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.

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

Video Positive Messaging Helps Revamp Ethiopia's Image

In country once connected with war, poverty, famine, headlines now focus on fast-growing economy, diplomatic reputation More

Russian Activist Thinks Kremlin Ordered Nemtsov's Death

Alexei Navalny says comments of Russian liberals who think government wasn't involved are 'nonsense.' More

Video Land Disputes Rise Amid Uganda Oil Boom

Investors appear to be cashing in by selling parcels of land to multiple buyers More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Positive Messaging Transforms Ethiopia's Imagei
X
Marthe van der Wolf
March 03, 2015 9:03 PM
Ethiopia was once known for famine and droughts. Now, headlines more often point to its fast-growing economy and its emergence as a regional peacemaker. How has Addis Ababa changed the narrative? VOA's Marthe van der Wolf reports.
Video

Video Positive Messaging Transforms Ethiopia's Image

Ethiopia was once known for famine and droughts. Now, headlines more often point to its fast-growing economy and its emergence as a regional peacemaker. How has Addis Ababa changed the narrative? VOA's Marthe van der Wolf reports.
Video

Video Cyber War Rages Between Iran, US

A newly published report indicates Iran and the United States have increased their cyber attacks on each other, even as their top diplomats are working toward an agreement to guarantee Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon and to free Iran from international sanctions. The development is part of a growing global trend. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video Answers Elude Families of MH370 Passengers

For the families on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, an airline official’s statement nearly one year ago that the plane had lost contact with air traffic control at 2:40 AM is the only thing that remains confirmed. William Ide reports.
Video

Video Land Disputes Arise Amid Uganda Oil Boom

Ugandan police say there has been a sharp increase in land disputes, with 10 new cases being reported each day. The claims come amid an oil boom as investors appear to be cashing in by selling parcels of land to multiple buyers. Meanwhile, the people who have been living on the land for decades are chased away, sometimes with a heavy hand. VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
Video

Video In Russia, Many Doubt Opposition Leader's Killer Will Be Found

The funeral has been held in Moscow for Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader who was assassinated late Friday just meters from the Kremlin. Nemtsov joins a growing list of outspoken critics of Russia under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin who are believed to have been murdered for their work. VOA’s Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
Video

Video Simulated Astronauts Get Taste of Mars, in Hawaii

For generations, people have dreamed of traveling to Mars to explore Earth's closest planetary neighbor. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports that while space agencies like NASA are planning manned missions to the planet, some volunteers in Hawaii are learning how humans will cope with months in isolation on a Mars base.
Video

Video Destruction of Iraq Artifacts Shocks Archaeologists

The city of Mosul was once one of the most culturally rich and religiously diverse cities in Iraq. That tradition is under attack by members of the Islamic State who have made Mosul their capital city. The Mosul Museum is the latest target of the group’s campaign of terror and destruction, and is of grave concern to archaeologists around the world. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Smartphones May Help in Diagnosing HIV

Diagnosing infections such as HIV requires expensive clinical tests, making the procedure too costly for many poor patients or those living in remote areas. But a new technology called lab-on-a-chip may make the tests more accessible to many. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials have expressed concern over reports of a crackdown on Afghan refugees in Pakistan following the Peshawar school attack in December. Reports of mass arrests and police harassment coupled with fear of an uncertain future are making life difficult for a population that fled its homeland to escape war. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports from Islamabad.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Prepare to Defend Mariupol

Despite the ongoing ceasefire in Ukraine, soldiers in the city of Mariupol fear that pro-Russian separatists may be getting ready to attack. The separatists must take or encircle the city if they wish to gain land access to Crimea, which was annexed by Russia early last year. But Ukrainian forces, many of them volunteers, say they are determined to defend it. Patrick Wells reports from Mariupol.
Video

Video Moscow Restaurants Suffer in Bad Economy, Look for Opportunity

As low oil prices and Western sanctions force Russia's economy into recession, thousands of Moscow restaurants are expected to close their doors. Restaurant owners face rents tied to foreign currency, while rising food prices mean Russians are spending less when they dine out. One entrepreneur in Moscow has started a dinner kit delivery service for those who want to cook at home to save money but not skimp on quality. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Presidential Hopefuls Battle for Conservative Hearts and Minds

One after another, presumptive Republican presidential contenders auditioned for conservative support this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference held outside Washington. The rhetoric was tough as a large field of potential candidates tried to woo conservative support with red-meat attacks on President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress. VOA Political Columnist Jim Malone takes a look.
Video

Video Southern US Cities Preserve Civil Rights Heritage to Boost Tourism

There has been a surge of interest in the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, thanks in part to the Hollywood motion picture "Selma." Five decades later, communities in the South are embracing the dark chapters of their past with hopes of luring tourism dollars. VOA's Chris Simkins reports.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

World Currencies

EUR
USD
0.8954
JPY
USD
119.75
GBP
USD
0.6515
CAD
USD
1.2518
INR
USD
61.921

Rates may not be current.