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.

The granddaddy of the small organic fertilizer companies is the Wonderlife Corporation of Des Moines, Iowa, founded in 1968 by Eric Jasperson, a former automobile dealer. About 3000 farmers across the country, from Pennsylvania to Wyoming, are now following the Wonderlife system. When Barry Commoner's group at Washington University in St. Louis did its 1974 study showing that organic farmers were competing successfully with their conventional neighbors, fourteen of the sixteen organic farmers in the study were Wonderlife farmers. In addition, Wonderlife has spawned about forty-eight similar companies, many of them formed by Wonderlife salespeople who learned the system.

I spoke with Jasperson in Wonderlife's modest, five room office. He is a man of medium height with steel-gray hair and he was wearing a flashy necktie. "We're selling a product that is a lignite coal with a bacterial additive, but the fertilizer is only a small part of the Wonderlife system. What we're really selling is an educational program. You have to convince the farm to follow the rotations and take care of his soil, otherwise nothing will work. If it's not properly understood the organic system can become as big a ripoff as the chemical system. The universities were very cautious at first, but now they've become much more interested. We're much more accepted now than we were even two years ago. The state agricultural departments also harassed us for a while, but now it looks as if they' going to accept us. Basically, I think the experts don't like the idea of a lay person coming up with these ideas. That's supposed to be their department. But now people are getting more interested. Last week the USDA sent someone out here to see what we were doing."

Wonderlife and its progeny have gotten into trouble because they have tried to call their products "fertilizers" while they do not have enough N-P-K nutrients to meet the standard definition. The companies say that sufficient N-P-K elements are added through rotation and manuring. The problem now seems to be solved, in that state departments are allowing the products to be called "trace-element fertilizers." Some large companies are also starting to manufacture trace-element fertilizers. One is being marketed by Dow Chemical Company. The larger companies do not recommend the rotational practices, however.

"We've tried to create a framework where we can show the farmer that it pays to be honest with his soil," Jasperson told me. "You can't fight the greatest power there is, which is life, Nature, God—whatever you want to call it. We think it's the business of the farmer to get on Nature's side, rather than against it. It's always exciting when a farmer comes back to you and tells you he's finally realized that's what farming is all about."

Acres, U.S.A.—"A Voice for Eco-Agriculture"—is a monthly newspaper put out by Charles Walters, a former newspaperman who began publishing it in his basement in Kansas City in1971. With a circulation of 12,000, Acres, U.S.A. has become a focal point of the organic movement in the Midwest. The newspaper has sponsored an "Eco-Agricu1tural Conference" in Kansas City each summer for the last four years.

I was at last year's conference for three days before someone summed up my exact feelings about it. At the breakfast table I was sitting across from the president of a small organic fertilizer company in Omaha when he leaned over to me and said, "Let me tell you something about these conferences. The first time you come to one of these, you look around at all the kooks and you say to yourself, 'What the hell am I doing here? Am I crazy? Somebody's going to put me in a nuthouse for doing this.' But after a while, if you hang on, you realize that most of these people are saying at least something that makes at least a little bit of sense."

It does take a certain suspension of disbelief to attend a conference on organic farming. Last year's meeting opened with a spirited defense of laetrile as a cure for cancer, and ended with another rousing diatribe claiming that government attempts to manipulate the weather have been responsible for devastating floods in the Midwest in recent years. In between, the podium was pounded by a procession of salesmen giving stump speeches for their particular brands of organic products. "Scientists have analyzed seaweed and have found that there is one percent of its chemical content that they cannot identify," shouted one seaweed-fertilizer salesman from the stage. "Ladies and gentlemen, I submit to you that that one percent is life itself!"

Dr. Robert Pettit, a microbiologist at Texas A & M, gave a presentation showing that Wonderlife's system of rotations and organic fertilizer works successfully in raising corn. As it happens, much of Dr. Pettit's research is sponsored by Wonderlife, yet there was a kind of rough justice to it all. For decades, the chemical companies have been sponsoring research at the agricultural schools and scientists have generally reported when their products worked. Now that some of the organic fertilizer companies have grown rich enough to sponsor their own research, the scientists are starting to prove that their products work as well.

