AMES, Iowa — Doug Alert and Margaret Smith, of Hampton, 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 commitment to sustainable agriculture and shared their knowledge with others.
Alert and Smith are long-time PFI members who 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.
According to a PFI news release, the couple officially started transitioning the farm to organic in 1994, the year they married. But Doug had been experimenting with a more diverse crop rotation for years, as well as looking for ways to reduce pesticides and other inputs.
Margaret, 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,” Doug says. “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.”
Experimentation has remained central to their farming philosophy. Doug and Margaret were early participants in PFI’s on-farm research through the Cooperators’ Program, and they have continued to be strong proponents of on-farm research, sharing their knowledge with others at field days.
In 2013, Doug and Margaret 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,” Margaret says. “Acknowledging that how we’re farming has flaws pushes us to ask how we are going to do it better."
This drive to continually examine the sustainability of their farm practices — and their willingness to share both their successes and failures — are key reasons PFI board member Vic Madsen said Doug and Margaret deserved to receive the Sustainable Agriculture Achievement Award.
“In true PFI style, Doug and Margaret have helped me and many other PFI members with encouragement and advice,” says Madsen, who runs an organic farm with his family near Audubon. “They are both walking encyclopedias — Margaret about agronomy and Doug about machinery — and more importantly, they are both very willing to share their experiences and any knowledge they have about farming.”