Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
July 23, 1999

Aloha, Hawaii; hello, Iowa

by Brian Meyer, Agriculture Information
Two years ago Kathleen Delate left Hawaii for Iowa to become the organic crops specialist at Iowa State. Thats right. Left Hawaii.

Delate laughs. "It's one of the most frequently asked questions I get. 'You left Hawaii? Are you nuts?'"

Delate, an assistant professor with a dual appointment in horticulture and agronomy, is happy to be here. Gravel roads and waving cornstalks may not compare to beaches and waving palm trees, but it's hard to beat Iowa for putting out the welcome mat.

Delate said she certainly has been welcomed in a state clamoring for information on organic agriculture.

"Last winter, at a presentation I gave in Cedar Rapids, three farmers stood up and gave impromptu testimonials about how important it was that Iowa State was active in organics," she said. "You don't see that in other states. Farmers here have a real appreciation for extension."

In 1995, Iowa had about 13,000 acres of organic crops. In '97, the number had risen to 62,000 acres on 175 farms. Last year, acreage rocketed to 120,000 acres on nearly 700 farms.

Iowa-grown organic crop production has rapidly become a $200 million industry. Nationwide, it's a $4.5 billion industry that's expanding at a rate of 20 percent annually.

"Iowa has tremendous potential for growing organic crops," Delate said. "The No. 1 constraint for organic production is fertile land, and Iowa is rich in that. When it doesn't rain like crazy, like it has at times this summer, you can easily control weeds with cultivation. It's actually easier to farm organically here than in other states because of the low insect and disease pressures."

That breeze you felt was a platoon of entomologists and plant pathologists doing a double take.

"Dont forget," Delate said, "I'd been working in the tropical and subtropical climates of Florida, California and Hawaii. You don't know what pest problems are until you've been there. Compared to those areas, you hardly see any damage from insects in Iowa."

Organic farmers work to meet consumer demands for food grown without chemicals. They use cultivation, crop rotations, biological pest management, natural nutrients like animal manure, and other ecologically based farming practices.

"Anyone who grew up on an Iowa farm in the 1930s and 40s knows what organic farming is like," Delate said. "When I told one of the ISU research farm superintendents that he'd need to run a rotary hoe twice through my plots to keep the weeds down, he told me he used to do that on his grandfathers farm."

Delate's interest in organics was sparked as a kid working on her grandparents' farm in Minnesota.

"No chemicals were ever used on the farm, but no one ever called it organic," she said. "It was just farming without spraying chemicals."

She began her college education at Iowa State, spending two years in farm operations and agronomy.

"I was one of those rare kids who knew what I wanted to do as a freshman and set about doing it," she said. "Non-chemical farming was what I called it."

She went on to earn degrees in agronomy and horticulture at the University of Florida and a Ph.D. in sustainable agriculture at the University of California at Berkeley.

She had been working three years in Hawaii as coordinator of a USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program when she met Jerry DeWitt, ISU professor of entomology.

"When I told him I'd been an undergraduate at ISU, he encouraged me to look into a new position being created in organic crops," Delate said. "Eighteen months later, I was coming to Iowa."

Myths or misconceptions about organic farming are quickly dispelled by Delate:

  • Organic is farming by hippies. "At one time in California, that may have been true, but not today," she said. "In Iowa, you can't tell the difference between an organic farmer and a conventional farmer. They're more alike than different."
  • Organic is farming by neglect -- you plant seeds and walk away. "Organic farming is more management intensive than conventional farming," Delate said. "For example, you need to see weeds when they're at the white thread stage to be able to keep them under control."
  • Organic is a get-rich-quick way to farm. "While markets are lucrative in certain areas, it's just like everything else in agriculture: supply and demand," she said. "Many organic farmers are sensitive to people who just want to jump in, make a quick buck and go back to conventional farming."
  • Delate has found that Iowans get interested in organic production for the same reasons as people in other states, but in a different order of importance.

    "There are three main reasons people say they get into organic farming: food safety, environmental quality and economics, in that order. In Iowa, it appears to be the reverse. Economics is first."

    But, Delate said, she's already seen a shift in how Iowa organic farmers think.

    "The most rewarding thing has been watching people make that switch from mainly economic thinking to the belief that they're doing something valuable for the environment," she said. "Farmers tell me they started out thinking only about cash flow, but then they begin to see the whole picture that includes land stewardship."

    "It's definitely a mindset," Delate continued. "Organic farmers walk their land more because they need to keep current on weeds and pests. One farmer said to me, 'I'll show you my GPS (global positioning system), it's right here on the back of my hand.' It can be a more intimate way of farming."

    To answer questions organic farmers have, Delate has established 10 research projects on ISU and private farms around the state, most with the support of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

    Two questions farmers frequently ask are: How well do organic crops yield compared to conventionally grown crops? And does it pay to grow organic?

    Answers so far from Delates research have been encouraging. Last year's yields from fields at an ISU farm in southwest Iowa showed no significant differences between organic and conventional corn and soybeans. Organic soybeans yielded a net profit of $747 per acre, more than three times that of conventionally grown beans. Organic corn profits were more than twice those of conventional corn.

    Delate's work also includes horticultural crops. For example, last year organic herbs and peppers were grown at research plots near Maquoketa and Muscatine (more than 1,500 pounds of the peppers were donated to a food bank). "Most organic produce now comes from Colorado and California," she said. "I'm looking for niches that Iowa could fill."

    Delate has definitely settled into an Iowa mindset. Early in July, on the way home from a three-week World Bank training project in the country of Georgia, she stopped in England to visit Highgrove, Prince Charles' estate that includes organic gardens and a farm.

    "Highgrove buys organic soybean meal from the United States to feed its cattle," she said. "I kept thinking that Iowa could definitely fill that market. It's something I'd like to explore. There's no better place for growing organic beans than Iowa."

    Organic agriculture: A definition

    The state of Iowa is drafting organic agriculture standards, according to Delate, but a general definition of organic is:
    Organic agriculture uses naturally occurring products for fertilization and pest management. Fields must be free from synthetic fertilizers and pesticides for a minimum of three years. Livestock must be fed organically grown feed and forages, and the use of synthetic hormones and antibiotics is disallowed. Organic foods are processed, packaged and distributed without the use of synthetic pesticides, artificial preservatives or irradiation.

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