Transcript for Our Farms, Our Future Podcast episode 003 - Water Challenges featuring Ron Rosmann and Amy Garrett

Ron Rosmann: I was always supposed to be the farmer in the family because my two older brothers went different routes, but then I decided I wasn't going to be a farmer. I was caught up in all the social movements of the Vietnam War and civil rights and all of that. Then my dad said, "Well, you got to make up your mind." So I said, "Well, I don't want to see you rent the land to somebody else that's not in the family." So I said, "I'll give it a try for a year and I never looked back."

Mallory Daily: Welcome to Our Farms, Our Future, a podcast by SARE, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. I'm your host Mal. You just heard Ron Rosmann, an organic farmer in Iowa. He'll be talking with Amy Garrett an extension agent for Oregon State University's small farms program, but before I let our guests take away the show, I want to tell you a little bit about how this podcast got started. In early April, more than 900 people from all 50 states gathered in St Louis, Missouri to celebrate SARE's 30th anniversary at the Our Farms, Our Future Conference.

Mark: I'm Mark Crenshaw from Mississippi.

Hanifah: My name is Hanifah Rahman. I am from Detroit.

Katie: My name is Katie Canale, and I actually am from the St Louis area.

Alexis: Alexis Russell. I'm coming from Upperville, Virginia

Montage 1: Grand Rapids, Michigan. 

From outside of Binghamton, New York. 

From central Wisconsin. 

Tallahassee, Florida.

From the eastern shore of Maryland. 

Fort, Wayne, Indiana. 

Logan, Utah. 

I'm from Brady, Texas.

Mallory Daily: People from all kinds of professions within the sustainable ag community were in the crowd.

Montage 2: I do some research with my native peoples down in New Mexico and Arizona to try and revive to under utilize food crops, which are the peach and wild spinach populations there. 

I work for the natural resource conservation service. 

I work on a big organic farm and what I do is essentially certification management we're certified humane, certified organic. I coordinate an agricultural training program. 

I grow Christmas trees and I'll be getting into forest cultivation of shiitake mushrooms and I also work full time as a CFO. 

I am a farmer and a graduate student in plant and soil science. 

I am a beef cattle farmer, second generation.

Mallory Daily: The wisdom in the massive conference ballroom was palpable. Even at 7:45 AM on a rainy day. As I talked to people during breaks in their conference schedule, I heard one idea articulated over and over again in a bunch of different ways. It's time to come together and do away with divisiveness.

Stephanie Henry: We all have more in common than we have different, whether you're urban agriculture, whether you're a rural agriculture, whether you're new, whether you're longterm. We're all kind of struggling to do the same thing. You know, we love food, we love people, we love community. And so, you know, focusing more what we have in common instead of what we have different, I think that's where we're gonna find our most success.

Mallory Daily: That was Stephanie Henry, an urban farmer and food systems advocate from Fort Wayne, Indiana. Later that day, I talked to Jason Lindsey who works with the Farmer-by-Farmer coalition in North Carolina.

Jason Lindsey: We have a lot of ways to say the same thing. My line is really grassroot, really learning by getting in the dirt. So I come here and I listen to the collegiate world. And they're saying the exact same thing with a totally different vocabulary. I think that's amazing, but I think someone at some point there's going to have to be someone to translate because that's an easy way for people to divide us.

Mallory: What Jason's talking about is really what we're trying to do with this podcast to translate to make the knowledge of folks steeped in their own professional spheres accessible to a wider audience. You know by now that for each episode we're inviting two people from the sustainable ag community to be in conversation with each other about, sure, the nitty gritty technical stuff, but also to talk about success and hardship, hopes for the future and fears for the future, lessons learned and projects to come. And then by sharing those conversations with you, who knows how you'll share their insights and knowledge with your own community. So after almost 23 hours of recording during the roughly 48 hour conference, we are so excited to bring you the voices of folks walking the walk of sustainable ag. For this episode, Ron Rosmann, who you heard at the beginning of the show will be in conversation with Amy Garrett, a self-described farmer without land who works across boundaries in agriculture to help connect farmers to the strategies they need to succeed in her region. Here's Amy.

