Rockey Farms

Rockey Farms

Rockey Farms

Brendon Rockey, Rockey Farms, Center, Colorado. Credit: Brendon Rockey.

For every research paper you read on global warming, you find another one saying it is getting cooler. I think weather cycles, but I don’t get too hung up on patterns because it is beyond my control. My whole focus is just creating a resilient system that can handle climate change, whichever direction it might be.

Brendon Rockey

Rockey Farms

Southwest Region | Center, CO

Main Product: Vegetables (table and seed potatoes)

Scale: 500 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Shift some cash to cover crops,  intercropped cover crops, insectory field  strips,  livestock integration.

This story is based on a 2013 interview, with a 2020 update.

Brendon and Sheldon Rockey are the third generation to grow potatoes on 500 acres of irrigated land in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. The Rockeys operate a farm and packinghouse near Center. Brendon is in charge of field operations while Sheldon is operations manager of the business which packs specialty potatoes for certified seed and fresh table use. The farm focuses on direct sales to commercial potato growers and the wholesale fresh table potato market. They also do some direct sales from the farm.

Brendon has successfully incorporated sustainable agriculture practices like cover cropping and companion planting into the production system to improve soil quality and conserve water. The increased soil quality that Brendon achieved with the new cropping practices improved farm profitability because he found that he could use less water and decrease or eliminate fertilizer and pesticide use while maintaining yields and improving crop quality.

Brendon Rockey says that concerns about water use on their farm pushed him and his brother into trying cover crops. Average rainfall in the valley is about five inches per year, so all agriculture there is irrigated. Growers pump from wells and that water is replaced each spring from the snowmelt, which flows down from the mountains to replenish the groundwater. During this drought, growers have been pumping more water from the aquifer than is being replaced by the snowmelt and in 2013 the aquifer level hit a record low. “Water has always been a huge issue for us out here in Southern Colorado. We’re in the middle of a drought like a lot of America, and it’s been going on now for fifteen plus years. It has really forced us to make some changes to our management practices, but it’s actually helped out our farm as a whole,” explains Brendon.

Longtime growers of certified seed potatoes as well as fresh market potatoes, the brothers decided to drop barley from their two-year potato/barley rotation about ten years ago and replace it with a mixed cover crop as a way to decrease water use. They reduced their water use by about fourteen inches, and the switch had some other significant and unexpected benefits. As Brendon explains, “Bringing in a diverse cover crop improved our soil health so much that it had a huge impact on the productivity of our potato crop.” The increase in soil quality reduced input costs and increased potato quality so dramatically that Brendon found it was more profitable to grow one cash crop every two years than one cash crop every year.

The cover crop success and the extreme drought in the Southwest has Brendon thinking about how to get even more out of his cover crops. As the drought continues unabated, Brendon is contemplating a polyculture designed to encourage beneficial insects and suppress pests in the potato crop. “We’ve seen so much positive impact from having the multi-species out in the cover crop that we are thinking about bringing more diversity into the potato crop. Next year I am planting a three-species companion crop and an eight-species insectary crop in the potatoes. I’m planting peas, chickling vetch and buckwheat in the rows with the potatoes. So I’ve got the two legumes out there for my nutrient management and the buckwheat attracting insects. I am also going to plant an occasional row of insectory mix in among the potatoes as well for the purpose of attracting predatory insects.” Brendon hopes to further reduce input costs and increase soil quality with the additional diversity added to his crop rotation.

Looking ahead, Brendon wonders about the future of agriculture in his valley. If the water supply becomes even more limited, growers will have no choice but to start taking acreage out of production. “I guess that’s the real scary thing. I’m hoping that we can get enough guys to do the right thing and save enough water that we don’t get to that point. It seems from the outside like it would be easy, but the attitude here is like, ‘I wish the neighbors would all cut back on the water so I can keep farming every acre I have.’ You just try and get a bunch of farmers together and get them to all agree on the same approach. It’s really difficult!”

Since 2013, the continuing drought in the southwest means that “water is still the number one stress factor for us in this valley,” according to Brendon. “It’s been business as usual since we talked last, no dramatic changes one way or the other in the weather.”  He has been pleased with 

Long-term drought, plus low barley prices, have encouraged more potato farmers in the region to replace barley with cover crops, a shift that both conserves water and improves the production of the following potato crop. Brendon thinks these benefits have helped to make cover crops a more common practice in in the valley.  “I’ve heard a lot of people say that even if water was no longer a concern, they would continue to grow cover crops because of the benefits to the potato crop.”

Crop diversity has continued to be a focus of Brendon’s farm management. “I cringe when I see a monoculture,” Brendon says, “because I can’t imagine that crop functioning at its peak when it’s a single species by itself. It just doesn’t make sense to me.” He has increased his companion crop mix to five species and has also expanded his insectory strip mix to more than 20 species to cultivate the long bloom time and complex plant architecture needed to support high populations of beneficial insects throughout the growing season. He has also done some recent trials to explore the potential of adding quinoa to his cash crop mix.

Perhaps the biggest change at Rockey Farms since 2013 has been Brendon’s decision to integrate cattle and sheep into his crop rotation through contract grazing of cover crops. “It’s funny when you look back, because when my grandpa started farming here, every single farmer had livestock. I’m not sure at what point we drew the line in the sand and said, ‘you can only be a farmer or a rancher,’ but it’s nice to be bringing the two components back together again because both parties benefit from it.” Neighboring ranchers appreciate the opportunity to graze their stock on high quality cover crops close to home, and Brendon appreciates the additional income from pasture rent which pays about 75% of his cover crop seed costs, plus the added soil health benefits of managed, multi-species grazing.

