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.