The Next American Dust Bowl—and How to Avert It

Modern agricultural methods have produced even larger harvests—but at a cost: the richest breadbasket soils of the nation are threatened by serious erosion. The solution may lie in a revival of the techniques of "organic farming," techniques that have long been associated with romantic back-to-landers. Now serious large-scale farmers are giving organic methods a try, with startling success.

Roman Wortman first decided to turn to organic farming one day in the spring of 1972, when he rode out on his tractor to spray his fields with a new pesticide and found that he was leaving a trail of dead birds behind him. "There was half a dozen of them at the edge of the field," he told me as we stood under a blazing Nebraska sun looking over his cornfields. "I rode back into the yard and there was more dead birds along the driveway where I had sprayed only a half hour before." He fixed his keen brown eyes on me for a moment. "I turned around and I said to myself, 'What the hell am I doing out here?' From that day to this, I've never used another pesticide, herbicide, or fertilizer on this farm." He waved his arm out over his fields of corn and alfalfa, which were shimmering with a bright, deep green. "Look what I have to show for it," he said.

Wortman, who started farming his father's 320-acre spread in Hartington, Nebraska, the day he got out of high school, told me how he went "clean" for two years without any problems. Then, in early 1974, he attended a presentation by one of the small companies promoting what is usually called "organic farming," but now in the Midwest frequently goes by the name of "eco-agriculture." "They showed a movie about the problems farmers were having with their soils, and how chemical pesticides and fertilizers were making it harder and harder to farm," he said. "I looked at that movie, and I realized I wasn't in this thing by myself."

Wortman signed up with the company's "four-point program," which requires him to follow good soil conservation practices and buy small amounts of the company's organic fertilizer, a pelletized mulch made from low-grade coal. He uses no more commercial fertilizers, but restores nutrients to his soil by spreading manure and by following a careful, five-year rotation in which the residues of nitrogen-fixing alfalfa soybeans, and clover are plowed under after harvesting. He does extra cultivating to get rid of weeds and relies on wildlife and beneficial insects to keep his pest populations down to manageable proportions. He does not disrupt the soil life every year by turning it over with a deep-cutting moldboard plow, but barely scratches the surface with a shallow chisel p1ow Because of the increased amounts of organic matter his soil has more tilth, or plowability, and the smallest chisel plow is sufficient for planting.

Most important, however, is Wortman's attitude toward farming, which he calls "promoting life." "I don't need the chemical companies selling me the nitrogen they pull out of the air by burning natural gas," he said. "I've got millions and millions of bacteria doing the same thing for me right here, and they're doing it for free. I don't need an irrigation system—I've got earthworms aerating my soil so the rainwater will soak down into it instead of running right off. I'm working with Nature now, instead of working against her."

Wortman indeed seems to be doing very well with his new method of "natural" farming. His crop yields have stayed at about the same levels he used to get, while his costs have dropped markedly. His soil has become so soft and workable that plowing is simple, while other farmers in the area are buying bigger and bigger tractors to fight hardpan conditions where the loss of organic matter has made their soil harden up like cement. His soil's water retention capacity has increased, so he needs less water than other farmers, and erosion is no longer a problem. He is making money, and has paid off most of his debts since turning to organic farming.

"I've been in this business all my life, and my father had this farm before me," said Wortman as we drove back to the house in his pickup, while two tireless farm dogs trotted alongside. "I was the first farmer in this county to use chemical fertilizers, and now I'm the first farmer to give them up. People think we're crazy for doing what we're doing out here. But I'll tell you this," he said, wheeling into the yard and slamming on the brakes or emphasis. "If I had to go back to farming the way I was doing it seven years ago, I'd never farm another day in my life."

The "organic" farming movement is one aspect of the vast concerns about ecology over the last ten years that may be about to bear fruit. Debate over the scientific principles is still being fiercely waged, and will probably continue for at least another decade. Yet the lines between the skeptics and the kooks are not as firmly drawn as they were a few years ago. Many university scientists are now admitting that some aspects of organic agriculture are workable. A dialogue has begun. Most important, the theoretical arguments are being put into practice.

While organic farming has been mainly associated with environmentalists and hippie communes on the east and west coasts, it is now a viable commercial alternative in the Midwest. Its greatest exponents may be the small groups of traveling salesmen who are selling "organic" fertilizers and crop-rotation systems. The result could change the face of American agriculture.