Looking long-term at the future of agriculture in his region, Brendon recognizes that challenges of the continuing drought, but points to the growing population along Colorado’s Front Range as a bigger threat. Thinking about the most recent attempt to pipe water from his valley to supply homes 200 miles away in the Denver area, Brendon says, “I finally decided, you know what? Climate change is not going to be the thing that ends agriculture in this valley. I am much more worried about people than I am about weather changes. It’s going to be politics and other people that will put an end to it, long before climate change will.”

Brendon and Sheldon regularly host visitors and lead workshops at their farm and Brendon is a regular speaker at farming conferences and workshops throughout the U.S. The brothers were nationally recognized in 2012 for their innovative potato production system as recipients of the Soil and Water Conservation Society Merit Award for promoting sustainable agriculture and soil health.  In 2015, the National Potato Council recognized their leadership with the Environmental Stewardship Award.

Fuller Farms

Fuller Farms

Fuller Farms

Gail Fuller, Fuller Farms, Emporia, Kansas. Credit: Gail Fuller.

While the 80’s were challenging weather-wise they don’t hold a candle to what we’ve had here in the last 13 or 14 years. The extremes that we are going through right now are really extreme. Obviously time erases all those memories, but I don’t remember the wild swings like we’ve seeing today, and definitely the 90’s were not like this.

Gail Fuller

Fuller Farms

Southern Great Plains Region | Emporia, KS

Main Product: Grains

Scale: 3200 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Shift to regenerative grazing multispecies pastured livestock production, add on-farm processing, direct marketing, agrotourism, solar farm, carbon farming.

This story is based on a 2013 interview.  You can read more about the evolution of Fuller Farms in the Second Edition of Resilient Agriculture.

Fuller is the third generation to own Fuller Farms, located in east central Kansas near Emporia. Gail learned about farming from his grandfathers, who were both farmers, and by working side by side with his father on their 700-acre family farm. In the late 1980s, Gail took over the grain production side of Fuller Farms. Like many producers in those times, he adopted no-till to try and reduce serious soil erosion problems and improve profitability by reducing the fuel needed for fieldwork. By the mid-1990s, the livestock had been dropped from the farm system and Gail had expanded corn and soybean production to more than 2,000 acres by leasing neighboring land.

Thinking back on the transition to no-till, Gail recalls following best management practices of the time which involved simplifying the farming system quite a bit. “Basically corn and soybeans were the only two crops we grew. When we went to no-till, we kicked wheat and milo out of our rotation. We had a four-way rotation — corn, soybeans, wheat and milo — during the ’80s and we raised cattle, but that all got kicked out with the big rush to no-till in the ’90s. When no-till first really got popular, cows and no-till weren’t allowed. It was thought at the time that cattle were too destructive to soils and the damage they caused by trampling farm ground couldn’t be fixed without tillage, so the cows got kicked off.”

Gail says that soil erosion did not seem to get much better with the switch to no-till, perhaps because the corn–soy rotation didn’t leave much crop residue. “It was all corn and soybeans,” Gail explains, “and most of the corn was being chopped for silage at the time.” When this is done the entire corn plant — grain and stalk — is harvested, so there is very little plant matter left in the field. “There was zero carbon in the system,” Gail recalls. “I don’t have any documentation, but our erosion definitely did not get better just because we switched to no-till, because we just weren’t leaving anything for the soil. And the shift to no-till created some issues with soil fertility and also increased insect and disease problems.” By the late 1990s, Gail added some cover crops into the rotation and brought cattle back to the farm in an effort to build soil quality and reduce soil erosion. Although early attempts to manage cover crops within the no-till system were challenging, diverse crop rotations integrated with cattle, have been a central feature of Fuller Farms since 2003.

Today, Gail manages a large variety of cash crops, cover crops, cattle, sheep and poultry in a highly diversified and integrated dryland production system with the goal of keeping a living root in the ground at all times. A typical cash crop mix in a given year might include winter canola, winter barley, winter triticale, winter wheat, spring wheat, corn, grain, sorghum, soybeans, sunflowers, red clover, safflower, oats and peas. Cover crops increase diversity on the farm even more, by adding thirty to forty additional species. The 75-head beef cow herd is intensively grazed on continuous cover crops and beef cattle are finished on the farm. Gail believes that the cattle are key to his crop management and thinks as the crops and livestock on the farm as one integrated whole.

Since Gail diversified the farming system, fertility and pest challenges created by the shift to no-till are, as Gail puts it, “in the rearview mirror.” Occasional crop nutrient or pest problems are easily managed these days in the well-established and highly diverse farming system. What is becoming increasingly challenging, according the Gail, is the weather. He started noticing greater extremes in temperatures and precipitation around 2000, as best as he can recall. He remembers the ’90s as just a little more settled and predictable, as well as a little wetter than normal. “1993 and ’95 were extremely wet years,” he says and laughs. “Maybe on a grand scale we were starting to see these wild swings in the ’80s and ’90s. They’ve just become much more defined and much more sudden. Instead of having prolonged periods of below or above average, we’re just going over cliffs all the time.”

