2009 MOSES Organic Farmer of the Year: "Diversity Leads to Stability"
This article was first printed in the February 2009 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.
The MOSES Board of Directors is pleased to announce that Tom and Irene Frantzen, New Hampton, Iowa have been named MOSES 2009 Organic Farmer of the Year.
The Frantzens own 300 tillable acres and rent an additional 85 acres. All crops grown are used on farm for animal feed except for soybeans, which are sold as a cash crop. Their farrow to finish hog operation produces 600 head for market with 40 brood sows. They also keep 50 beef brood cows. All beef and hog slaughter animals are certified organic and marketed through Organic Prairie Meat Company.
In order to assure consistent access to organic soy protein feeds needed for their hog production, Tom and Irene started an organic feed business, Frantzen Farm Feeds LLC, in 2001. They now supply certified organic hog, poultry and dairy feeds to organic farmers in the Midwest.
Their farm and feed business is certified organic by International Certification Services. Tom is occasionally assisted on the farm by two high school students, while Irene, recently retired from her off -farm job, keeps track of the record keeping and helps with sorting and marketing the hogs. She also tends to the family organic garden, which provides much of the food for their table. The Frantzens were proud to serve organic and local food at their daughter’s wedding this last summer!
How Tom and Irene came to be organic farmers
In October 1979, when Tom was 27, he had been farming his father’s farm conventionally for five years. They primarily grew corn using liquid manure, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. One day while he was at work painting the barn he heard Pope John Paul II addressing a large crowd at the Living History Farms near Des Moines. The Pope spoke about stewardship and preserving the land from generation to generation. Tom realized then that he needed to find new ways to farm.
Tom at that time had little interest in organics, but started experimenting with reducing pesticide use and diversifying his crop rotation. He got involved with Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), which supported farmers who were individually researching alternatives to conventional mono-cropping. Tom began his own on-farm research, with and without herbicides, and learned he could maintain production yields while reducing chemical inputs.
By the early 1990s, the Frantzens realized they needed to do more to sustain the farm. In 1991, they participated in courses on Holistic Resource Management offered by the Land Stewardship Project and developed their own business plan integrating crop rotation, soil ecology, organic markets and quality of life. This planning process involved the entire family in forming a mission statement and goal setting, and continues to help them make the right decisions today!
In 1995, Tom and Irene spent two weeks in Sweden learning about alternative pork production, including the deep straw bedding system, which has since been adopted here in the United States. Sweden was an early leader in imposing stricter animal welfare laws and the banning of sub-therapeutic antibiotic use. Tom and Irene came back from that trip energized with new ideas for their own farm, which they have since been successful in incorporating and improving upon.
The Frantzen Farm land has been certified organic since 1998. The pork was first certified in 1999, followed by their beef herd in 2003. Currently, International Certification Services is their certification agent.
Innovative crop and livestock production strategies
Tom likes to say, “I have a simple crop rotation but a complicated life.” The Frantzen’s grow corn, soybeans, and small grains (succotash – wheat, barley, and oats). He uses a diversified 7-year crop rotation of corn-soybeans-corn-succotash-hay-pasture-pasture. All corn is harvested on the ear, which eliminates the need for drying corn. Whole cob corn is fed to cattle, shelled corn to hogs, and cobs are used for bedding.
Weeds are controlled mostly by the diversified crop rotation. Soybeans are planted in 22 inch rows, creating an early canopy for better weed control. Tom also regularly uses a rotary hoe, Einbock tine weeder in combination with modified front and rear cultivators, and a flame weeder.
Several years ago the Frantzens saw reduced soybean yields due to aphid and bean beetle damage. But crop yields have now leveled off, due to balances in their beneficial insect populations, Tom thinks. Yields for soybeans averaged 30 bu/acre in the last two years, with corn consistently averaging 140 bu/acre.
Nowhere has Tom’s contribution to organic farming been more significant than in organic hog production and marketing.
When Tom started with organic hog production there were no good markets for organic hogs. Organic Valley/CROPP Cooperative started the Organic Meat Company in 1996 with an organic beef pool. The organic pork program originated in Tom and Irene’s living room when, in 1998, he made a phone call to George Siemon, CEO of CROPP Cooperative. The resulting Organic Prairie Meat Company was formed, with the Frantzen’s first organic hogs shipped in 1999.
