Natural Foods Merchandiser

Keeping the farm alive with family ties

5 generationsWhen Ron Rosmann left his family's farm in Harlan, Iowa, for college almost 40 years ago, he didn't think he'd be back—at least not to run it, like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather had.

A self-proclaimed product of the turbulent 1960s, Rosmann studied biology, sociology, psychology and zoology at Iowa State University, and worked as a teacher at a center for disabled children after graduation. "My older brother worked in Mississippi in the social-rights movement, and another brother worked as a clinical psychologist," Rosmann says. "Our parents always taught us that we have a social responsibility to help other people. And I was trying to do that in my own way, away from the farm."

But his career path changed as he was applying to graduate schools when his dad, whose health was failing, asked him for a favor: "My father said, ?Come home for one year, and try farming. If you don't like it, I'll rent it out.'"

"So I went home and quickly decided ?Wow, I'm tired of school,' " Rosmann says. "I loved the newfound freedom—and the chance to come back to the community where I grew up. I realized I could be a leader and really have some influence versus being stuck somewhere in Chicago or in another big city where it's harder to have an impact. Out here, there were a lot of opportunities to do that."

Rosmann began making that impact in 1986 when he helped found the Practical Farmers of Iowa, an organization whose mission is to research, develop and promote profitable, ecologically sound and community-enhancing approaches to agriculture. He'd quit using pesticides on the farm in 1983 and was one of the state's pioneers in on-farm research aimed at decreasing the use of chemicals. "We learned the validity of much of how we farm now—like using ridge tillage and crop rotations—from this research," Rosmann says. And in 1994, Rosmann Family Farms became certified organic. In 2002, the farm was able to label its meats organic, although it had been selling organically fed beef since 1998.

Rosmann credits his background in science for his ability to start a successful organic farm. "Because of my understanding of systems like photosynthesis, I was able to say, ?Why not work with nature instead of killing off beneficial life in the soil?'" Rosmann says. "We, and other organic farmers, think outside the box. Some conventional farmers may call it old-fashioned, but what they don't understand is that our kind of farming takes more management, skill and thinking than theirs does by far."

This commitment to organic farming and research is something Rosmann's three sons, who've all worked on the family farm since childhood, have taken an interest in. David, 26, graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in public service and administration in agriculture and is now working for the nonprofit Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, which has as one of its main focuses stopping the takeover of the livestock industry by large confinement animal-feeding operations. "It's such important work," Rosmann says. "Less than 10 miles from us a new dairy farm will have 16,000 animals on only 160 acres. It's very disturbing." Rosmann's youngest son, Mark, 21, is a senior at Iowa State majoring in agronomy and history, and his 24-year-old son, Daniel, graduated from Iowa State with a degree in agronomy and has spent the last year and a half helping run the farm.

"Daniel is the fifth generation on the land that's been in the family for 125 years," Rosmann says. "He'll take over the farm."

Rosmann's wife, Maria Vakulskas, talks proudly about her sons' interest in the family business. "My greatest hope has always been that they'll choose what they want to do and be at peace with their decision," she says. "The fact that they've chosen agriculture-related activities makes it all the better for us, but to see them happy with what they're doing is really satisfying."

Vakulskas, who manages the farm's private label, Rosmann Family Farms, says she didn't exactly envision herself as a farmer's wife. She met Rosmann at a fund-raiser for now-Sen. Tom Harkin while she was covering the event for the radio station where she had a journalism internship. Making the transition from working at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., to the rural, small town of Harlan had its challenges.

"Marriage was a piece of cake, but it was a little more difficult adjusting to such an isolated setting," she says. Now, though, with three sons who are good friends and visit often, there's much more excitement—especially around the kitchen table.

"What the boys are doing really seems to suit their personalities," Vakulskas says. "They'll sit around and talk baseball and collegiate sports and how disappointed they are in the Kansas City Royals, and then the conversation can easily go to what we're planting and do we have any calves."

And because Daniel is set to take over the farm, Rosmann is looking forward to his retirement, which he hopes will be very different than it is for most. His involvement in agri-politics for the last 35 years has sparked an interest in running for government office, and Rosmann recently announced his campaign for a spot in the Iowa House of Representatives.

"I've always thought—hoped—that one day I'd get involved in politics," Rosmann says. "And it's going to be a lot of work trying to get elected. We have a politically conservative district, but I'm confident because I share many of the concerns as some of those very conservative folks."

If elected, Rosmann says agriculture will be his focus. Among his top priorities: beginning farmer programs of all kinds, but especially emphasizing organic and local agriculture.

"We need to get more local foods into institutions like schools and hospitals," Rosmann says. "And I'd like to somehow convince the state of Iowa that we need family farmers out here—that it's better for local communities, the land, the economy and our health. I'd like to help teach the public and policymakers that we need to keep some sort of family-farm system going. And maybe the best way to do that is to do it organically. "It's no small challenge," Rosmann says. But it's one this organic farmer is up for.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 9/p. 46, 48

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