CLARION - John Holmes fingers through a file drawer in the Iowa State University Extension office for Wright County, the office that has housed him for all but two years since 1992.
"You know," he said, pulling a manila folder free from scores of seemingly identical documents, "the more things change, the more they stay the same."
He was responding to a question about the nature of his job as a field agronomist, a job he is leaving Friday, ending 34 years of service with ISU.
-Messenger photo by Larry Kershner
JOHN HOLMES, the field agronomist for ISU’s Region 8, refers to old field research on alternative crops that were once touted as new potential income sources for Iowa farmers. Holmes is retiring Friday.
The folder contained field research and data about numerous alternative and cover crops that could be incorporated into the traditional corn and soybean rotations. Few of those secondary crops ever came to fruit in north central Iowa fields.
"Do you remember Jerusalem artichokes?" Holmes asked, and chuckled over the memory. "I think it was to be for feed. That was back in the early 1980s."
The short story is that improper management led to an invasive species in farmers' fields willing to try it. It took several years to get the artichoke plants under control, Holmes said.
Picking up other papers showed that buckwheat was tried, but the soils and climate proved too warm.
Crambe, which is related to canola, was tried as an oil seed crop, but there was a limited market at the time.
When Holmes started his ISU career as a crops field specialist in 1977 in Taylor County, he recounted that most farmers were managing fields with six-row equipment. "Then it went to eight-row, then 12-row for a long time," he said. "Now 24-row is common and it's all auto-steer - the newest stuff anyway."
Then came genetically modified organisms and farmers were handed Bt corn that has virtually made root worms a pest of the past in Iowa, Holmes said.
Before long Round-Up corn and soybeans allowed a certain amount of freedom, for a short time anyway, of weeds. But failing to alternate weed control methods has led to a growing number of weeds resistant to glyphosate, Round-Up's active ingredient.
ISU and chemical companies have been scrambling for the past several years to devise an integrated weed control program to help producers adjust to the resistant weed problem.
Newer tractors can virtually operate themselves. Computers set variable rates of fertilizer applications depending on the field maps that show where less or more product is needed, automatically making those adjustments.
Plus there's the growing trend of farmers employing reduced-tillage or no-till field management and other cover crops being tried, especially cereal rye.
"The biggest challenge is keeping up," Holmes said. "Who would have ever thought there would be a demand for sulfur?"
Yet despite the changes and technology that has made farming almost unrecognizable to older generations, Holmes explained, while pulling out a 1987 copy of Crop Happenings, a monthly newsletter he inherited when he arrived in Clarion, "We're still talking about the same things - dry soils, cutworms, purple corn.
"It's still the farmer as manager to know when to go and not to go."
On March 5, Holmes conducted a meeting in Fort Dodge to discuss Iowa's role in the long-term Nutrient Reduction Strategy, where the state must reduce its nitrate loads into surface waters of the Upper Mississippi River Basin by 41 percent and phosphorus by 29 percent.
He said this program of compliance, handed down by the Environmental Protection Agency as a result of two years of study by the Hypoxia Task Force, will be 30 to 40 years in achieving.
"This won't go away," he said. "It will challenge the young farmers for decades to come, especially those striving for 300 (corn) bushels per acre."
But Holmes won't be on the sidelines watching.
After his retirement, he'll take a few weeks off and begin working as an agronomist for North Central Cooperative in Clarion, serving farmers around Hutchins, Woden, Holmes, Clarion and Kanawha.
He's been partially retired for the past 18 months, "but I'm not ready to quit working. I still feel good."
Other offices in which Holmes has labored include Fort Dodge, from 1979 to 1986, and Mason City, from 1986 to 1992.
In 1994, he quit ISU for a two-year stint as an agronomist for Latham Seed, based in Alexander, before returning to his Clarion ISU office in 1996.