Published Apr 11, 2016

Sustainability and Restorative Ag: PFI members Anderson, DeCook, and Krouse deliver the Shivvers’ Lecture

By Liz Kolbe

“Sustainability is a great word until you realize what it might mean,” said farmer and PFI member Nathan Anderson, borrowing a favorite quote from his former professor, Dr. Matt Liebman.  He continued, “It can be very overwhelming, but is a great task for us as a community of farmers, of eaters, and of citizens.”

Anderson, who raises corn, soybeans, small grains and cattle with his family in Cherokee County, shared the stage at Iowa State University for the annual Shivvers’ Lecture with two fellow PFI farmer-members: Mike DeCook and Laura Krouse. The three farmers are a diverse set. Contrasting with Anderson’s mostly conventional operation, Mike DeCook raises bison near Lovilia on over 800 acres of un-fenced property, undergoing a “re-wilding” to prairie and wetlands. Laura farms 72 acres near Mt. Vernon, growing vegetables for a 200-member CSA, open-pollinated seed corn and hay.

Each farmer spoke for about 10 minutes, prompted to speak about practical steps they take on their farm for long-term sustainability. Anderson, musing over the three pillars of sustainability – economic, social, and environmental – noted that the first step to determining whether or a farm practice was sustainable was deciding if it supported your values, and if you enjoyed doing it. Here’s Nathan:

For example, Nathan sprays chemicals on his farm – this is the aspect of farming he likes least. To stop, though, a new system must be in place. By incorporating cover crops, small grains rotations, and grazing, Nathan and his family are slowly decreasing their use of chemicals.

Laura Krouse agreed with Nathan’s remark about the problematic nature of the word “sustainability” in common usage, citing a good-natured “sustainability” rivalry with a long-time neighboring farmer. She finds that opinions of the definition are very fluid. On her farm, soil quality and healthy waterways have always been a priority. She has contours, uses cover crops, established a wetland and prairie, maintains large waterway buffers and built a pond to irrigate the vegetables. She uses a long rotation; one year of vegetables followed by one year of corn, then 4-6 years of hay. Laura also provided the first, but not last, pointed remark of the evening about water quality in the state, recalling her disappointment in the managed waterways she saw on her drive to Ames from Mt. Vernon.

Mike DeCook doesn’t really use the word sustainable; he prefers “regenerative.” Mike, along with his parents, have worked with federal and state agencies and programs, and have hundreds of acres permanently protected from development with easements. From this land, they provide bison meat to local consumers. Here’s Mike, describing his farm ethic of “re-wilding” and his goal of a symbiotic relationship with the land:

For this re-wilding ethic to become reality, Mike realized he had to switch from cattle to bison. Here’s Mike:

Mike’s style of agriculture allows natural hydrology to rule the landscape; this, of course, doesn’t fit with the broader landscape and economy of Iowa’s agriculture. Stepping into the policy waters, Anderson and Krouse discussed changes they’d like to see at the state level (including better funding of IDALS staff to provide technical assistance to farmers).

Here’s Laura, reacting to a comment about herbicide use and changing agriculture:

Nathan contributed a strong opinion about tolerable soil loss values (t-values):

Laura added additional thoughts about the Nutrient Reduction Strategy and farmer action:

The hour discussion passed quickly, and we closed the evening with Nathan and Laura sharing a story to match Mike’s epiphany that winter he decided to switch to bison.

Nathan and Laura:

(I asked the question, but we all promise it wasn’t a shameless plug!)

For more about the three panelists’ work in PFI, check out the links below. Thanks to the Leopold Center, Shivvers Family, and the three presenters for an enjoyable evening.

Laura Krouse’s 2015 Field Day Re-Cap
Mike DeCook’s 2015 Field Day Re-Cap
Nathan Anderson’s Cover Crops are Springing in March