Dr. Pettit and I took a stroll along the midway of carnival booths in a rear auditorium, where dozens of salespeople were hawking products with names such as "Wondergrow," "Agroserum," "Wonderhumus," and "Naturgrow." "I could go through here and punch a hole in every one of these ideas right now," said Dr. Pettit, a tall, youngish man with graying hair who talks with a Texas twang at the pace of a New York City cabdriver. "You don't need seaweed or lignite coal or any of these special kinds of organic material to make an organic system work. All these claims that organically grown food is different or tastes better than chemically grown food are just nonsense. There's absolutely nothing sacred about having organic matter and humus in your soil. You can grow the same plants in water if you want to add enough chemical fertilizers. There's only one advantage to organic farming, and that is that it's cheaper. And it's going to get cheaper still as the price of natural gas goes up. Plus organic farming is easier on your soils and keeps them healthy, and that's really going to make the difference in the long, long run."

Even among the most enthusiastic organic farmers, however, there was a healthy skepticism about the movement. Carsten Pank, a German-born biodynamic farmer from upstate New York, startled the crowd of 300 enthusiasts by saying, "I get particularly annoyed at these people who insist on doing everything according to this word 'organic.' What these people don't want to admit is that the chemicals used in most herbicides and pesticides are organic chemicals."

I caught Pank in his motel room after his speech, and he expanded a little bit on his comment. "You know the statement of this man Earl Butz [the former secretary of agriculture] that 50 million people would starve if we all tried to switch to organic farming this minute?" (Butz's remark, made in 1971, is still anathema among organic enthusiasts.) "Well, let me tell you something," he said. "This man is absolutely right. Switching to organics is something that has to be done very slowly and carefully over a long period of time. It's foolish to tell farmers to jump into something they don't understand completely. If it isn't done carefully, you can ruin a farmer overnight."

I heard the same sort of skepticism three days later, when I visited Jean Poirot, a southwest Missouri farmer who has become a darling of the east and west coast organic enthusiasts. (One group has made a movie about his farm, and hundreds of college students visit him every year.) Poirot became famous when he decided to solve his insect problem in the 1930s by turning his farm into a haven for wildlife. He re-established prairie chickens, left dozens of hedgerows and tree groves for birds, and has not used a pesticide since. Yet, when I visited him, I found that he fertilizes with anhydrous ammonia (which is condemned by most organicists because it kills worms and microbial life), and avoids plowing by spraying his weeds each spring with paraquat, the herbicide of marijuana fame. "People come down here expecting to find some kind nature farm, and they're always disappointed," said Poirot, a crusty old badger of about seventy.

Poirot has solved the problem of tending livestock by turning his cattle loose in the pasture and letting them fend for themselves year-round. He has no barn and doesn't even bale hay for them. "The buffallo survived out on these prairies for centuries before the farmer ever arrived," he told me. "They didn't have barns out here, they didn't have veterinarians, and they didn't have the farmer to put hay out for them. We've had calves born out here in the middle of snowstorms and 10-degree weather, and they made it," he said. "Their ears and their tails may have frozen off, but goddamn it, they survived."

By the time I was through, I think I had heard almost every conceivable shade of opinion on pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, plowing, and livestock raising from people who all claimed to be a part of the organic "movement." Like most other movements, this one contains its share of heresies.

[an error occurred while processing this directive] think it is possible, although risky, to draw a few conclusions from what is now known about organic farming.

1. The fundamental issue that divides "organic" farmers from their orthodox "chemical" counterparts is not the welter of concerns about "natural" food's better taste, "vital" forces, pesticide residues, or nutritional differences. It is whether the farmer should be primarily concerned with feeding his plants or his soil. According to orthodox agriculture (orthodox over the last fifty years, at least), as long as the farmer gets nutrients into the plant, it doesn't matter too much what happens to the organic content of his soil. So scientists in the agricultural schools are now taking extreme positions and arguing that "the soil is there simply to hold up the plant while the farmer feeds nutrients." The organic position, on the other hand, is that if a farmer keeps his soil in good condition, the plants will pretty much take care of themselves. Even conventional scientists are willing to admit that we still know almost nothing about what happens when nutrients pass from soil to plant, but we do know that the decline in organic matter in American soils is already having an obvious effect in their loss of tilth and increasing hardpan conditions. There seems to be no need for the organic movement to go any further in making its case that soil conditions should be a primary concern—if not the primary concern—of the American farmer. In this respect, the organic position seems justified.