Tom has improved upon his late father’s pasture farrowing practices. From May to October, gestating gilts and sows are run on rotated legume pastures, farrowing in modified A-frame shelters as well as Nesting Boxes™. The piglets are suckled for the next 6-8 weeks. They share the pasture with other sows that have farrowed within a 7 day window. Piglets from the entire group are raised as a batch. Each paddock is supplied with fresh water through underground pipes, and shelterbelts are planted around each field provide shade. Pasture farrowing reduces capital costs and labor, especially clean-up chores. It also reduces fly problems.
In colder weather farrowing sows share a hoop house with individual Nesting Boxes™. These huts have individual heating systems, reducing fuel costs. Gestation sows are fed in free-access feeding stalls, designed by Tom and his son, James, from used 2’x7’ gestation stalls. This has resulted in improving sow condition and reproductive performance. The gestation facility incorporates techniques from modern swine production as well as allowing for pasture access.
Tom has utilized pasture and crop residues for grazing sows for many years. An advantage to grazing sows is that labor and feed costs are reduced. Tom also found that sows adapt easily to any feed changes due to pasture problems. When on pasture, sows are also fed Tom’s own ground corn/mineral mix. In the fall, crop aftermath provides free feed to this herd for many days.
Combining what he learned in Sweden with Iowa State University research, Tom adopted the hoop house system, (which originated in Canada), with deep straw bedding for organic hog production. When pigs are weaned at six weeks, they are moved to their own 30’x72’ hoop house, which is gated at both ends. Straw beddingis spread weekly. No supplemental heat is needed, as the bedding slowly composts, emitting heat. Hogs are allowed to roam freely, rooting and foraging in their bedding. Tom provides outdoor access by fencing off a concrete pad area at the south end of the hoop house. When the hoop house is cleaned out, the deep bedding is then applied to fields as fertilizer.
Keeping hogs healthy has been a fulltime job for Tom and is his biggest challenge. After years of frustration, Organic Prairie’s pork program contracted the assistance of Tracy Harper, a swine reproduction specialist. Tom outlined the keys to maintaining pork herd health:
Records are kept not only for organic certification but to enhance management decisions. In particular, the Frantzens keep a close account of crop production, breeding, farrowing and calving, feeds, and sales. Tom keeps a monthly inventory of hogs by size and building ID, which helps him make marketing decisions.
Enhancing farm resources
Tom protects soil health by not plowing in the fall, preferring to leave weed seeds on the top of the ground so insects and mammals can find and eat them. Tillage is done as late possible, so the tall weeds can be used as plowdown. In this way, he minimizes exposing bare soil to wind and water erosion.
Shelterbelts were planted around the farm, beginning in 1992. These 66 foot wide belts surround most of the borders and include diverse plantings. Some of the inside belts include nut bearing bushes from the Badgersett Research farm.
Tom has participated in several on-farm research projects through Practical Farmers of Iowa. In 1989, he cooperated with an ISU research project investigating narrow strip intercropping. These 12 foot wide strips of corn, soybeans, and small grains were replicated across the field. Research observations included soil conservation, crop yields, pest pressures and wildlife. Many graduate students were involved. The project was finally abandoned in 1994 due to common stalk borer problems, but a lot was learned about biodiversity and improving wildlife.
Tom was giving a talk in Pennsylvania when an Amish Organic Valley producer challenged him to explain why Organic Valley byproduct butter was being discarded. Typical of Tom’s approach to life, Tom went home and organized a meeting with both hog farmers and Organic Valley/CROPP Cooperative employees to develop a delivery system whereby the byproduct is now being fed directly to organic hogs. No wonder Organic Prairie pork tastes so good! This saves a large amount of byproduct butter from finding its way into a landfill yearly.
Tom has developed a pelleted protein feed product derived from organic soybean screenings consisting of hulls, pods, and small amounts of weed seeds. Weed seeds are heat treated so they won’t germinate. This protein is labeled Econopro. The name stands for Economical Organic Protein. It has been successfully used in swine, beef and dairy rations, reducing the cost of those diets.
A geothermal heating/cooling system was installed in their 1890 farm house, thereby decreasing their reliance on fossil fuels. The Frantzens have made an effort to retain as much of the 1890 appearance of the farm buildings as possible.
The Frantzens were recognized as the Outstanding Conservationist in 1993 by the Isaac Walton League. In 2000, Tom received special recognition from the National Humane Society for his work with humane treatment of animals.
Inspiration and Education
Everyone has heard Tom give enthusiastic presentations on organic farming, organic hog production, animal welfare, and a variety of keynote presentations. He has been a popular speaker several times at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference and the Organic University program, the MN Organic Conference, Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) meetings, Land Stewardship Project, and SFA’s Farm Beginnings program. He is especially good at telling his story of becoming an organic farmer!