Flooding, dry periods and drought have all become more frequent and intense in the last ten to fifteen years, according to Gail. “For instance, we had one of our biggest floods in recorded history in November of ’98 and then we’ve been dry since, with the exception of ’08 and ’09, which I think were the two wettest years in history in our area. Then we had close to the two driest years ever in ’11 and ’12. This last go-round of drought has just been unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Starting in June of 2010, we have been in a pattern of six to eight months with no precipitation and then we get it all at once. Our last big round of precipitation was in August of last year [2013], when we had 18 inches of rain in 16 days. August is normally our driest month.” More extremes in temperatures have also interfered with crop production at Fuller Farms in the last few years. “As an example, August of 2013 was one of the coldest on record and it was followed by the hottest September on record. The shifts right now are just really becoming challenging.”

While these changes in precipitation have increased the complexity of managing crop and livestock production at Fuller Farms, warmer spring and summer temperatures, particularly warmer nights, have definitely reduced crop yields, according to Gail. “The winter grains like cooler nights. They mature during late May and June and normally we’re already getting pretty warm by then. We also get a lot of humidity, so it’s pretty hard to cool off at night.” In 2012, temperatures were so much warmer all through the spring and summer that everything was about thirty days early. The winter grains were stressed during the grain filling period by the hot, summer-like conditions in spring, while corn and soybeans were stressed throughout the summer by excessive heat. Gail recalls, “It was just over 100 degrees every day, day after day that summer. If we could have cooled off at night and let those plants relax a little bit we probably would have had a better chance. It’s really the nighttime temperatures that got us more than anything. Obviously 110 degrees in the day is not anything to like, but when they can’t cool off at night it makes it so much tougher the next day.”

Other farmers in the region have noticed the more variable weather, but they have not been affected because a loophole in crop insurance allows them to “double dip”, according to Gail. “In 2012, which was the hottest, driest year since 1936, producers that had corn in their rotation had one of their best financial years ever.”

Although Gail takes advantage of crop insurance too, he views crop diversity as his best insurance against crop failure. He has been an innovator of extremely diverse cover crop polycultures, called cover crop cocktails, mixes of many different species that are tolerant to many environmental conditions. “For us the multi-species mixes of cover crops have been the slam dunk,” Gail explains, “just so obviously building resilience into your system.

When you’re putting ten or twelve things in the mix — or fifteen or twenty things in the mix is even better — something’s going to survive, whatever you throw at it. That keeps the system alive. It keeps the microbial community fat, the earthworms fat. It just keeps the whole system operating much healthier and much more resilient than just a monoculture crop out there.”

The cover crop cocktails also give Gail a lot of flexibility in crop planning. He typically plants eleven months out of the year, and having such a diverse selection of species to choose from allows him to design cover crop mixes to meet multiple goals and adjust the species to take advantage of seasonal weather conditions. “The first thing we do is look at the resource concern we have in a particular field before we design the mix for it,” Gail explains. “Are you going to graze it? What time of the year are you planting it? Our knowledge of what these cover crops can do is extremely limited, but we’re getting a better grasp with what we’ve seen here in the last four or five years with the extreme dry.”

Gail goes on to explain the design process. “Then, if we think this is the weather pattern we’re going to have, then we know that some cover crop species are going to handle it better than others and so we’ll make them the dominant species in the mix. And that’s another thing about how a mix increases resilience. When you guess wrong, there’s still going to be something there that will grow. The more diversity we put in that mix, the more it protects us.” Gail feels he has just started to scratch the surface of the possibilities of cover crop mixes. Although he started with two-crop or “two-way” mixes in the late ’90s, fifteen- to twenty-way mixes are the norm on the farm now. Gail imagines that the diversity of species in cover crop mixes will only continue to grow as seed suppliers offer more diversity in cover crop seeds; he thinks forty-way mixes are a real possibility in the near future.

Gail is also looking at bringing more diversity to crop production with the addition of cover crop seed and winter barley to the Fuller Farms cash crop rotation. He is experimenting with producing triticale barley, cowpeas, mung beans, buckwheat seeds. “We’re going to try some different things for cover crop seed companies that bring us more diversity, that make us more resilient,” Gail explains. “We don’t have all of our eggs in one basket. We spread our harvest period out, so we’ve reduced our risk and also we get premiums for those products, so it’s kind of a win-win.” Gail is also experimenting this year with no-till organic production in several fields to see if he can add additional value to his products and diversify into yet another premium market.

But resilience at Fuller Farms is not based just on crop diversity. Gail views the livestock as integral to the system as a whole. Until 2013, Gail’s cattle grazed only annual cover crops, so choosing covers that are good forages is an important consideration. And the livestock provide extra crop insurance, because they can consume cash crops when weather conditions reduce quality or yield. “The livestock have now become part of the crop rotation,” Gail explains. “I’ve got a twelve-month grazing plan. You have to have a plan if you’re going to be grazing cropland. You need to have something in mind about where the cows are going to go in the worst-case scenario. In the future, the cows will be my crop insurance. That’s how I plan to get income off of failed crops. I can graze them and then we will have added value to the crops — and to the cattle. We’ve also recently brought sheep into the operation, because they’re more drought tolerant than cattle, so we’re even diversifying there as well.”

