Jim Rowh, 66, an organic farmer from Clayton, Kan., is among those with 30 years of experience farming organically in the middle of the United States. The area has its own challenges, regarding the production and marketing of organic products, and transitioning farmland to new hands. In many cases, beginning farmers are discouraged from owning land because of high demand and high land prices that go above the productive capability of the land.
“There are few young people in the area, and beginning farmers would need to spend three to five years working with an organic farmer to make it on their own,” Rowh said.
Rowh travelled to California back in the mid 70s when natural was the buzzword. He moved to Arkansas and wrote about building a log cabin for Mother Earth News. He wanted a small farm and had a connection many lack today. Rowh moved back to Clayton, with a population fewer than 100, to buy his grandfather’s farm in 1984. His great grandfather settled in the area, similar to other Clayton families who were 1900s farmers from West Virginia. It’s an area away from urban centers and that’s how Rowh likes it.
“I wanted to farm organically; much different than others in the area,” Rowh said, “and seeing all the anhydrous tanks being pulled across the land just confirmed my ideas.” His bachelor’s degree in environmental science and civil engineering from Oklahoma University and gardening experience led him to start one of the first organic farms in the region, Pure Prairie Farm.
His practices changed along with the volume of the paper trail. Rowh remembers he only had to sign a single page affidavit about his farming practices for Eagle Ag Products in Arkansas, one of the first organic buyers. In the beginning, buyers needed only an affidavit and that came without an extensive audit trail on his practices. As the organic industry matured, national and international certification agencies such as OCIA came into existence, satisfying the growing demand for more audit trail and grower accountability. Then in 1992, Rowh joined a group of farmers in the Organic Crop Improvement Association Kansas #3 Chapter and got certified by OCIA in 1992. He broke alfalfa ground out to plant squash in the 1990s and built it into a crop rotation with hard white winter wheat, fallow, a pea or bean, and melons.
Rowh’s farm has been 85 years in his family now, but he could be the last Rowh on that land. His own children moved out of area.
Rowh’s rural location posed a problem as he scrambled to find help with his 2014 squash harvest before a trip to Africa in September, where he volunteered on a Christian mission. Harvest was the one operation Rowh hasn’t figured out how to do alone.
He called on neighbors near and far. Many people know Rowh in the area for selling his produce at stands and a natural foods store he ran for 22 years in downtown Norton, so he eventually pulled people together for another harvest.
Planting squash has been beneficial because he has gotten a good price for his produce. Whole Foods bought from him in the past and Kroger is getting his latest crop. The 2014 crop was bountiful, about 550 forty pound boxes coming off three acres, owing to a wet period coming at the right time and cool summer temperatures, but it had its losses. Rowh tossed a few possum-eaten butternut squash aside as he harvested, saying that’s $5 lost per squash.
“I guess there’s a purpose for these possums, but I haven’t figured out exactly what it is,” he said, laughing.
Still, Rowh knows very well what it takes to be an organic farmer. He was chairman of OCIA’s international certification committee in the 1990s, which saw thousands of applications for organic certification from its international membership in Canada, China, East Timor, Japan, Latin America, Taiwan and the United States. Those certification review days ended as the national regulations started popping up, prompted by the USDA National Organic Program in 2002.
Rowh shares his experience and produce when he can. He took a break from squash harvest on a 90-degree September day to meet a neighbor who stopped by his field to buy a watermelon. Rowh pulled three melons from his pickup truck: He cut one watermelon to taste test, sold another and threw a cantaloupe in for free. A customer at a farmer’s market in Norton, Kan., commented that Rowh’s melons were the best he had tasted.
Soil health and other factors might make this Rowh’s last squash harvest. Weed pressure and declining soil fertility are driving a need to go back to an alfalfa rotation for a few years to build up the fertility. That alfalfa hay crop could last about six or seven years.
“Farming is hard work and the pay isn’t that great compared to university careers, but it certainly offers the freedon and the joy of being on the land,” Rowh said, “That you can’t put a price on.”
The OCIA Family Spotlight is a series of stories about OCIA members, in celebration of the International Year of Family Farming.