Amy Garrett: With the work I'm doing with the dry farming collaborative, which is a group of growers, plant breeders, agricultural professionals. We are all partnering to increase knowledge and awareness of dry farming strategies with a very hands on and participatory approach.

Mallory Daily: Amy and Ron both grew up close to the land, which informs the work they do today. Here's Ron.

Ron Rosmann: Well, my name is Ron Rosmann and I am now an organic farmer. I wasn't always an organic farmer, but I grew up on the farm that I am farming today with along with two of our three sons and their families. It's located in Western Iowa, about 45-miles east of the Missouri River, as the crow flies. I'm close to Omaha, Nebraska. I grew up in a family of three other boys. I was the second to the youngest and my youngest brother was down syndrome child. And so he and I very close and he has since passed, but he had a great effect on the social aspects of agriculture and how you treat one another and the value of a community and treating people with respect. And that's a big part of what farming should be, too, is treating one another with respect. And there's not much of that left either and in a lot of the big ag, unfortunately. So I went to Iowa State University. We were the class of '68. So now we're celebrating 50 years of high school graduation this year. Where are you from, Amy?

Amy Garrett: Yeah, I'm originally from Indiana. So my grandparents had a farm. I grew up on their little three-acre farm. It wasn't a commercial farm, mostly for their own consumption. They sold that farm when I was 10 or 11 and I was completely detached from local food until I was an adult. I was in college and started to do landscaping and then eventually worked on farms and started to realize at the supermarket in Indiana, all the organic produce came from California. So I started to look for, are there any organic farms in Indiana? And I found one at that time that was 45 minutes from where I lived. And I started interning there. I'd been working landscaping for a decade at that point.

Ron Rosmann: Where did you go to college?

Amy Garrett: I started off at Indiana University, but I switched over to Purdue when I realized plants. I started off pre-med, so I was thought I was going to be a doctor. Then I realized I don't really want to work with people. And it's funny, I, all I do is work with people now, but, yeah, my work now because of my horticulture background. So, I worked on that organic farm outside of Indianapolis and I realized that the people that were doing that, we had the same values, we cared about the same things. So that led me out to the West Coast. So I pursued graduate school and sustainable agriculture at Oregon State University and lstudied nitrogen management with cover crops and organic vegetable production systems and managed to farm after that on Lummi Island. And eventually made my way back to Oregon for the job I have now, which is with OSU extension service small farms program. So I've been doing this for about seven years now. Some of my more recent working, why I was invited to come here and speak with you at the conference about this dry farming work. Just identifying a need in the community, realizing water was an issue for a lot of farmers I work with. And then going in and realizing there was some older farmers in their seventies, you know, in my area and down in California dry farming a bunch of fruit and vegetable crops without supplemental irrigation. So I just kind of followed this trail cause I kind of felt like there was something important there and then just--well I'm sure we'll get into that in a little bit. But yeah, the project has really grown, but it's very grassroots, very heartfelt, kind of intuitive, not just academic.

Ron Rosmann: Having been in Oregon only once and that was about a year-and-a-half ago to Eugene. You know, I think of Oregon as having a lot of moisture. But are you talking about on the other side of the mountain ranges?

Amy Garrett: Oh, no, I'm talking about the summer. So I live west of the Cascades in Corvallis. So we have 40 inches of annual rainfall, which is a lot, but it happens October through May, so like typically June, July, August, September, there's maybe one inch of rain or two inches of rain. And that's when most of our tomatoes and know squash and zucchini and melon, those types of crops are growing when there is no rain. So there's a lot of deep soils with good water-holding capacity in the valley there. And so there's a kind of a suite of practices that farmers use to--spacing crops a little wider. Of course wouldn't work on a gravel lot or if you only had two inches or two feet of soil, maybe in a layer of bedrock below that. You need a deep soil with good water-holding characteristics. But given a good site, there's a growing number of farmers throughout Western Oregon and Washington and California that's been doing it a lot longer cause water has been more of an issue there. But we had a drought in 2015 and that a lot of people who were used to irrigating throughout the summer had their water, their irrigation restricted as early as June. So for vegetable growers that are used to irrigating through September, that was like, uh, okay, we have to maybe look at alternatives. So a lot of people are interested in that by necessity and then some, because of enhanced flavor, like when you're not pouring a bunch of water into fruit and vegetable crops, they're kind of more, they're smaller and more concentrated in sugars. So the customers, consumers are getting excited about it, too, as they start to see more of these dry farm tomatoes and stuff at the marketplace.

