number of military officers have been arrested for allegedly plotting against the government, VOA’s Brian Padden reports the leadership of the armed forces continues to support the president, at least for now.
Video

Video More Millenials Unplug to Embrace Board Games

A big new trend in the U.S. toy industry has more consumers switching off their high-tech gadgets to play with classic toys, like board games. This is especially true among the so-called millenial generation - those born in the 1980's and 90's. Elizabeth Lee has more from an unusual café in Los Angeles, where the new trend is popular and business is booming.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
AppleAndroid

World Currencies

EUR
USD
0.7217
JPY
USD
102.17
GBP
USD
0.5949
CAD
USD
1.1009
INR
USD
60.326

Rates may not be current.