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Dick Thompson remembered as PFI's guiding light

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

Date Modified: 09/11/2013 10:25 AM

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BOONE, Iowa —Friends remembered Boone farmer and researcher Dick Thompson as a guiding light for Practical Farmers of Iowa, the organization he co-founded in 1985. Thompson died Aug. 17 of bone cancer.

Thompson and his wife, Sharon, hosted more than 41,000 visitors and conducted more than 52 research projects since 1987. He and Sharon were recognized as Master Researchers of Practical Farmers in 2013.

The Thompsons farmed with their son, Rex, on a 300-acre crop and livestock farm. The couple started farming conventionally in 1958. In 1968, they changed back to a corn-soybeans-corn-oats-hay rotation. Among their most well-known studies was a comparison of labor and management return for their five-year rotation. They showed the rotation to be continuously more profitable than the return for corn-soybean rotations in Boone County from 1988 to 2012. The research results are available at

He is survived by Sharon; three sons: Roger and wife, Barb, Rex and wife, Lisa, all of Boone; and Ryan and wife, Duanna, of Ogden; a daughter Renae VanZee, of Ankeny; 11 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

Ron Rosmann, who farms near Harlan, first met Thompson in 1982. Rosmann and a carload of neighboring farmers stopped first at an Arcadia organic farmer's field day. The farmer was using a product called Wonderlife, a humus product mined in Texas. Rosmann said that even though he was impressed with the farmer's crops and his rotations, he wasn't impressed with the sales pitch from the Wonderlife people.

"Then, we went to Dick's," Rosmann said. "He was not selling anything. He was asking questions. He was asking them in a scientific approach, which meant randomized and replicated side by side comparisons. He immediately said he did not have the answers, but he was starting to ask the right questions. This impressed me a great deal. He had an open mind."

Thompson was Rosmann's mentor for ridge-till without herbicides.

"He always had time to talk to me when I had questions or concerns no matter what the time of day was," Rosmann said. "I think perhaps what I admired the most about him was his humility and recognition that Mother Nature was really doing the heavy lifting. He was just enabling and assisting and cooperating with nature as an ally. We will all miss his wisdom and his keen mind."

Tom Frantzen, who farms near Alta Vista, said he never met anyone more dedicated to the well being of farmers and rural communities than Thompson.

"He lived his entire life that way," Frantzen said. "One time I asked Dick what his hobbies were. He got a strange look on his face and said, 'PFI.' He was totally dedicated. I heard Dick say recently that farmers will have to figure out what they want more, a neighbor, or the neighbor's land. Do we want consolidation to the point that we have nobody left, or do we want people living in our communities?"

Thompson was a great listener, Frantzen said.

"He knew how to work with a lot of different people in different situations," Frantzen said. "We had people with really strong differences of opinion on the PFI board, and he knew how to handle that well."

Irene Frantzen referred to Thompson, who generally wore bib overalls and a red shirt with a notebook in his pocket, as the godfather of PFI.

"He was a good godfather, unlike the one in the movies," Irene said. "Without his and Larry Kallem's groundwork and initial steps, where would any of us be today? He was our leader and he brought more than just valuable information and the how tos of randomized and replicated trials, he also gave us opportunities for farmers to network with one another through field days, cooperator meetings, and the annual meeting.

"Dick Thompson was a curious, highly principled, wise, and humble man," said PFI co-founder Kallem. "He was exceedingly generous with the knowledge he gained in a lifetime of on-farm research into profitable and constructive farming practices. He mentored many hundreds of people and affected the lives of thousands, some of them in other parts of the world, as they sought to follow what he did. He changed lives for the better."

Pastor Clair Hein of Waterloo, Thompson's friend since childhood, drew from Psalm 23, the Good Shepherd, at last week's funeral service at Central Christian Church in Boone.

"Not only was God his shepherd, but Dick modeled shepherding in his life," Hein said.

As Thompson endured the excruciating pain of bone cancer, he told Hein that he was ready to go.

"Dick knew that God was in charge, that God was his strength and his protector," Hein said. "Dick was fulfilled by his family whom he loved dearly. He loved the farm. He loved his cattle. To be an innovator in sustainable agriculture practices he had to incur the ridicule of others, yet Dick was confident what he was doing was what God told him to do."

Thompson accepted others even if he didn't agree with them.

"His motto was 'get along without going along,'" Hein said.