Organic Pioneer Sees Hope for Movement’s Future

In 1995, National Geographic sent a reporter to the American West to document what the magazine called “A Farming Revolution“: a back-to-basics movement that eschewed monoculture crops and synthetic fertilizers and relied on crop rotation, green mulches and respect for the soil.

Fast forward 20 years, and the principles expressed by the fringe farmers in that story have become the basis of organic agriculture and the bedrock of the food movement. And one of those farmers, Fred Kirschenmann, still farms in that manner—but has also emerged over the decades as a philosophical leader for the cause of sustainability.

Kirschenmann was born in his family’s North Dakota farmhouse in the worst year of the Dust Bowl, the most devastating drought in United States’ history. He left to study philosophy, earning a PhD and running university theology departments before experiencing a kind of conversion—not religious, but agricultural. He returned to his family’s conventional, 3,500-acre farm in 1976 and remade it over decades into a showpiece of organic and biodynamic agriculture. Kirschenmann, who turns 80 this year, is President of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture north of New York City and a Distinguished Fellow at Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. He was recently honored with a Leadership Award by the James Beard Foundation.

I spoke to Kirschenmann, truly one of the grand old men of the food movement, about his history in farming and his thoughts on the future of food.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Tell me a bit about the farm family you grew up in and how you came to be farming yourself.

My father and mother started farming in North Dakota in 1930, right after they got married. Starting as a beginning farmer in the middle of the Dust Bowl was not an easy task. My father understood intuitively that the Dust Bowl wasn’t just about the weather, which is what most of his neighbors thought, but was also about the way that farmers farmed. So he became a radical advocate of the necessity of taking care of the land. It was more important than making money. It was more important than anything else.

That really influenced me, but it also raised in me a question about how people arrived at their values. In college, I started to hang out with students majoring in philosophy and religion, and I realized they were wrestling with exactly the question that I had. That’s how I entered the field of philosophy and religion.

Did you always assume that you would go back to farming?

When I was in my senior year of college, there was one faculty member in the department of philosophy/religion that I particularly liked. In my senior year, I was having breakfast and this faculty member sat down next to me. He asked, “What are you going to do next year?” I said, “I’m probably going to go back to the farm.” And he said, “You shouldn’t do that. It’s very clear that you have a passion about values, but you still need to develop more discipline. Go to a seminary.”

So off I went to the Hartford Theological Seminary, and then the University of Chicago, where I got my PhD, and I ended up as director of the Consortium for Higher Education Religion Studies in Dayton, Ohio. This was right after the Vietnam War. So many students were upset with that disaster. They wanted to make a contribution to society, but they didn’t trust any traditional organizations. It occurred to me that what they were really talking about was being a worker-priest, where they would have their own job and also do some good in the world.

I want to make clear that I’m not saying ‘organic’ is the answer to everything.–Fred Kirschenmann

So we started a program in what we called dual-career training. One of our students, who had done his undergraduate work under the first cooperative-extension scientist to research organic agriculture, wanted to do a “ministry to the soil.” He wanted to go back to Nebraska and take over his father’s farm, organically, but also to talk to his neighbors to encourage them to also take better care of the soil.

One day, he showed me a photograph of two handfuls of soil, and it was like two different planets. One handful was dark and porous, with earthworms hanging off of his hand, and the other was a handful of sand. In my mind’s eye, I could see my father, lecturing me about taking care of the land. So in 1976, my family and I decided that we’d go back to the farm and convert it to an organic farm.

Since you’d grown up a conventional farmer, and organic farming was new, how did you learn?

There wasn’t anybody that I could go to, to give me advice. The county agent wasn’t even interested in talking to me about it. My student, who had gone back to his farm in Nebraska, helped me understand the principles. One of the things he said again and again was, “You have to find a good crop rotation, that’s absolutely essential.” I asked, “What kind of crops should I put in the rotation?” And he said, “I can’t help you. I’m farming in Nebraska and you’re farming in North Dakota and those are two different ecologies. You’re going to have to figure this out for yourself.”