The cattle also improve the adaptive capacity of a farm or ranch by providing a value-added product and bringing all the soil quality benefits associated with management-intensive grazing, such as the stimulation of soil microorganisms and the distribution of manure back to the soil. And because Gail is grazing short-season forages throughout the year, flexible scheduling of cattle finishing allows him to capture seasonally high market prices. Gail explains, “We have value added because we are grass-finishing, but because we’re grazing cover crops, I think we can expand our marketability too. In the grass-finished business, most guys are marketing in the summer. We’ve expanded our grazing thirty days on both ends at least, maybe sixty days in the fall, so we can finish cattle later in the year.”

But there is a downside to all this diversity. In 2012, Gail landed in the center of a national crop insurance controversy. Weather conditions made it impossible for him to kill a cover crop within the time required by insurance guidelines and his crop insurance was cancelled because his use of cover crop cocktails was interpreted as intercropping — a prohibited practice. In an ironic twist, Gail had previously been awarded a Conservation Innovation grant by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for the same fields deemed out of compliance by the crop insurance company. After his request for a review of his case was denied, Gail took his concerns up the chain of command until he was invited to Washington, DC, to discuss the situation with USDA agency directors and his congressional representatives. Gail remembers telling the group, “We’ve got three government agencies controlling production agriculture and none of them are on the same page, and that needs to stop. You need to pick a direction. We can’t be getting paid here for one practice, then walk across the aisle and get denied benefits for doing the same thing.” USDA agency representatives agreed and created an interagency task force soon after their meeting with Gail to try and harmonize cover crop policies. In April 2014, the Task Force released a new cover crop policy to be used by all three agencies. Only time will tell if the new policy will encourage the use of cover crop cocktails by commodity grain producers.

Another key barrier to managing crop diversity at Fuller Farms is the poor availability of a diverse range cover crops and cash crops. Gail explains, “The availability of appropriate crop varieties has been a big one for us. We are switching to non-GMO varieties and we’ve gone from a two-crop rotation to about twelve different crops in a five-year rotation. Just finding out what works in this area is a challenge. We’re growing things like winter barley and other unusual crops for our area. So we’re bringing crops from outside our region and the varieties that are available don’t always line up really well.”

Although the advice and support of federal and state technical personnel and programs would be welcomed, Gail says they have not done the kind of research that he needs to improve his farming system. “We’ve for the most part walked away from our state university because their research is so far behind. It would be nice if we had it, if they had done the research we needed a decade ago and had this available today, that would’ve been phenomenal. It would’ve been extremely helpful, because I could have avoided all the failure that I’ve had here in my farm in the last ten years.” Gail views the agricultural universities and many federal agricultural support programs, including crop insurance, as more of a hindrance than a help to enhancing the sustainability of U.S. agriculture.

Thinking about the future, Gail says that the improvement he has seen on his farm and in his bottom line gives him a lot of confidence that he will enjoy continued success. And he is already planning ahead for more intense weather variability and extremes. For the longer term, he is exploring what he calls “pasture cropping,” the no-till planting of an annual cash grain crop into a perennial pasture that has been knocked back by grazing or mowing.

Gail sees a lot of potential for enhancing natural resource quality with pasture cropping, particularly as a long-term solution for sequestering carbon, building soil quality, enhancing the water cycle and increasing energy flow. For now, he sees a lot of adaptive potential in his farming system because he can make changes in the crop rotation to fit seasonal weather conditions. If drought conditions intensify in his region as projected, Gail thinks there will be a high demand for forages to feed cattle, because corn is not productive in hot, dry conditions. “I would probably pull out things like corn if droughts increase,” says Gail, “and put in more forage type crops that do well in those conditions. Hay and forages will become a premium, so I think we can probably do a lot of custom grazing and find ways to turn adversity into dollars.”

Gail’s innovative design and management have earned him both regional and national recognition. He is a regular speaker at agricultural conferences and hosts workshops and visitors at his farm. He is featured in the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Profiles in Soil Health, a series that showcases how some of the nation’s leading farmers are managing soil health to make their farms more profitable, productive and sustainable. In 2013, Gail was one of eight Kansas farmers recognized with a Climate and Energy Award by the Climate and Energy Project, a nonprofit working to promote climate change mitigation in America’s Heartland. He was also nationally recognized as the recipient of the 2013 Conservation Legacy Award from the American Soybean Association.


Monroe Organic Farms

Monroe Organic Farms

Monroe Organic Farms

Jacquie and Jerry Monroe, Monroe Family Farms, Kersey, Colorado. Credit: Jacquie Monroe.

We here in Colorado have been in and out of a drought since 1998 and more in a drought than out so water out here is everything. We have to irrigate in order to get a crop, so water is a huge problem especially since most of the fresh water is owned by the farmers and all the cities are taking that water away.

Jacquie Monroe

Monroe Organic Farms

Southwest Region | Kersey, CO

Main Product: Vegetables

Scale: 105 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Improve irrigation, add protected space.

This story is based on a 2013 interview.

Jerry and Jacquie Monroe are the third generation to farm his family’s 20-acre “homeplace” in Kersey, Colorado, about an hour northeast of Denver. Monroe Family Farms is the oldest organic farm in Colorado. When Jerry and Jacquie took over from Jerry’s father in 1991, they went into the business of growing organic vegetables in a big way, adding 175 acres and starting the first CSA in Colorado in 1993, because they wanted to work closely with people who appreciated their farming philosophy. Today, the farm produces a hundred different kinds of vegetables and all the pasture, hay and feed grains needed to produce pasture-based meats (beef, pork, and lamb) and eggs on site — all of it USDA-certified organic. With the help of seven employees, Jerry manages the crop and livestock production while Jacquie manages sales and distribution for their year-around, 650-member CSA. The farm also markets to select restaurants in Denver and Boulder.

