By Roger Blobaum
A strong belief that caring for the land means farming without chemicals has maintained the high productivity of a South Dakota crop and livestock farm for the family that has operated it since it was homesteaded.
Walter Hobbie, who now operates the original farm northwest of Flandreau, has lived on it since his birth in 1907. His twin brother, Oscar, lives on another organic farm less than a mile away.
Over the years both have purchased additional land and the two families now farm more than 1,100 acres in the neighborhood. They are helping three sons get started so a third generation of Hobbies can carry on the family farm tradition.
The farm where Walter Hobbie lives looks much different than when his father broke the Dakota grassland sod with a team of horses. White buildings are shaded by huge trees, modern machines are parked in the yard, and huge blue silos give it a contemporary touch.
Hobbie doesn’t say much about a brief period when some chemicals were used on his land. He said he decided to quit using them about 10 years ago after reading several articles about organic farming.
“I had been using chemicals some, but not too much, and I didn’t like it,” he recalls. “As long as I have farmed I never did believe the chemical way was the right way to go.”
He said he and his brother, Oscar, had some long talks about the possibility of dropping chemicals. Since they did a lot of farming back and forth, he said, they finally decided to work together in trying it out.
Hobbie said the first thing they noticed was a lot less trouble with their livestock, a development that didn’t escape the notice of their local veterinarian.
“He said he thought we had switched veterinarians because he didn’t have to come out anymore like he used to,” he said. “I told him ‘no we didn’t switch veterinarians, we just don’t need you’.”
Cutting out veterinary bills is no small matter for the Hobbies, who have extensive livestock programs and feed all the hay and grain they produce. Walter Hobbie raises a lot of hogs and feeds out 150 to 200 fat cattle every year.
The Hobbies also are big in dairying. Walter’s son, Gary, has more than 100 milk cows and his younger brother, Larry, has about 30. Oscar’s son, Roger, milks 40 to 50 cows.
The big livestock operation produces plenty of valuable manure, which is spread on alfalfa ground during the winter months. In late summer and fall it goes on stubble, then is disced or chisel plowed in. The orchard and garden also get their share.
“Applying manure to the land really works,” Walter Hobbie declares. “I don’t think there’s anything like good old barn yard manure for fertilizer.”
He said he applies some purchased organic materials to the land occasionally but never invests more than $15 an acre for an application. He considers pesticides and weed killers bad for the land and a waste of money.
He observes farming practices of others, as all farmers do, and reports that a lot of operators applying chemical weed killers end up with terrible weed problems. Either they don’t get it on right, he suggests, or it simply doesn’t work.
“I’ve talked to some of them and they say it doesn’t work like the ads claim it will,” he added. “The weeds are as bad or worse than they were before. It seems to be kind of backfiring on them. It sure is something.”
Another problem in weed control, he said, is that many farmers have too much land and simply can’t handle it. “They just try to let chemicals do part of their work for them and it just don’t work.”
Hobbie said proper rotation and getting your field work done on time are the answer to weed and insect problems. “What is most important,” he stressed, “ is working with nature rather than against it.”
His normal rotation starts with alfalfa, which is followed by flax, wheat, or oats. Then the land is put in corn. Some of the other Hobbies include soybeans in their rotation to add some nitrogen to the soil.
Limited rainfall in the area puts some limits on crop rotation and Walter Hobbie has learned through the years to adapt.
“Right after alfalfa in this area, if you put it to corn it generally gets a little too dry the first year,” he explains. “The alfalfa takes most of the moisture out of the ground so you wait another year and then you will get by real good.”
Like most other organic farmers, the Hobbies stress the need to be in the field at the right time with the rotary hoe and cultivator to keep ahead of the weeds. “We use the rotary hoe and then we cultivate,” he explains. “If we get through the corn before it gets too big, we like to cultivate three times.”
How about yields? “They’re as good as any of them–or better,” he reports. “They’re better than some who are using chemicals.”
The Hobbies make no attempt to find special organic markets or to seek premiums for their grain and livestock. Walter Hobbie reports he has sold some beef direct to neighbors or to people in town.
He also has sold a few bags of wheat to an organic buyer in Minnesota and some corn to a health food store in Sioux Falls, S.D. Home-grown foods the Hobbies enjoy themselves include garden produce, milk, meat, eggs, and stone ground flour and cereal.
“We have a little stone grinder and make our own whole wheat flour for homemade bread,” he said. “I grind my own breakfast food, putting in hulled oats, corn, wheat, rye, and a little flax.”
There’s always plenty of fresh milk and lots of eggs from Mrs. Hobbie’s 500-hen flock. Another treat is big glasses of apple juice, squeezed from ripe apples from the orchard, poured into into plastic jugs, and kept in the deep freeze. Applies from last year’s big crop yielded nearly 40 gallons of frozen juice.