2. There is no question that organic methods can be competitive economically, and may become even more competitive as natural gas prices begin to reflect true replacement costs. Barry Commoner's annual studies since 1974 have shown that organic farmers are able to maintain the same profit levels as conventional chemical farmers by cutting their costs while suffering only slight decreases in yields. My conversations with organic farmers seemed to confirm this argument.

Critics often argue that we will be "starving the rest of the world" by turning to organic farming, but this argument does not seem justified. America's surpluses are not now alleviating world food problems because most of the countries that need the food do not have the internal transportation systems to distribute what they already have. In addition, dumping American surpluses on underdeveloped countries usually hurts the small farmers in those countries who are trying to bring their own goods to market. At the same time, there seems to be little sense in continuing our current large-scale overproduction when it may mean that our soils will be less able to produce crops at some future point. If American agriculture were made more efficient—by lowering energy input and reducing surplus problems—it would free up resources that would make the rest of the economy more efficient. We would then be in a position to extend aid to Third World countries in areas where they are capable of handling our help.

3. There is an enormous potential for dealing with a large portion of the country's environmental problems by recognizing that organic materials are actually a resource rather than "wastes." More than half the country's river and ocean pollution is caused by human sewage that could be composted into an important agricultural product. The problem of animal manures is ten times as great in volume, and could be treated in the same way. Several small companies in the Midwest are already composting feedlot manure and selling it back to farmers, The same thing could be done with food-processing wastes. A growing realization among entrepreneurs that these "wastes" are valuable soil-building materials could solve many environmental problems without costly regulation or huge public-works projects.

4. It must be recognized that there are real obstacles and dangers to making the changeover from heavy use of agricultural chemicals to more organically oriented methods. It would be particularly harmful, for instance, to start passing regulations banning agricultural chemicals, or making them more difficult to use. Nor would it make much sense to start setting up tax-oriented or financial incentives to push farmers into organic methods. The current pace of change, where the risks are being assumed by individual farmers by choice, seems more than sufficient. Even the most enthusiastic organic farmers want agricultural chemicals available if they are needed, and it is only the hard-core environmentalists cheering from the sidelines who want to see them banned. Agricultural chemicals can still play a large role in an organically oriented system, and some kind of healthy mixture of the two may eventually emerge.

5. It is important to note that organic farming does not fit very well with another ambition of "alternative life-style" enthusiasts, the idea of substituting vegetable for animal protein. Nearly all organic theories put heavy emphasis on the maximum use of livestock so that good rotation crops such as alfalfa hay, which humans cannot eat, can be fed to animals. The manure then maintains the closed system. There is a contradiction between the aims of organic farming and the notion that we should cut back to a more vegetarian diet.

Finally, we must remember that asking farmers to adopt organic methods means asking them to do more work. This is true in several respects. Because they do not use herbicides, organic farmers must spend more time in their fields cultivating. Spreading compost and manure also takes more time because they are bulkier than concentrated chemical fertilizers. Many organic enthusiasts agree that there may be an upper limit to the size of a farm that a single owner can work organically. But perhaps most important is the part that livestock plays in an organic system. They require constant feeding and attention, and keep the farmer tied to his job day and night. As a western Nebraska farmer expressed it to me at one of the conferences: "I'd love to have a flock of sheep on my farm and have all that manure to spread around, but if I had sheep to look after, I couldn't be at this conference." The movement of livestock off the farms and into the feedlots has given the farmer an enormous bonus in leisure time, which may be more valuable to him than a small increase in income. In fact, one of the disturbing trends in the organic movement is the tendency of many farmers who have become enthusiastic about the idea to spend more time traveling the country selling products and giving lectures than they do on farming.

Are there enough people in the country willing to give the time and attention to the soil that is required by organic farming? One of the outcomes of organic agriculture may be that we are forced to face our own myths about farming and the joys of living "back on the land."

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