Much of America's exemplary record for food production has been achieved at the expense of America's soils. Early farmers cleared the forests and grew the same crops until the land was exhausted; sometimes they hung on until the rising price of land made it profitable to sell. There was little worry over soil erosion, and it was only when the Department of Agriculture was set up in 1862 that such problems received national attention. Even then, it took the Dust Bowl disaster of the 1930s to make basic conservation practices such as contour plowing a nationwide policy.

The other major concern in agriculture is soil fertility. For centuries, grains were rotated with leguminous vegetables, and manure was spread on the fields to maintain fertility, although no one had any clear understanding of why it worked. Then, in the 1840s, Baron Justus von Liebig, a German chemist, analyzed bird droppings and found that nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium formed the three major components. The "N-P-K" theory of fertilization was born. Experiments in England quickly confirmed that plants produced unprecedented yields when treated with N-P-K fertilizer, and soon clipper ships were plying the oceans, carrying huge quantities of these minerals to agricultural countries. In the early twentieth century, two other German scientists, Fritz Haber and Karl Bosch, showed that atmospheric nitrogen (roughly 80 percent of the air) could be "fixed" into an accessible ammonia form by burning it with natural gas. This "nitrogen fixation" process is essentially the same chemical reaction performed by the bacteria that fix nitrogen on the roots of leguminous plants. It takes enormous amounts of energy to perform with chemicals, and about 2 percent of the country's annual production of natural gas is used in making nitrogen fertilizers. It is estimated that one quarter of the total annual nitrogen fixation for the entire planet is now done through the Haber process.

There was always an element of doubt about the use of "artificial manures," however. First, it was never entirely certain that nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium were the only important plant foods. As chemical techniques improved, it became clear that dozens of trace elements, including such obscure substances as cobalt, zinc, and molybdenum, played key roles in plant nutrition. Second, "artificial manures" were tied to mineral deposits, and later to fossil fuels, that exist in finite amounts.

As early as 1908, a University of Wisconsin professor named F. H. King, who had served for eight years as chief of the soil management division of the U. S. Department of Agriculture, started exploring alternative methods. King took a trip to the Orient to investigate how China and Japan were able to feed their formidable populations by farming land that had been under continuous cultivation for nearly 4000 years. He wrote a book called Farmers of Forty Centuries, describing the Oriental countries' intense practices of recycling food wastes, crop residues, canal and river silts, and human and animal manures.

King's work influenced another maverick scientist, Sir Albert Howard, a British microbiologist who became chief agricultural adviser to the Crown Colony Administration in India in 1915. Sir Albert postulated the essential role of mycorrhiza, the symbiotic association of long, thin, filamentous fungi with plant roots, in which the fungi pull nutrients out of the soil, feeding them to the plant. Sir Albert argued that the addition of organic matter gave mycorrhiza a favorable environment in which to flourish, while chemical fertilizers stunted the fungi's growth. Current agricultural research has tentatively affirmed many of Sir Albert's observations, although the workings of mycorrhiza are still very much a mystery.

Sir Albert's work probably would have gone unnoticed in America if it were not for Irving Cohen, who grew up on the East Side of New York but dreamed of living on a farm. In 1938, while working in Pittsburgh as an Internal Revenue auditor, Cohen read an article about Sir Albert's methods, and inspiration struck. Three years later he moved to Emmaus, Pennsylvania, bought an abandoned farm, and started using organic methods. A few years earlier he had adopted his mother's name and started calling himself "J. I. Rodale." It is with Rodale that any story of organic farming in the United States must begin.

Rodale had already made several marginally successful publishing ventures and was working with his brother's electrical contracting firm when he arrived in Emmaus in 1941 and persuaded the nearby city of Allentown to send over its leaves every autumn so that he could make compost. He quickly built up a flourishing eighty-acre agricultural enterprise, and in 1942 published his first issue of Organic Gardening and Farming. Farmers weren't much interested, but the magazine immediately found an audience with home gardeners, and Rodale was launched on a business career that would make him a millionaire and earn him the title of the prophet of American organic agriculture.

I visited the Rodale organization and experimental farm for three days last July. The publishing headquarters sits next to the railroad tracks, in a small group of one-story structures with the look of an elementary school. The roof of the newest addition is slanted for solar collectors which were never installed because Rodale Press found they would not pay for themselves for eighty-eight years.

