Tom Oswald was the kid who wore out his knees farming the carpet, the kind of guy who loved agriculture so much from an early age that he couldn’t wait to start farming full-time after high school.
Things didn’t exactly go according to plan, though, and the Cleghorn-area farmer is forever grateful. What began as a deal with his father to try Iowa State University (ISU) for at least one quarter in the late 1970s became the first of many pivot points that would set Oswald on a conservation journey that continues to this day.
The quest has also inspired Oswald to re-evaluate some common ag practices, including tillage.
“A lot of the things I once thought we needed to do have turned out to be things we don’t need to do,” said Oswald, 58, a Cherokee County Farm Bureau member, a past president of the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) and current director with the United Soybean Board. “I’m always asking what I can do differently as I focus on continuous improvement.”
Here are five pivot points that reshaped Oswald’s conservation journey, which continues to this day:
- A degree from ISU. After Oswald enrolled at ISU following his graduation from Meriden-Cleghorn High School in 1977, new ideas from professors in the College of Agriculture challenged him.
“I had no intentions of going to college, but my dad encouraged me,” said Oswald, who earned his farm operations degree in 1981. “I remember Dr. Stritzel, an agronomy professor, who said farmers don’t need to do all this tillage.” By the late 1970s, Oswald and his father, Stanley, agreed to disk some stalks instead of plowing the land. “There’s an assumption that removing things means things will get worse,” Oswald said. “That’s not always true.”
- A love of the land. Oswald’s area is defined by gently rolling terrain with Galva, Primghar and Marcus soil types. This land greeted Oswald’s ancestors, who came to Cherokee County in 1869 and were among the first settlers in Liberty Township.
It’s also a priceless resource worth protecting, said Oswald, a fourth-generation farmer. “My family’s heritage is part of my love of the land. I also hated seeing soil wash away from strong rains and wanted to find a better way.”
- In-depth research. In the 1980s, ISU offered a master’s of ag program where ISU instructors would travel to Cherokee each Tuesday and Thursday evening from January through March. As he earned his master’s degree, Oswald researched weed management, no-till corn and more.
“There was no evidence to suggest a lot of tillage was necessary,” said Oswald, who began planting his corn crop into soybean stubble in 1984, started strip-tilling corn in the 1990s and began no-tilling beans around 2000. He saw that relative yields in no-till were as good as yields in disk-ripped fields nearby. “The best way to ruin a soil is to till the heck out of it,” Oswald added.
- Learning from experience. When Oswald began no-tilling soybeans on a sizeable scale (100 acres the first time), the planter plugged up. “We had a lot to learn about residue managers, but we figured it out,” said Oswald, who was a featured speaker at the national no-till conference in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 2011.
Oswald acknowledges that switching to a reduced tillage or no-till system comes with serious moments of doubt.
“You’ll have a gut check in the first three to five years,” Oswald said. “You’ll look at your crops and think, ‘I wish it looked better.’ You’ll ask if you’re doing the right thing. But once you study the results and get through that doubting phase, you’ll be fine.”
- Thought-provoking books. Not only does Oswald learn from research through ISA’s On-Farm Network, but he’s an avid reader. He recommends “Mind Set!” by John Naisbitt, which showcases the most effective tools to understand today’s world and see the opportunities of tomorrow. He’s also intrigued by “A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas” by Warren Berger, who shows that one of the most powerful forces for igniting change is a simple, under-appreciated tool — the willingness to question deeply. “Don’t be afraid to ask why,” Oswald said.
Other books, Ernie Behn’s “More Profit From Less Tillage” and “The Plowman’s Folly,” impacted Oswald’s thinking about tillage.
A mindset of continuous improvement remains the driving force in Oswald’s conservation journey. “I’m always asking what can I do differently. There’s a lot we don’t know yet, but we’re learning.”
Sharing the knowledge makes the journey even more enjoyable, Oswald added. “It’s gratifying to see someone who has heard me speak at a meeting go home and try some of these practices. When the newbies forge their own path and find new ways to do things even better, that’s even more rewarding.”Maulsby is a freelance writer in Lake City.