Agriculture, Farm Operation January 01, 2024
How Ron Rosmann adjusts Rosmann family farms to economic and climate changes.
Ron Rosmann loves trees.
I mean, he really loves trees. A tour of his family's Harlan, Iowa, farm is riddled with references to the hundreds of trees he's planted over the last 40 years.
"It's just their beauty, and the birds and wildlife that live in them that I love," he says.
Pausing in a grove adjacent to his house, Rosmann tests his Merlin Bird ID app on his cell phone. As our conversation cools, Merlin accurately pegs a singing cardinal.
"Back when I started, I was an evergreen lover, but now I am more of a native hardwood tree lover," he explains. Glancing at a five-foot high bur oak hardwood he planted in 2018, Rosmann says it's not uncommon for them to live up to 350 years.
"We are definitely planting trees for the future," he says.
Looking forward. Bur oak also symbolizes the resilience that Rosmann is tapping to move the family's 140-year-old farm forward. Rosmann returned to farm with his parents Ray and Ellen after graduating from Iowa State University in 1973 with a biology degree. His father's belief in crop diversity hugely influenced him.
"When everyone was going to just corn and soybeans, he believed in rotating more crops," Rosmann says. Cow-calf pairs and farrow-to-finish hogs were also part of the farm's mix.
In his early farming years, Rosmann and wife Maria Vakulskas Rosmann conducted on-farm research with Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) co-founders Dick and Sharon Thompson.
"PFI had a saying that environmentally sound farming practices are good for the pocketbook and good for the environment," says Rosmann.
That became apparent after touring the Thompson ridge-till farm that had more weed-free fields without pesticides than the Rosmanns had using chemicals.
That spurred the Rosmanns to steer their farm away from pesticides in 1983. They used chemicals briefly in the early 1990s as weeds increased, but a 1993 grant from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program enabled them to conduct an on-farm trial comparing ridge-till crops with and without herbicides. Since the trial found no yield difference between the two strategies, the Rosmanns organically certified their farm in 1994.
This lowered input costs. "Still, you can cut input costs to zero and still not survive if you don't get much of a price for your products," says Rosmann.
Following organic certification, the Rosmanns tapped a lucrative organic market.
"The Japanese were paying $15 to $18 per bushel for organic soybeans back then, when conventional soybeans were only bringing $5 to $6 per bushel," he says.
This route also enabled the couple to later make room for sons David and Daniel to farm with them.
"We are always learning," Rosmann says. "We have to learn more about being more resilient to changing economics and climate change. How do we survive in a world of mostly large operations? We support three families on 700 acres. But it's not easy."
One way they're doing it is boosting ridge-till machinery efficiency by converting from a four-row to six-row system.
Crop diversification enables them to reduce pest and price risk by rotating between corn, soybeans, and oats. After calving, Rosmann also plants succotash—a feed mix of oats, spring wheat, and barley laced with field peas—in a calving pasture. This slices soybean meal use by 50% when used in a hog finishing ration. This saves them feeding organic soybean meal that's valued around $1,000 per ton, he adds.
The farm also direct markets organic beef and pork under the Rosmann Family Farms label. They also sell meat through the Organic Valley Cooperative.
Further diversifying the farm are enterprises run by son Daniel and his wife, Ellen. They own Milk & Honey, a restaurant in Harlan, and FarmTable Delivery, a local food aggregator. Maria also operates a farm store, Farm Sweet Farm.
In 2020, the Rosmanns also built a one-acre pond adjacent to the farm's trees and shrubs.
"We built it for beauty and wildlife," he says. But eyeing a changing climate, they may tap the pond for irrigation water if prolonged drought ever occurs.
For Rosmann, spiritual reasons guide his philosophy of building a resilient system.
"I am old fashioned, but I believe in a creator, a power higher than us," he says. "We are a small part of something that is so big. I feel an obligation to share my knowledge and practices and experiences to find a better way." ‡
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