Ron Rosmann: That sounds fascinating.

Amy Garrett: Yeah.

Ron Rosmann: Now, where we farm, it's dry farming, too.

Amy Garrett: Annual rainfall - what's your annual rainfall?

Ron Rosmann: Our annual rainfall is up to about 34 inches now. Growing up it was down around 31 inches, but in the last 50 years that has increased about three inches. And some of the other things that have happened that we are observing is that the winters are getting significantly warmer. The summers are actually becoming slightly cooler, because of more rainfall keeping the ground a little bit cooler. The nights are getting warmer. That's another big change. And the growing season is about seven to nine days longer than it was when I was a youngster. And it's not uncommon now to not have a killing frost until around the 1st of November, where it really kills. We might have some light frost, but there's lots of challenges. There's no irrigation right where we are, although you don't have to go too far to find some irrigation coming out of some of the river valleys. But there is a tremendous amount of water that is being diverted off of the land, through tile drainage. And that is becoming a huge issue. And one wonders with the lowering of the aquifers. Well, the Ogallala, you know, west of us in Nebraska has only about half of what it did. The one under Iowa is called the Jordan. Tt has a tremendous amount of water yet, but if it falls by 200 feet, and I forget what the average is, it's very deep. But if it falls by another 200 feet people are really starting to get concerned already, partly because of the heavy use of water coming from such things as producing ethanol. It takes so much water to produce ethanol besides all the other questions about should we or should we not be producing fuel from food? So anyway, the water thing is another big issue.

Amy Garrett: Yeah.

Ron Rosmann: So I'm interested in if you could describe some of the beginning young farmers or they don't have to be [young]. Anybody that's about beginning farmer excites me because I see young people around us as being the, one of the saviors of our rural areas in the future for Iowa and the Midwest because we continue to lose population. We are in a county, you know, that's 50 miles from a large urban area, Omaha. And we are starting to see a few young farmers from urban areas like from Omaha to come out and start small acreages. But you know, they can't compete against these great big grain farms that are all around us. But it gives us hope. So I'd like to hear about your experiences with new beginning farmers.

Amy Garrett: Yeah. When I started my position with the extension service that at Oregon State University, a lot of our programming was, and still is, developed around beginning farmers, from just getting started and exploring kind of the small farm dream to we have a multi-part workshop series called growing farms that we started off doing in person. And it included some farm tours as well, but we've moved that to kind of a hybrid course so people that are more remote can do a lot of the curriculum online and then still have some face-to-face interactions with other beginning farmers. But, you know, that course used to fill up when I first started my job and even in my just seven years at OSU, I've seen people start and get out of farming.

Amy Garrett: So, I've been having conversations with my colleagues. It's like, I wonder if we were seeing kind of a peak and then maybe people are, it's a hard go to make a living that way. Of course, we know. And starting to see maybe a decline. I've focused in my part and these beginning farmer workshops, I've always been interested in the people part, the direct marketing. 'Cause I mean, I think that's one of the big benefits as you know, a small beginning farmer is having those direct-to-consumer relationships and really emphasizing that.

Ron Rosmann: I totally agree. It's all about local foods. Yeah, we have a large farm, but we also have a store on our farm that my wife runs, where we sell. We have our own popcorn and our own organic beef and pork. We've had our own label for well over 20-years. But we have diversified income streams, diversified crops, diversified livestock. So we have pasture, we have cattle on the land and we have the, the hogs outside and we have egg layers outside. We grow about 30 different species of plants every year. And then our son and his wife, they have a local foods restaurant in our town of 5,000. And Daniel's wife, Ellen runs a farm-table delivery service as well. So we're trying to really change people's attitudes about 'local' because I think that is maybe our last hope. Because I'm really concerned about some of what's happening with 'big organic', you know. 'Big organic' coming in and taking away markets from smaller farmers, organic farmers, but one thing they'll never be able to do, I think, if we do it right as small farmers, is promote and sell locally and whatever that word 'locally' means. You can spread that out as far as you want, you know?