The Monroes emphasize soil health, water and energy conservation on their farm. They maintain soil health by integrating livestock into a diverse rotation of vegetables, alfalfa and feed grains. Irrigation has been upgraded from gravity-fed, furrow irrigation to more water-efficient pivot and drip systems and they use tailwater ponds to capture and return to the fields any surface runoff that occurs during irrigation or rainfall events. Produce for the winter months of the CSA are stored in dugouts, pits and straw-bale buildings, to reduce energy use. Jerry and Jacquie have succeeded with a philosophy of growing ample quantities of organic, life-filled and healthy foods while conserving and respecting the natural environment and to providing an educational experience working with Mother Nature for any CSA members who want it.

Sixteen years of extreme drought combined with higher summer temperatures, warmer winters, more extreme weather and a longer growing season have put the focus on water efficiency. “Water management has become huge,” says Jacquie. “Jerry has to keep track of how much water we have, how much he’s used. Everything has been flood irrigated here. Back in the day, they dug ditches and then had these pipes that went over the ditches and fields were just flooded to irrigate them. When you flood irrigate the top of the farm gets more water and the bottom of the farm gets less water and in the middle is the only part that gets the perfect amount of water.”

“Then we had to start conserving water because of the drought so we started putting in drip irrigation. I would say we have sixty acres of vegetables. When we first started with the drip irrigation, we put ten acres in. We’re up to probably forty acres of drip irrigation. And the rest of the crops are now under a new center pivot that we put in just this year because of the shortage of water. We want to make sure that we can continue to grow vegetables and the pivot and drip irrigation it puts that exact amount of water throughout the whole entire system. We are doing a lot more with water management. I don’t know that we would have done if our weather hadn’t changed and we hadn’t been so dry.”

Jacquie says that another change that has come with the drought has been more challenging weeds. “Weeds are starting to go crazy out here. We’re finding some of them are becoming very invasive. I can give you two examples. We’ve always had what’s called goatheads. It’s a small weed that grows very low to the ground and has a burr that sticks in your tires and in your shoes. It used to be only in certain parts of the farm, but now it seems to be going everywhere. The other one is sunflowers. We’ve never had sunflowers here before the drought. They are literally taking over all of our ditches. Anywhere that you can’t mow or get to they grow like trees and we can’t seem to get rid of them. These weeds are getting to be a problem for us. We’re trying to do a lot of mowing to try to keep them down, but the darn things adapt. They’re growing shorter now and growing a head and flowering close to the ground where the mower doesn’t hit.”

Like many other vegetable growers across the nation, the Monroes have also found opportunity in the longer growing season created by the changing climate. Jacquie estimates that in the last decade they have extended their growing season nearly two months with the help of some physical protection for frosts. They are in the field about a month earlier in the spring and can extend the fall harvest season about a month longer than they used to. “We’re picking things by the first of June and that’s never happened in our lives. That is crazy to think that we are able to produce something and harvest it by the first of June when our official last freeze date is May 15. We’ve extended our harvest season and our income has increased because of it.”

Jacquie and Jerry’s twenty-two-year-old son is weighing the pros and cons of joining his parents in the farm business. He would like to become the fourth generation on the farm, but competition for water in the region makes it difficult to imagine a lifetime in farming. “We are very concerned in the future about our water rights and whether or not we’re going to be able to get our water,” says Jacquie. “The cities are buying the water off the farms and taking it back to the city so people can eat, drink, bathe and water their lawns. Our elderly farmers are selling out. Once a person has gotten to a certain age and there isn’t a family member who wants to take over the farm, they sell their water. I don’t blame them. They finally have something of value that somebody wants and they’re paying them well for it, but it sure hurts the rest of us.”

“I’m to the point where I’m going to start asking at our annual water meeting that the farmers quit selling it, that they rent it to the cities for the rest of their lives and the rest of their children’s lives so that we can keep control of our water. That way the farmers can still have some kind of control over what’s going on out here. The cities are drying up our farms. They say that seven hundred thousand acres is supposed to be dried up in the next ten or fifteen years. It means that water will never go back to those farms. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”

Rosmann Family Farms

Rosmann Family Farms

Rosmann Family Farms

Ron and Maria Rosmann run Rosmann Family Farms along with their sons, David and Daniel, and Daniel’s wife, Ellen (not pictured). Credit: Rosmann Family Farms.

In the last three years we’ve had these huge amounts of rain in late May and June right when we’re supposed to be doing field work like weed control and planting cover crops into standing corn. We can’t get the job done. We can’t get decent weed control and so on because the window of opportunity for getting into the field is so small. So then labor becomes an issue and you have to put in incredible long days when the opportunity arises.

Ron Rosmann

Rosmann Family Farms

Midwest Region | Harlan, IA

Main Product: Livestock & Grain

Scale: 700 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Diversified crop/livestock production, on-farm retail store, local foods café in nearby town.

This story is based on a 2013 interview.

