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Friends, relatives remember Specht and contributions to agriculture and environment

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

Date Modified: 08/15/2013 12:42 PM

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MCGREGOR, Iowa —With the Mississippi River as an altar, friends and family said goodbye to McGregor farmer Dan Specht at a memorial service at Pike's Peak State Park on July 20. He was killed in a farming accident on July 8.

Specht, who raised cattle on his organic, grass-based farm, was remembered for his kindness, his commitment to sustainable agriculture and his quest to find policy that would reward farmers whose practices protected the environment.

One of the most poignant moments came when Kayla Koether, whose family has a grass-based cattle, lamb and goat farm at Giard, near Specht's farm, performed "Dan's Song," which she composed after Specht's death.

"The land you love, the life you lead, the lives you touch, you plant a seed," Koether sang as her nephew, Will, held the microphone. Birds chirped in the background.

The Rev. Jennifer Edinger, pastor at St. John Lutheran in Farmersburg and First Lutheran, McGregor, drew from John 10 in her sermon, which talks about Jesus, the good shepherd and how he knows his sheep and they know him.

Specht shepherded the livestock he rotationally grazed, but he also shepherded by advocating a different kind of farming that didn't destroy the environment, Edinger said.

"He shepherded our thinking all the way from Clayton County out to Washington, D.C.," Edinger said. "For those who disagreed, he patiently shepherded them to think in a different way."

Several mentioned Bobolinks. Specht's farming practices provided habitat for Bobolinks and other birds. Bobolinks, which arrive from Argentina, mate, nest and move on, need large tracts of grass to reproduce. He delayed mowing and grazed spring paddocks less intensively to allow for nesting.

Edinger shared a story from Jeff Klinge, Specht's close friend. On the day Specht's body was found, Klinge was at his friend's farm and returned home to mow a field. As he mowed, he looked back and saw a young Bobolink sitting on his mower. It stayed there as he continued mowing a few more rows. When he stopped the tractor, it perched on his finger. Shocked, he called his wife, Deb, who raced home and got a speed warning in the process. Jeff handed the bird to her, and it also perched on her finger and held on tight. She took the bird in the house and placed it in a cage while she researched what to do on the Internet.

"It said it wasn't true that mothers' don't take their young back, and so they put the young bird in a carrier and took it back to the field," Edinger said. "When Deb tried to release it, it clung to her finger until it heard a Bobolink song, recognized it and scurried to the grass."

She said that maybe because of the way God works in closeness to all creation, the bird was Dan's way of telling Jeff, "It's okay."

Specht's brother, Phil, a McGregor organic dairy farmer, wrote a poem after his brother's death, "Philosopher of the Land."

He said his brother had many interests — organic farming, grazing, prairies, biology, philosophy, corn breeding, and he loved to hunt, fish and canoe.

"There are diverse groups here today — Practical Farmers of Iowa, Land Stewardship Project, the Iowa Prairie Network, the Audubon Society, organic farmers, guys that went fishing and hunting with Dan," Phil said. "In the last conversation I had with him, we talked about how it was more than organic or sustainable food production, farming had to create a net positive for the natural world.

He said some people thought Specht was anti-corn.

"How could he be anti-corn?" Phil said. "He was a corn breeder. But in his work with the Hypoxia Task Force, Dan believed that if we're growing corn in Iowa in a way that is killing shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico, there's something wrong. If you're doing it right, you're not damaging someone else's livelihood."

Specht's nephew, Jon, read a letter from U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin who said he was "particularly grateful for Dan's leadership in advancing the principles that led to the enactment of the Conservation Security Program, a federal program targeting the working lands of our nation that now, as the Conservation Stewardship Program, has 38,000 farmers enrolled covering over 60 million acres."

"There's an old expression: We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give," Harkin wrote. "By that measure, Dan lived a very full and abundant life indeed."