I didn’t know there were any other farmers doing organic farming in North Dakota. Then, one year, there was a young couple that had inherited some money and they decided they wanted to start an organic fertilizer company. They put together a list of farmers in North Dakota and South Dakota and Montana, some in Minnesota and even a couple in Canada, and they invited us to a conference.

At lunch, someone said, “It is so important for us to learn from each other, we shouldn’t let this conference be the end of that.” We all thought, if there are four or five people that want to stay afterward to talk about this, that’d be great. There were 23. Out of that, we started what we called the North Dakota Natural Farmers Association. In the 1980s we renamed it the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society, and it has some 700 members now.

Can you talk about what these words mean to you, organic, sustainable? It’s not uncommon these days to hear people say they are so overused that they’ve become drained of meaning.

In my view, sustainability means the capacity for continuing indefinitely into the future. But I don’t think we can talk about sustainability, or organic, or any other kind of agriculture simply in how we make it more resilient now, because we have to address the challenges coming at us in the future.

We know, for example, that the end of cheap energy is not too far away. We’re also going to see metals and mineral costs go up, because we’re depleting those across the planet. We’re going to have increasing water problems, as we already see in California, because we’re using up fresh water resources. We’re going to have more unstable climate. The question now is, what does sustainability mean under those circumstances?

That seems a perfect segue to the problem of feeding the world: the coming 9 billion, as they say. How do the values that you’ve espoused all your career meet this challenge of increasing food production?

Well, in the first place, that’s a bogus question. It’s designed to convince the public and also farmers that they have to now gear up and support all the new technologies. In point of fact, as the United Nations has pointed out, on a calorie per person basis, we’re now producing enough to feed 12 billion people. Yet we have roughly a billion that are chronically hungry.

So the problem is not adequate production. The problem is poverty. It’s entitlement.

The other thing is, we’re really we’re not producing food, we’re producing commodities. Iowa, for example: 90 percent of its cultivated land is in just two crops, corn and soybeans. Iowa is importing 90 percent of the food that it needs.

You’ve been promoting organic agriculture for 40 years now. Is it losing or winning?

I want to make clear that I’m not saying “organic” is the answer to everything. One difficulty is that a lot of organic agriculture is now becoming more monoculture. We have to start thinking about organic in terms of a regenerative agriculture, that is, that the practice of agriculture regenerates the resources of agriculture.

Moments of crisis can be moments of grace, because we generally don’t make changes of this magnitude—internally and in our culture—until we feel enough pain–Kirschmann

If you think about it in terms of water: We’re now using 70 percent of our fresh water resources just for agricultural irrigation. We have to use that much because we haven’t paid attention to the health of soil. Most of our soils now only absorb a half-inch of rainwater an hour; more than that runs off, taking nutrients with it into lakes and streams.

Some good news is that the practice of planting cover crops is starting to catch on. Even in Iowa now, just in the last two years, 400,000 acres are now are farmed with cover crops. Farmers have discovered that when they plant cover crops, it stores more fertility in the soil, so they can reduce their fertilizer and pesticide input by 70 percent and maintain their yields. And the quality of the soil improves to a point that it now absorbs 8 inches of rainwater an hour. I’m not saying that planting cover crops is the answer to the whole challenge of the future of agriculture, but it’s moving us in the right direction.

We’re speaking at a time of unprecedented drought in California, the source of much of the nation’s vegetables and fruit. Does this feel like a moment of truth telling?

Moments of crisis can be moments of grace, because we generally don’t make changes of this magnitude—internally and in our culture—until we feel enough pain. But I do see hope. Especially in my involvement with the Stone Barns Center.

We work with a large number of young people who are interested in being apprentices and becoming farmers. These millennials, they operate under a different kind of set of values. They’re not interested in accumulating a lot of stuff. They’re interested in being engaged in nature. They want to grow food for people. I think it’s very encouraging.

Stone Barns is marking Kirschenmann’s 80th birthday by launching the annual Kirschenmann Lecture at its campus in Pocantico Hills, NY. The inaugural lecture will be given June 18 by writer Wendell Berry. For more information: Laura Neil, lauran@stonebarnscenter.org.