Rosmann Family Farms is comprised of 700 acres of rolling prairie lands near Harlan in west central Iowa. With help from their children, Ron and Maria Rosmann produce certified organic feed and food grains as well as beef, pork and poultry on land that has been in the family since 1939, when Ron’s father established the farm. After graduating from Iowa State University in 1973, Ron returned to manage the farm when his father retired. Ron farmed for commodity markets for about ten years, but became uncomfortable using chemical fertilizers and pesticides because of concerns about impacts to the environment and his family’s health. So Ron reverted to crop rotations that were common when his father started farming, and found that the farm could be profitable and productive. Ron went on to become an early adopter in his region of more sustainable production practices such as diversified crop rotations, intensive grazing and the Swedish deep bedding pork production system.

Today, the Rosmann Family Farm is a certified organic crop and livestock farm. The farm integrates beef cattle and swine into a diverse five-year crop rotation designed to produce the feed needed by the livestock operations, plus feed and food grains for sale. Corn, oats, soybeans, rye, barley, turnips, pasture and hay are grown on the farm. Intensive grazing practices produce grass-finished beef from a heard of eighty-five cows and calves, and a farrow-to-finish operation produces pork from thirty sows in a Swedish deep-bedding system. The organic waste produced by the farming operations, including the manure from the hogs, is composted and returned to cropland. Ron has not purchased nitrogen fertilizer since 1982, instead getting nitrogen for his crops through crop rotation and compost. Rock phosphate is applied about once every four or five years according to soil test recommendations. Beef, pork, feed and food grains are sold through wholesale and direct markets, including an on-farm retail store, managed by Maria, that is stocked with a variety of Rosmann Family Farm products as well as goods from neighboring farms.

Thinking about the effects of weather variability and extremes on farm performance over his lifetime, Ron says that there have definitely been some changes in recent years. More heavy rainfall and extreme weather, particularly extreme temperature swings in winter, more wind and a longer growing season, have created some new management challenges. “Anything involving variability in precipitation generally is a challenge,” according to Ron, “but the worst for us is excess moisture because it means you can’t get your work done, whether it’s baling hay, cultivating, planting, harvesting, planting cover crops, you name it. Of course, that’s an ongoing problem for organic farming anyway, but it’s just been exacerbated by the increased variability.”

Other changes in weather include more wind and more extreme storms. “We never used to have tornados,” Ron explains. “I saw my first tornado when I was forty-four years old, in ’94. I’ve seen two, three, four tornados since then. And hail. We never used to have hail very much, maybe once every seven years. Now we get it a little bit nearly every year. We’re in what’s come to be called a hail belt.” Another change is that temperature extremes have become more extreme. “If you come from the Midwest or have lived in the Midwest,” says Ron, “you know we have extremes, but the extremes have gotten worse. An example is last Monday [January 2014], it was 18 below zero temperature with a 25-mile-an-hour wind. We had a 40 below wind chill. Five days after that it got up to 48 degrees.” Looking back, Ron thinks the greater temperature extremes may have started in the early ’80s, when it was common to have weeks of 50-below wind chills and huge amounts of snow. Still, the worst snow that Ron has ever experienced was in the winter of 2010. “Our cattle were out in the fields. We couldn’t get out there and when we eventually did, we had no place to feed them,” Ron recalls. “It took some pretty big equipment to get through that kind of snow because it’s the wide-open prairies out here.”

Besides such physical challenges, Ron thinks the recent extreme swings in temperature are creating novel stress for his cattle. “What is the effect of temperature fluctuation and extreme weather changes on rates of gains?,” he asks. “ I think there may be more challenges for ruminants like our cattle with weather fluctuations. It used to be that the cattle could tank up on feed because you could count on the cold spell hanging around a couple weeks,” Ron explains. “Now we’ve got 50-, 60-degree swings in a matter of days, plus you throw the wind in. That’s the biggest change I’ve seen in my lifetime. Yes, we’ve always had those variations but not happening continually. You’d have longer periods in between. These extreme swings are hard.”

Longer growing seasons have increased weed management difficulties on the farm too, particularly with one weed species, giant ragweed. It has been a long-term challenge in the low-lying areas of the farm, but in the last five years or so it began moving up the hills on parts of the farm. Ron thinks wetter weather in May and June, combined with earlier spring warm-up and the longer growing season, work together to promote the spread of the weed. He explains, “We use a ridge-till system, which is a minimal tillage system. We don’t do any spring tillage until we are ready to plant. We historically are not even thinking about planting corn until May 1, but now the giant ragweed are already getting big by then. They are a tough weed to take out with cultivation.”

Ron says that many neighboring farmers are also increasingly challenged by changing weather conditions. Giant ragweed is even more troublesome on their farms and more narrow windows for fieldwork are creating other challenges. Many of his neighbors, most of whom are industrial corn and soybean farmers, have abandoned best management practices in an effort to get their fieldwork done at all. Ron explains, “Now every farmer in this region, just about, gets all their nitrogen fertilizer put on in the fall because they’re worried about it raining all spring. They have got to get the work done when they can because they are farming huge numbers of acres with huge equipment. But the data says between 40 and 60 percent of the nitrogen that they put on their ground is lost every year to the ground water.” Ron also says that many farmers in his region are upgrading and expanding tile drainage systems in an effort to move standing water off their fields after more frequent heavy rainfalls. This increased drainage capacity will likely wash even more nitrogen out of the farm system.

