Doug Alert and Margaret Smith of Hampton, Iowa, have been chosen to receive the 2019 Sustainable Agriculture Achievement Award, granted each year by Practical Farmers of Iowa to an individual or couple that has shown exemplary commitment to sustainable agriculture, generously shared their knowledge with others and been influential in efforts to foster vibrant communities, diverse farms and healthful food.
The award was presented on Jan. 18 during Practical Farmers’ 2019 annual conference in Ames.
Alert and Smith operate Ash Grove Farm, a diversified, certified organic crop and livestock operation that includes organic feed corn and soybeans; organic seed soybeans, rye, hairy vetch and oats; and organic food-grade corn, soybeans and oats. They have used cover crops for years, and run a cow herd, marketing the calves through conventional markets. They also keep a fruit and vegetable garden, laying hens and bees for their family use.
The couple officially started transitioning the farm to organic in 1994, the year they married. But Alert had been experimenting with a more diverse crop rotation for years, as well as looking for ways to reduce pesticides and other inputs.
Smith, who works as a forage agronomist for Albert Lea Seed, and for many years worked with Iowa State University Extension, brought her agronomic expertise and livestock experience to the operation. Both shared a belief in the need to steward the soil and the land.
“When I relocated (the farm) in 1991, I was laying the groundwork for a longer-term, more diverse rotation,” Alert said. “For six years prior to that, I had been playing with it a bit, but was not able to have the flexibility to do what I wanted on that particular rented land. When I relocated, I had more opportunity to experiment.”
Improving through on-farm research
Experimentation has remained central to their farming philosophy. Alert and Smith were early participants in Practical Farmers of Iowa’s on-farm research through the Cooperators’ Program, and they have continued to be strong proponents of on-farm research and its role in farm decision-making, conducting numerous projects on their farm over the years and sharing their knowledge with others at field days, in research reports and articles, at conferences and through many conversations with people who have sought their advice.
In 2013, Alert and Smith were among 11 farms to receive Practical Farmers of Iowa’s inaugural Master Researcher Award, which seeks to honor those who have made a significant contribution to on-farm research. Their research projects have examined everything from ridge-tilling and nitrogen fertilizer rates to strip-intercropping and ways to add cover crops into cropping systems that include small-grains crops.
“I think curiosity is really important to farm well, as is humility,” Smith said. “Acknowledging that how we’re farming has flaws pushes us to ask how we are going to do it better.”
Practical decisions guided by principle
For both Alert and Smith, the decision to operate an organic and increasingly diversified farm was partly philosophical, partly practical. Guided by a belief in stewarding the soil, Alert already had a longer-term crop rotation in place and had been working to reduce inputs when an opportunity presented itself for the couple to convert some acres to organic.
“A local businessman who was exporting soybeans to Japan said he needed more product,” Alert recalled. “He said you’re just one step away from being able to certify organic on your land, so I said okay, I’ll try it.”
While the decision offered a way to access a new and potentially profitable niche market, the move was in also line with the couple’s shared ethic of land stewardship. Smith, who grew up on a diversified crop and livestock farm south of Des Moines, credits her father — who she said “was a strong advocate for soil conservation, and for appreciating the natural world around us” — with instilling in her a conservation ethos.
Alert also acknowledges a family influence. His parents farmed until he was 4 years old before moving to an acreage near Mason City, where his mother, who continues to be an avid gardener, always had copies of the Rodale Institute’s Organic Gardening and Farming magazine around the house.
However, he said the “ah-ha moment” when he fully grasped the link between soil health and a more diverse crop rotation wasn’t until college, when he found a copy of Rodale’s “New Farm Magazine” in his dorm mate’s trash can. He was so captivated by the articles, he went to ISU’s Parks Library to see if he could find more.
“Lo and behold, they had every back issue,” said Alert, who started farming on a small scale in middle school and had continued to farm part-time through college. “Needless to say, I missed supper that night.”
As they look toward the future, Alert and Smith see new challenges in the form of changing weather patterns that will require them to adjust some of their farming practices. They have also started to ponder the question of farm transition and the future of the farm once they are no longer farming the land.
The couple have two grown sons, Robert and William, who aren’t sure if they want to farm. Smith also notes that the more they’ve learned over the years, the more questions they have.
“We’re probably less certain now that what we’re doing is sustainable than we were 20 years ago,” she said. “I hope that’s wisdom — to acknowledge our lack of certainty and to continue to seek answers.”
Confronting these questions has reaffirmed their belief in the importance of sharing their knowledge with others.
“That is the Holy Grail of sustainability,” she added. “Because whatever you do in your lifetime, it doesn’t take too long to undo if you rent your land to somebody who will vastly simplify the agroecosystem you have fostered.
“You can’t maintain what you do on your farm with policy, rules or leases. You have to maintain it by impacting people who, you hope, share your values and want to farm — not necessarily in the same way — but with similar objectives and respect for the land.”