Administration of Rodale's far-flung enterprise has passed easily into the hands of Robert Rodale, J. I.'s only son, who took over as president in 1954 and became chairman of the board in 1971. Robert Rodale is a slight, trim man of forty-eight with a full head of gray hair, and a calm, rather shy manner. He greeted me in his office and in no time had piled in front of me four books that, he said, would tell me everything I wanted to know about Rodale Press and organic farming.

"The thing people don't realize," he said, "is that organic farming, composting, and all those things are not the basis of the Rodale philosophy. Our basic belief is that people should learn to be self-sufficient. We think they should be able to fend for themselves, grow their own food, make their own utensils, supply their own energy, without having to depend on other people the way they do when they start congregating in cities.

"Many people have the impression that we're advocating a wholesale switch to organic farming, but that is definitely not true. We think that the arguments that organic farming can be done on a large scale are highly exaggerated and based on a very selective choice of facts. Our methods of composting and cultivation are not suitable for large corporation farms, and probably couldn't be done on a large scale. We see our basic constituency as people who are in the homesteading and back-to-the-land movement."

But the Rodale enterprise is very large, and not all research its aimed at "homesteaders" and the "back-to-the-land" movement. Since J. I.'s death, Robert Rodale has personally supervised the development of a new, 300-acre organic farm which is fast becoming an outstanding research facility. Dr. Richard Harwood, who worked for ten years with the International Rice Research Institute and is considered one of the outstanding agronomists in the country, heads the research operation. Harwood is a tall, husky man of forty-two with clear blue eyes and a face that has been permanently reddened by the tropical sun. The day after I saw Robert Rodale, Harwood and I spent an hour talking under the shade of a huge apple tree at the Rodale Research Farm.

"I told Bob Rodale when he offered me the job," he said, "that I didn't put much stock in this organic business. He said he didn't want me to believe in anything, he just wanted me to come and do research. I must admit, though, that there's more to this organic stuff than people realize.

"Right now we're looking at a Chinese system called 'intercropping,' where you plant a field with alternating rows of two different crops that don't compete for the same nutrients. There's also a feeling that you may be able to keep down insect problems this way, since you're limiting the monocultures, which are always an attraction to insects. People here usually talk in terms of small-scale farming, but large corporation farmers could probably use these methods just as easily."

One of Rodale Press's most promising experiments is with amaranth, or pigweed, a nuisance plant that grows worldwide and has now been discovered to be higher in protein content than almost any other known crop. The National Academy of Sciences announced the discovery of amaranth's high protein content in 1975 and put out a call for university research to develop it as a crop. None of the agricultural schools volunteered, however, since no research money was offered. Rodale Press came to the rescue by agreeing to do all the work at its own expense. The company immediately appealed to the 1.3 million readers of Organic Gardening and Farming, and in no time had collected 330 different local varieties of amaranth for crossbreeding and genetic studies. "Our readership can do in two months what it would take a university two years and $20,000 to do," said Harwood. "It's probably the most formidable experimental resource in the country." The Rodale work has attracted worldwide attention, and the week I was there the chief agronomist of Nepal's Department of Agriculture had just arrived to offer his amaranth varieties. "We expect it will be a staple crop both here and abroad within ten years," said Harwood.

Perhaps it is not surprising that, after so many years of being regarded as a fringe group, the Rodale organization is now inclined to settle back into the role that one Rodale staffer described as "the General Motors of the organic movement." Sitting among the comfortable hills of the Lehigh Valley, watching a far-off harvester move silently across a rolling, ten-acre field, I found it easy to think of farming in terms of homesteading, self-sufficiency, and "going back to the land." But while the gentle, sloping farms of the eastern states may offer such enticing possibilities, the breadbasket of this country still lies within the huge Middle Border, the great tier of states along the valleys of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio rivers. And so, within another week, I headed for Omaha, Nebraska, to a land where the sun blazes overhead in a daily procession across cloudless skies, where huge, dark thunderstorms occasionally swell on the horizon, warning of tornadoes, and where the endless plains of corn, wheat, and sorghum stretch everywhere like green and gold ripples on a calm ocean. If organic methods are ever going to find a toehold in American agriculture, it will have to happen in the Midwest.

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