Ron is concerned about adaptations like these, which many industrial farmers are making to address current climate challenges. He fears many such farmers are focused on addressing the symptoms of climate change rather than looking for root causes such as federal support for large-scale industrial agriculture. “They keep working on genetically engineered crops and so forth, without ever looking at what caused the flooding or extreme drought in the first place. They just don’t consider the big-picture issues or how the system is creating these issues.” Ron goes on, “I found that out loud and clear this past fall [2013] when I was on a panel about the World Food Prize. There was a big biotech farmer on the panel who suggested to me that our farm system isn’t sustainable because it can’t be scaled up. I found out later that he and his brother were paid $2.3 million in farm subsidies over a thirteen-year period, which was the most of any farm in that county. And he has the audacity to say that his system is sustainable.”

Thinking about his farm as a whole, Ron says, “A testimony to the resilience of our farm system is the fact that we have never lost a crop to pests in thirty years now of no pesticides. We have never even come close to having insects or disease or anything destroy our yields. We’ve had stable, very good yields during all that time. That’s always something that people tend to look at you with, ‘Huh? I find that hard to believe.’ People don’t believe it. Of course, I’ll be the first to say we have a lot of things we could be doing better, but still, overall, the resilience shows itself in our system. Our soil quality shines here. It really does. And we work to enhance those ecosystem services, as they’re called, by continually planting more trees, more shrubs, more crops for pollinators, more windbreaks and more wildlife habitat. The diversity is what will continue to play a big role for us.”

In the future, Ron would like to move away from annual grain crops and incorporate more perennial nut, fruit and berry crops, both as food and as forages for livestock. He is inspired by Mark Shepard’s work adapting perennial cropping systems to Minnesota prairie landscapes. Ron explains, “That’s the kind of thing I would ideally like to do. But right now I’m going to put an emphasis on more water quality buffers, increasing the diversity of our headlands, getting more pollinator plants out there and planting more trees. Right now we have two and a half acres of managed woodlands, a diverse plantation that I planted with eleven different species on it.”

Over the years, Ron has engaged with diverse audiences on sustainable agriculture and rural community issues and the Rosmann family have welcomed numerous tours, visitors and research collaborators to the farm. Ron is a founding member of Practical Farmers of Iowa, a farmer-driven research and education organization, and has been active in the Organic Farming Research Foundation as a member, board member and president. In 2006, the Rosmann family received the Spencer Award for Sustainable Agriculture, which recognizes Iowa farmers who have made significant contributions toward the stability of Iowa farming. In 2012 the Catholic Rural Life Conference presented Ron and Maria with the Isidore and Maria Exemplary Award, which honors a rural couple who exemplify fidelity to a vision and vocation of rural life that combines family, stewardship and faith.


Harmony Valley Farm

Harmony Valley Farm

Harmony Valley Farm

Harmony Valley Farm co-owners Raphael Morales Peralta, Richard de Wilde and Andrea Yoder. Credit: Harmony Valley Farm.

In August of 2007 we got hit really hard with some really weird flooding caused by 18 inches of rain in a less than a 24-hour period. A lot of crops were peaking just then, like tomatoes. We had pretty big losses because a lot of our farm land is along the Bad Ax River. They called that a thousand year event. And then we had another one nine months later. That was when I said, ‘There’s no such thing as normal anymore’.

Richard DeWilde

Harmony Valley Farm

Midwest Region | Viroqua, WI

Main Product: Vegetables

Scale: 200 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Social recovery reserves, add cooling, low growing cover crops, shift from compost/cover crops to fertilizer w/crop testing, retreat from floodplains.

This story is based on a 2013 interview, updated in 2020.

Harmony Valley Farm is a diversified farm that spreads out over 200 acres of cropland, pastures and forest near Viroqua in southern Wisconsin, about two hours northwest of Madison. Richard de Wilde and Andrea Yoder, the co-owners manage the production of about 100 acres of organic vegetables and berries at the farm and on some leased land nearby.

Richard is a cofounder and master grower at Harmony Valley Farm, established in 1985, and applies his forty-plus years of farming experience to the integrated management of a healthy natural growing environment on the farm. Richard has always made managing for soil health a priority, believing it to be a key contributor to the success of the farm. Over the years, he has developed a system of cover cropping with green manures, applying natural rock powders and incorporating compost to maintain healthy soils. He controls pest by managing perennial habitat and nesting sites for beneficial wildlife including raptors, songbirds, bats, wasps and insects. Harmony Valley Farm is best known for its season-long, high-quality salad mix, sauté greens and spinach, as well as root crops harvested in the fall and distributed throughout the winter. The farm also produces grass-finished beef using intensive grazing practices.

Harmony Valley Farm sells organic produce, berries and beef through direct and wholesale markets, including a 1500-member CSA that runs from May through January with deliveries locally and to Madison, WI, and Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. The farm also sells at the weekly Dane County Farmers Market, and to retail grocers and wholesale distributors throughout a large area from the Twin Cities to Madison. It employs a large team that varies from fifteen to sixty members, depending on the time of year, to produce and market its products.

Starting about seven or eight years ago, changing weather began to require some changes in production practices at the farm. More frequent heavy rains and stronger winds, more variable springs, warmer summers and longer falls have complicated vegetable production, according to Richard. “River bottom land is the best kind of land for growing vegetables in our area. And it’s great in dry periods, because we can irrigate out of the river.”

