Practical Farmers of Iowa was founded in 1985 as an organization for farmers. We use farmer-led investigation and information sharing to help farmers practice an agriculture that benefits both the land and people.

Farm Crisis Leads to Search for New Ideas

Practical Farmers of Iowa was founded in 1985, a time when farmers were under great economic pressure. During that time, Iowa agriculture was in a threefold crisis: Evidence of the negative ecological consequences of current farming practices was mounting; the collapse of commodity prices called into question the economic sustainability of agriculture; and the demise of thousands of farms was draining the vitality of rural communities. Amid the turmoil of that time period, farmers sought ways to bring greater diversity to their farms as a means of reducing the need for costly inputs. A group of like-minded farmers came together looking for answers to how to make crop and livestock diversity work for them.

The Birth of a Farmer-Led Organization

It was during this time that Larry Kallem, a staff member with the Iowa Institute for Cooperatives in Ames, attended a field day at the Boone-area farm of Dick and Sharon Thompson. Impressed by the scientific methods the Thompson used to conduct research trials on their farm – and their sustainable, low-input, practical approach to farming – Larry invited Dick, Sharon and two other speakers to present at an Iowa Institute workshop on low-input farming in the autumn of 1984.

Following the workshop, Larry asked Dick if he would agree to help start an organization to make Dick and Sharon’s methods, philosophy and results more widely known to farmers. Dick was speaking the next day at a biological farming workshop at Iowa State University and said he would ask the audience members if they would be interested in such an organization. The response was a resounding “yes.” Thus, Dick, Sharon and Larry worked together to co-found the fledgling organization.

Harnessing Science to Making Farms More Sustainable

Founding members rallied farmers across Iowa to conduct randomized, replicated on-farm research to improve their profitability, efficiency and stewardship – sustainable agriculture goals that infuse our work and are at the heart of Practical Farmers’ mission to strengthen farms and communities through farmer-led investigation and information-sharing.

Early work focused on field crops and livestock. While these remain our two most popular program areas, farmer members’ interests have expanded to include horticulture, small grains, on-farm energy and local foods. In recent years, Practical Farmers has experienced rapid growth. Today, our membership comprises nearly 5,000 farmers and friends of farmers located across Iowa and beyond. While Practical Farmers of Iowa members can now be found in many states – and even across international borders – we have remained steadfast in our commitment to our mission and core values.