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)
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 3:56 PM
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

UN: 1 Million Somalis at Risk of Hunger

Group warns region is in dire need of humanitarian aid, with at least 200,000 children under age of five acutely malnourished as drought hits southern, central part of nation More

Human Rights Groups Allege Supression of Freedoms in Thailand

Thailand’s military, police have suppressed release of independent report assessing human rights in kingdom during first 100 days of latest coup More

Jennifer Lawrence Contacts FBI After Nude Photos Hacked

'Silver Linings Playbook' actress' photos were posted on image-sharing forum 4chan; Federal Bureau of Investigations is looking into matter More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Ukraine Schools Resume Classes, Donate to Government Forcesi
X
September 02, 2014 12:58 PM
A new school year has started in Ukraine but thousands of children in the war-torn east are unable to attend because of ongoing clashes with pro-Russia rebels. In Ukraine's capital, patriotic education has become the norm along with donations to support injured security forces fighting to take back rebel-held areas. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Ukraine Schools Resume Classes, Donate to Government Forces

A new school year has started in Ukraine but thousands of children in the war-torn east are unable to attend because of ongoing clashes with pro-Russia rebels. In Ukraine's capital, patriotic education has become the norm along with donations to support injured security forces fighting to take back rebel-held areas. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video US Detainees Want Negotiators for Freedom in North Korea

The three U.S. detainees held in North Korea were permitted to speak with foreign media Monday. The government of Kim Jong Un restricted the topics of the questions, and the interviews in Pyongyang were limited to five minutes. Each of the men asked Washington to send a representative to Pyongyang to secure his release. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti has our story.
Video

Video Internet, Technology Offer New Tools for Journalists

The Internet and rapidly evolving technology is quickly changing how people receive news and how journalists deliver it. There are now more ways to tell a story than ever before. One school in Los Angeles is teaching the next generation of journalists with the help of a state-of-the-art newsroom. Elizabeth Lee has this report.
Video

Video Turkmen From Amerli Describe Survival of IS Siege

Over the past few weeks, hundreds of Shi'ite Turkmen have fled the town of Amerli seeking refuge in the northern city of Kirkuk. Despite recent military gains after U.S. airstrikes that were coordinated with Iraqi and Kurdish forces, the situation remains dire for Amerli’s residents. Sebastian Meyer went to Kirkuk for VOA to speak to those who managed to escape.
Video

Video West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015

A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video Survivors Commemorate 70th Anniversary of Nazi Liquidation of Jewish Ghetto

When the German Nazi army occupied the Polish city of Lodz in 1939, it marked the beginning of a long nightmare for the Jewish community that once made up one third of the population. Roughly 200,000 people were forced into the Lodz Ghetto. Less than 7,000 survived. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, some survivors gathered at the Union League Club in Chicago on the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto to remember those who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime.
Video

Video Cost to Raise Child in US Continues to Rise

The cost of raising a child in the United States continues to rise. In its latest annual report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says middle income families with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend more than $240,000 before that child turns 18. And sending that child to college more than doubles that amount. VOA’s Deborah Block visited with a couple with one child in Alexandria, Virginia, to learn if the report reflects their lifestyle.
Video

Video Chaotic Afghan Vote Recount Threatens Nation’s Future

Afghanistan’s troubled presidential election continues to be rocked by turmoil as an audit of the ballots drags on. The U.N. says the recount will not be completed before September 10. Observers say repeated disputes and delays are threatening the orderly transfer of power and could have dangerous consequences. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.

AppleAndroid

World Currencies

EUR
USD
0.7537
JPY
USD
103.79
GBP
USD
0.6032
CAD
USD
1.0957
INR
USD
60.522

Rates may not be current.