Land, Crops, Livestock, Family: An Integrated Agricultural System

By S. Roy Kaufman | Oct 16, 2013

The following article was featured in the The Freeman Courier in October 2013, as part of the feature “Rural Reconnaissance”

Last August, Dick Thompson of Boone, Iowa, died. Thompson was an “alternative farmer” before that came to be a common thing, as it is today. A founder of Practical Farmers of Iowa, Thompson and his wife Sharon believed strongly that a healthy agriculture/rural community involves an integrated system of land, crops, livestock and family. I remember him speaking at rural life conferences in Iowa during the farm crisis of the 1970s, though it isn’t clear to me that that crisis has ever stopped.

In honor of Thompson’s life, the Leopold Letter, the newsletter of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University in Ames, reprinted a short piece Thompson wrote in 2004, and I’d like to quote from that too.

Since we lost the cow—since we lost animals and livestock as an integrated part of the farm—the fabric of rural life has been steadily unraveling.

When we lost the cow, we stopped planting oats and hay, we lost our crop rotations, and we lost the best source of our soil fertility—animal manure. We gained costly inputs, eroding soils and impaired waters.

When we lost our animals, we turned our grass, our pastures and our meadows over to row crops. We gained lower grain prices, greater weed and pest pressure, and a less diverse and resilient landscape.

When we lost our livestock, we lost much of the hard work of the farmer; we lost chores for the kids, and lost a cooperative spirit with our neighbors.. We gained outside jobs, aimless youth and the need to gobble up our neighbors’ farms to stay in business.

When we lost the balance of crops and livestock, we lost a farm that needed a whole family to work together. We gained farms that could be run by one person and lots of equipment. We gained boredom and fragmentation of the family.

When we concentrated the livestock, farms began to struggle economically; we began to lose more and more farms, and we lost the vitality of our small communities. We gained boarded up main streets, empty churches and consolidated schools.

We are fortunate to live in a landscape that counters and mitigates to some extent the agricultural imbalances Thompson describes in this quote. The rivers and creeks of our larger community—the Vermillion and James rivers, Wolf and Turkey Ridge creeks, and Turkey Ridge itself, require diversified farming in many areas and for many farmers—a balance of crops and livestock, in order to utilize the often rolling hills and bluffs with their pastures and hay fields.

Yet it seems to me that our community too is suffering from the imbalances Thompson describes.

An integrated agricultural landscape is to me a thing of beauty. In contrast to the barrenness of endless corn and soybean fields with the occasional hog or poultry confinement unit or beef feedlot, a balanced agricultural landscape features a patchwork of livestock roaming on a rotation of small, diverse fields supporting many small farm families all involved in the production of food for their own community and nearby urban centers.

But more than being nostalgically beautiful, an integrated agricultural landscape is the key for guaranteeing sustainable and viable rural communities like Freeman. Nature is built on the principles of diversity, uniqueness and interdependence. Industry thrives on efficiency, uniformity and autonomy. Agriculture is torn between nature and industry, with industry currently having the upper hand. Until nature replaces industry as the paradigm for agriculture, rural communities like Freeman are likely to continue to struggle and decline.