But the farm’s million dollars in losses in 2007 and 2008 as a result of unprecedented flooding really got Richard’s attention. “Not many people understand that vegetable farmers have little to no insurance against weather. We can participate in the USDA’s NAP program and we do. N-A-P is the abbreviation for Noninsured Agricultural Production. Noninsured meaning it’s not corn, soybeans, cotton, wheat. It’s not a commodity. NAP is a poor program. It is. It’s totally inadequate and we really don’t have much else. After the flood in 2007, USDA did not help us out. But if you’re a corn farmer, you can buy government-supported, 90-percent-guaranteed income on the corn crop. It’s gross. We should care more about feeding people than raising corn for export and ethanol and corn syrup.”

Richard remembers when weather used to move pretty predictably from west to east. During the 2007 flooding, he noticed for the first time a weather pattern that he associates with severe weather. “Something that I had never seen before the 2007 flood is a pattern of southerly flow bringing moisture up the Mississippi River Valley. The moisture turned in a circle before it hit the Great Lakes and then it just looped back on us and didn’t stop. It just didn’t move off and that’s why we got eighteen inches of rain. Now we have these weird looping events. I’ve seen it several times since and now it just scares me when I see that loop.”

Other than the extreme flooding events, most of the changes in weather Richard has observed are more severe expressions of familiar seasonal patterns. For example, extreme swings in the timing of spring are more common these days. For many years, spring planting at Harmony Valley Farm began reliably in the first week in April, but in the last decade it has begun to vary by almost a month, which increasingly complicates spring planning and transplant production. Falls generally are longer but more variable, so Richard has extended the fall production season “knowing that we are going to get burned sometimes.”

Richard also has noticed that winds seem to have become more frequent and intense. “Strong winds have definitely become more of a factor in the last few years. We have more wind and stronger wind. We lose row covers more often now. We’ve had more problems with row covers — even if they’d stayed on, there were so much wind that the movement of the cover abraded the leaves and so we have crop damage even under the cover, even if the cover stays on. In the winter, it used to be that the winds died down at night. This winter we’ve had an amazing amount of night winds and that brings more risk of wind chill.”

Looking back on the years since 2013, Richard recalls that 2014, 2015 and 2016 were “pretty good years” at Harmony Valley Farm and he was able to “save money for a rainy day.” And it was good that he did, because over the next four years, Richard says the weather took a turn for the worst.  “We’ve had four extremely cold, wet springs in row,” he explains, “and every single one set a record for the latest first day in the field. But then, not very long after that, it turned so hot that it was unbelievable.”

Three of these four years, flooding repeatedly damaged creek banks and low-lying fields, including one storm in 2018 that washed away five acres of top soil from one of Richard’s best fields. This combination of cold, wet conditions and extreme temperature shifts in the spring, plus heavier rains late into the fall created a number of disruptions in crop nutrition, crop pollination and harvest operations.

Richard has managed the crop nutrition challenges by making a shift from providing nutrients to his crops with fall-applied compost and winter cover crops to applying fertilizers during the spring and summer growing seasons based on regular crop testing. “We were seeing nutrient deficiencies that just did not make sense. We had problems that we’ve never seen before, fertility problems that shouldn’t have been there because there was plenty of nutrients in the soil. We were able to correct it pretty easily by applying fertilizers through our drip (irrigation) tape, but we have almost twice the fertilizer bill in these really heavy wet years as what we normally would.”

Generally wetter conditions through much of the growing season got Richard and his management team thinking about how to protect the soil from erosion during heavy rains and at the same time improve conditions for fieldwork. “We are developing a whole new system of low growing ground cover for the area in between our beds,” Richard explains. “Our beds are raised a little, and that’s a good thing because the water runs off the bed right away, but we were losing so much soil off of almost level fields with all the heavy rain. We went to this system of planting a mix of the shortest white Dutch clover we could find and the shortest grass that we know – creeping red fescue – in between the beds.” Richard says that they still have a few challenges with this new system to figure out, but it has reduced soil erosion, plus “for harvest, it’s really pleasant. You’re not walking in mud, you’re walking on the lawn.”

Damaging flooding has required more attention to cleaning up the creeks and dry washes that run through the farm to reduce the chances of water building up behind floating debris and overflowing into adjacent farm fields during heavy rains. Richard has abandoned several fields that have repeatedly flooded over the last five years and converted one flood-prone field from annual vegetable production to permanent pasture which is leased to a neighboring dairy farmer for custom grazing. “We said no more, three strikes and you’re out,” Richard explains. We are just not going to farm it anymore if it floods.”

Richard has always viewed good management as the most important part of cultivating climate resilience at Harmony Valley Farm. He appreciates the energy and enthusiasm for figuring out how to manage new weather challenges that the younger farmers on his management team bring to their work. “They’re not set in their ways,” Richard says. “They don’t have a preconceived notion about how it’s going to be. They are just learning and they are willing to try anything. I’m not sure I’d keep doing it if it wasn’t for them.”

One of these younger farmers, Raphael Morales, recently became the newest partner in Harmony Valley Farm.  After working 10 years on the farm as an H-2A temporary worker, Richard sponsored Raphael for a permanent visa. “Now he can be here year-around,” Richard explains, “which is what you need to be able  run a farm.”

Richard de Wilde has received national recognition for his long record of success as an organic grower and as a CSA marketer with a Sustie Award from the Ecological Farming Association and a Farmer of the Year award from the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, both in 2003.  Harmony Valley Farm was profiled as one of sixty model U.S. sustainable farms and ranches in the USDA-SARE publication, The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural Innovation.