Amy Garrett: Right.

Ron Rosmann: But that's where our best hope lies, I think, for at least right now.

Amy Garrett: So I guess we're both here about, you know, related to water. Our session tomorrow is about water and I know you have too much and I'm working on projects related to too little. I'm curious what sort of--

Ron Rosmann: I wouldn't say we have too much! Sometimes we have too much.

Amy Garrett: Okay. Sometimes too much. Are you doing anything interesting to manage that?

Ron Rosmann: Yeah. We start out with the diversity of crops. We have the early spring crops of small grains: oats, wheat, barley, field peas. But then we go into corn and soybeans a little later in the spring, you know, in May. And then after the oats and small grains are done, we do a lot of double-cropping and even triple-cropping. We will plant like sorghum sudan grass, turnips, millet, other great forages that our livestock can go out and graze. Then come September and October, we might be planting the winter annuals like rye and Austrian winter peas. We're experimenting some with, a lot with cover crops, some of which will winter kill, but still provide a mulch so that I can completely no-till into them versus having to work the ground at all. I'm starting to experiment with that. What about you? What are some of your dry land? You mentioned some of them and I was intrigued by what, what you started to say.

Amy Garrett: Yeah, there's a suite of practices really, but it starts with site selection. So like, so clay content, organic matter. So I'm starting with a deep soil with good water-holding characteristics. And then, of course, any management practices like organic matter addition and cover cropping are very beneficial to water-holding capacity and can increase that quite a bit. Then from there there's, you know, I case studied a bunch of different farmers and kind of just documented what practices they were using. So, spacing things out a little wider. Some people do about double what they would in an irrigated situation, but that will change based on site and the soil water-holding characteristics. If there's more water-holding capacity, you can get away with a closer spacing. But a general rule of thumb, I think people start off with about double what you would in an irrigated situation. Pre-soaking the big seeded crops, like 24 hours. Carol Deppe is an author in our area and a farmer, plant breeder. She recommends pre-soaking big seeded crops before planting. Also, compressing the soil around the seed or start to bring through capillary action that brings the moisture to the surface. So a lot of commercial farmers that are dry farming, it's similar to like organic weed management, right? You cultivate versus apply herbicides, but just being more intentional about the timing so that that surface is kept loose. And some call it a dust mulch, but a lot of these people, dust mulch doesn't sound like they're caring about soil quality, when in reality, all these dry farmers are very passionate about soil quality and so forth. So, not letting the surface, after you get a rain event and it compacts the surface and it may be starts to crack and that can maybe accelerate the soil drying out. So you'd go through and cultivate so that and then that, and then you pull back that dry soil on the surface. And then there's moisture right below for a majority of the growing season, even in July. In August, maybe you have to go down about a foot to see the moisture, but the crops are rooting much deeper cause they're having to seek out their moisture versus having it come from the surface. And then one of the other main ones is crop variety selection. So there's some plant breeders, one in northern California--Bill Reynolds, works with Steve Peters and I brought them up for the small farms conference in 2015 and they select for and breed certain plants in the dry farmed environment. So we've noticed in our trials that when we've done variety trials that these dry farm varieties definitely stand out. In 2015, for example, the Dark Star Zucchini, planted it in May, it started producing in July. I direct-seeded it in May. It started producing in July and cranked out zucchini until late September without even wilting on the hot days. So a lot of the other maxima squashes would look like they were about to die in the heat of the day, but this plant didn't even wilt. So it was like, "Huh, there's something to this crop and variety selection." So with the work I'm doing with the dry farming collaborative, which is a group of growers, plant breeders, agricultural professionals, we are all partnering to increase knowledge and awareness of dry farming strategies with a very hands on and participatory approach. But developing more dry farm varieties for our area is something that we're really interested in working on together. So doing participatory plant breeding. So that might be another kind of, there's a lot of little spinoff projects coming up from this work and this variety development is I think an important piece.