Tom must enjoy being president! He served five years on the board of Organic Prairie Meat Company, and was president during the latter two years of his tenure. He has been very active in PFI , having served as president. He also served on the MOSES board of directors for several terms.
Through Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) and Organic Prairie’s pork pool, the Frantzens have hosted many field days and farm tours on a variety of topics including whole farm planning and holistic farm management, as well as organic hog production. They have hosted and worked with farmers, researchers, and students from every continent but one, (Antarctica), including several large groups of Australians in the past years. Through his leadership with PFI Tom has talked with many groups across the United States, and was selected to represent PFI on the Kellogg Integrated Food Systems Initiative.
Tom also got involved in the fight with USDA Federal-State Inspection Service to allow certified organic meat producers to label their products as “organic.”
Every year, about 50 students from the local high school environmental science class visit the farm. Tom is involved in FFA and the agricultural program at the high school, helping kids learn about organic farming from the soil up.
He is past president of the local church parish council and past president of his FFA alumni chapter. Irene has been just as involved with community activities being a past 4-H leader and also a member of the local FFA Alumni. She, too, on occasion has joined Tom in speaking engagements. Just recently Tom and Irene spearheaded a project to re-open the local gas/convenience store in their local community of Alta Vista. Seventeen investors formed an LLC and the store was opened January 9, 2009. Naturally, he is board chairman.
The Frantzens’ story has been detailed in many organic and traditional publications over the years, including Newsweek (Sept. 30, 2002), National Hog Farmer (Jan, 15, 2008), Rodale Institute (www.awionline.org/farm/frantzen.html), Organic Prairie Meet the Farmers (www.organicprairie.coop), SARE Newsletter/Fact Sheet (Nov. 1998) (www.sare.org/ncrsare/newsletter/fnpn1198.html) and MOSES Organic Broadcaster (Sept-Oct. 2003, Vol. II, No. 5). Just google “Tom Frantzen iowa farmer” to access these and many more!
Tom’s advice for beginning organic farmers
Tom credits his friend and mentor, Ron Rosmann, another Iowa groundbreaking organic farmer, for good advice on crop rotation, business planning and general encouragement over the years. As Tom says, “Organics is no place for loners, or the John Wayne mentality of knowing everything and not needing advice.” Tips Tom would like to pass on to others:
The Frantzens have 3 grown children. Jessica teaches students in Minnesota with emotional behavioral disorders (EBD). Jolene is teaching K-12 vocal music in southwest Iowa. James currently lives in Wisconsin and is Organic Prairies’ pork program coordinator. They all lead busy, fruitful lives. While raising the family on their diversified farm the children were exposed to valuable life experiences. Each of the three has participated in livestock chores, fieldwork, farm tours, and many other farm practices. As adults, they cherish these memories. James, when available, still helps on the farm and his future desire is to farm the family farm. Tom and Irene continue to provide long- term stability for the next generation, enabling the farm to be preserved as a family farm. Tom takes great pride in the fact that only 4 families have lived on their farm since 1887. He is currently writing a history of the farm, from the origin of the landscape to present times, including the geology of the area and history of the people, buildings and livestock.
Congratulations to Tom and Irene Frantzen, 2009 MOSES Organic Farmer of the Year!
Joyce has been an organic inspector and inspector trainer for over 16 years. Prior to inspecting, she and her husband, Jim Riddle, owned and operated a 10-acre certified organic vegetable operation in Winona, Minnesota. She has co-authored several manuals on organic inspection, certification, and retail handling. Previously, Joyce served as MOSES Board President.
MOSES now has a mentoring program. Sign up to be a mentor, or get a mentor at mosesorganic.org. Other mentoring programs are Minnesota Organic Farmers Information Exchange (Carmen Fernholz, ph. 320-212-3008, or email firstname.lastname@example.org) or get their mentor list direct at www.organicecology.umn.edu/mofie, Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), www.practicalfarmers.org, and Land Stewardship Project, www.landstewardshipproject.org.
See www.mnproject.org/publications for more information on The Whole Farm Planner. The MN Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA) has a 30-page booklet, Whole Farm Planning: Combining Family, Profit, and Environment, which discusses whole farm planning, including the four steps: setting goals, making an inventory and assessment of farm resources, evaluating management options and implementing the plan, and ongoing monitoring.Return to TOP