Ron Rosmann: It's fascinating. Yeah. When you said soil quality, we try to pay so much attention to that. We compost all of our manure from our hog and cattle and chicken operation and we have all the oat and barley straw for carbon. So we produce about a thousand tons of finished compost a year. We pride ourselves on our soil quality and in feeding the microorganisms, which help hold the water when you have soils that can absorb water with organic matter content. A long term question that I think about a lot is that we have too much water because of these, at times because of these extreme weather events. So large rainfall events have also been a change in the last 50 years. There's much more rains that come during the year that are over two and a half inches in one rain. That is increased significantly. So how do you hold that water during those terrible rain events? And I keep asking myself, instead of draining all that water right into the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and down into the Gulf of Mexico and carrying all those nutrients with it. Well, you know, phosphorus and nitrogen, primarily. And all the harmful effects of that. How do we keep more of that water on the land and is the day coming because of the draining of the aquifers west of the Missouri River--Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, Wyoming, etc. Clear over to Oregon. Is that day coming where we're going to have to have reservoirs in our areas to hold that water so that you guys can have an agriculture? I don't know. Is that you think that's a valid question?

Amy Garrett: Yeah, my colleague, Andrew Milison, he's the permaculture instructor at OSU. He went to India and did some short videos that I recently watched of how they experience that, too, like extreme heavy rain events. But they're managing it all as a watershed and diverting, like even the villages are interconnected, but they're being very conscious even in their watershed of like how it's flowing from one village to another. And when I looked at the design of that, I thought that that's probably a good strategy to put in our toolbox. I think about the soil, too. The soil is a great place to store water when managed properly. And you talked about no-till. And that's something that I've always been troubled with by organic farming. And then this dry farming. And our reliance on tillage and you mentioned winter killed cover crops and we've been talking about trying some sorghum sudan grass, which winter kills in our area and doing some experiments with minimizing tillage. But you know, the soil, I think, is a great place to store water.

Ron Rosmann: I and other organic farmers don't know what to do about deep-rooted longer, not perennials, but longer growing crops like legumes, like Alfalfa, let's say, which is a great source of nitrogen for the rotation and it's a great source of feed for your cattle. But on the other hand, it's much more energy efficient to have them graze and not put up hay and maybe not have alfalfa. But look at other legumes that are not as long-lived, so that you could not moldboard plow. See, we still moldboard plow once every five, six years. Because what is the alternative for an organic farmer? You have to kill that deep-rooted plant somehow. And those are some of the issues we have to deal with. How do we get enough nitrogen for growing corn and, not beans, they create their own nitrogen. But I guess maybe the takeaway is, oh, just grow less corn and more other crops. You know, if you're going to be in tuned with the prairie environment, well, that would say that we need to go back to more prairie species and grazing. Anyway, we still feel a lot of times like we're the odd man out, you know, because we feel like, well, there's not enough, not very many people have adopted our farming practices. People respect what we do, but a lot of them will always say, well, I'm too old, or it's too much work to farm organically. But then a lot of them, you know, with the restaurant and our store and the farm-table delivery, having that local food, change is slowly coming, I feel. And then people's attitudes towards other things may be changing as well in terms of how they think about our environment and that is a very big thing for me. One of the greatest changes, if you look upon it as a change in attitude, at least the invitation is out there, came from our Pope Francis when he said that there has to be a marriage between social and ecological justice. You can't have one without the other. That ties the earth and people together as one. You have to treat both with the same kind of respect or we are doomed, you know, who knows what we'll do. We're in for some very rough times unless we solve that problem.

Amy Garrett: Yeah.

Mallory Daily: That's it for this week's episode. You were listening to Ron Rosmann in conversation with Amy Garrett. If you'd like to learn more about our guests, take a look at our show notes where we have links to their projects. This show was produced in The Pod at KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, Missouri. Tim Pilcher is our producer and I'm your host, Mallory Daily. You can stay in the loop by subscribing to our show on iTunes. We'll release two new shows each month. Our Farms, Our Future is presented by SARE, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. SARE invests in groundbreaking research and education projects in sustainable agriculture. Grants are available to producers, scientists, educators, graduate students, and others in the agricultural community. Learn more at SARE supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and agriculture any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this recording are those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of the USDA or SARE. Thanks for listening.