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.
In the month that I spent traveling around Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri, the newscasts consisted almost entirely of price quotations on the Chicago commodities market. Farmers could tell you the exact amount of rain that had fallen on their fields over the past two months, to the last tenth of an inch. Even on city radio stations, the commercials dealt mostly with feed additives and hybrid seed varieties. President Carter's decision to relax beef import restrictions was treated as a major foreign policy crisis, and the grasshopper hordes moving east from Colorado were looked upon as an invading army whose artillery was just audible over the horizon. One radio station had a favorite song—actually a patriotic hymn—in which a litany of the farmer's trials and satisfactions was recited while a heavenly chorus chimed in the background.
The vast majority of farmers in the Midwest are now practicing continuous cropping—"corn-corn-corn" as it is called in Nebraska and Iowa. This means that the, highest-paying crop is planted without interruption year after year. Some farmers now rotate with soybeans since their price has risen over the past fifteen years, but others rotate only with corn/wheat or corn/milo, which is not a true rotation since none of them fix nitrogen. Yields are maintained at spectacularly high levels—200 bushels of corn per acre in some instances—through ample use of fertilizers and with the help of pesticides and herbicides, which fight the insects and weeds that ordinarily thrive on the endless repetition of the same crop.
When drought struck in the early 1970s, the Department of Agriculture and the machinery companies responded with "center-pivot" irrigation, actually a lawn-sprinkling system raised to the level of a national agricultural policy. Huge, quarter-mile-long scaffoldings now "walk" around a farmer's field, spraying water from a central well. Although enormously expensive and already running up against groundwater limitations, center-pivot agriculture has created another quantum leap in production figures. A further trend has been the movement of cattle off the farms and into the huge feedlots that now dot the countryside, holding up to 250,000 head of cattle apiece. The change has turned most farmers into corn-suppliers to the feedlots, but has given them much more leisure time since they no longer have to tend their own livestock.
The increased efficiency and greater division of labor have left the farmers facing only a few major problems (besides their normal difficulties with the weather): continuing overproduction; the rising cost of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides (all fossil-fuel based products); and the gradual depletion of organic matter in the soil, which has led to increased hardpan and erosion. Some areas of Kansas and Nebraska have reported hardpan ground almost two feet deep. The agricultural machinery companies have responded by building bigger tractors to pull the plows, but the heavy tractors are causing even greater compaction. Where hardpan occurs, rainwater no longer soaks into the ground but runs directly off the land, taking large quantities of soil with it. Some soil scientists now estimate that the topsoil from the equivalent of a 100-acre farm ends up at the bottom of the Mississippi River every day because of erosion.
In the midst of this, there are a few organic farmers. They are not running communes, nor are they concerned with growing tomatoes that will taste better than the "chemical" varieties. The concept of "going back to the land" means very little to them, since they have already spent all of their lives on the land.
Marvin Kurpgewiet farms a 500-acre spread in Madison, Nebraska, about 250 miles northwest of Omaha. He inherited it from his father, and has been farming organically for the past six years. When I pulled up behind his hillside farmhouse, his wife, a sunburnt redhead, greeted me and said I could find him back in the fields. "He's waiting for you," she called out as I started to negotiate my borrowed car through freshly cut alfalfa. I drove across the damp fields, then stood on a little hilltop looking over a motionless landscape until I realized that a tiny yellow threshing machine at the end of one long field had turned around and was now facing me. I walked for a long time, seeing only the ghostly reflection of sky in the cab window, until finally I stood beside it. A smiling face peered out almost fifteen feet above my head. "Come on up," shouted Kurpgewiet, but communication was almost impossible over the roar of the motor. I rode with him to the end of a row of cut oats before we climbed down and he began showing me around his fields. A stocky, Germanic looking man of medium height, with thin, blond hair and a stubby, suntanned nose, he talked in the deliberate manner of a person who is used to thinking things through for himself.
"I got into organic farming six years ago," he said as we headed for a neighboring cornfield. "My wife and I went to a presentation given by one of these organic fertilizer companies and we liked it. We knew we were getting into trouble with our soil—it was getting harder and harder to plow every year They told us to stop using fertilizers and pesticides, and to start building up our soil again by using manures and their trace-mineral fertilizer. We use a five-year rotation to get nitrogen and organic matter back in the soil. We grow corn, soybeans, corn again, then alfalfa, and finally oats and clover. The alfalfa hay, oats, and some of the corn go to feed the livestock. We've got forty head of cattle and about 350 hogs right now. The clover stays right on the field when the oats are harvested, and then gets completely plowed under for nitrogen. We buy a little of the trace-mineral fertilizer from them every year, but it's not expensive and you use it only about eight to ten years, until your soil gets built up again. Then you discontinue it almost completely. The whole thing is very inexpensive. The company occasionally brings people around to see our farm, but they don't bother us.
"My yields haven't been off much at all, and I'm actually getting better crops on some of my high ground, where things never used to grow well because of the water runoff. I'm getting about 90 to 110 bushels of corn an acre, and my ground is getting so soft and spongy that the rain soaks down instead of sitting on top or- running right off. Two years ago, during the drought here, I still got sixty bushels an acre while some of these farmers didn't even bother to go out and harvest a crop. The next year they all went into debt for $65,000 to buy center-pivot irrigation systems. Some of these farmers around here are so far in debt that they have to make 150 to 200 bushels of corn every year just to meet their interest payments. They're spending $75 an acre on fertilizers and pesticides, plus another $25 an acre to pump water out of the ground. Corn is $2 a bushel, so that puts them 50 bushels in the hole just to start. I'm only spending about $5 an acre and my yields are just about as high." A genuine note of perplexity had entered his voice, and he gave me a long, slow shake of the head. "Somebody's just not thinking," he said.
I asked him what he was doing about insects and weeds, and what he would do if a horde of grasshoppers started marching toward his field. "Weeds are not that much of a problem once you get your soil right," he said. "The company told us that weeds do best in poor soil, and they seem to be pretty much right about it. The weed has a longer root structure and can reach down further in the soil for nutrients. That's why you start getting a lot of weeds when your soil gets exhausted. The weed can also use the chemical fertilizer just as easily as the plant, and once you put that chemical nitrogen in the soil, the race is on. Herbicides will work for you for a while, but all you usually end up doing is breeding a tougher strain of weed. Then the chemical companies sell you a different herbicide, and the same thing starts over again. I've had fewer problems with weeds than I ever had since I started building up my soil.
"Pretty much the same thing is true for insects. A lot of your bugs, like corn rootworm, don't come until you start growing the same crop year after year. Then the insect has the chance to establish itself and multiply. A lot of the spraying that goes on around here comes when a farmer sees a few bugs on his crop and decides to spray the whole field just to be sure. I just haven't had that much problem with insects since I started this system. I guess if a whole army of grasshoppers ate through here I wouldn't expect them to pass by my cornfields, but fortunately that hasn't happened yet."
Sitting in the kitchen later, while I ate a fresh raspberry sundae his wife had prepared, Kurpgewiet told me he is planning to increase his livestock in order to get maximum advantage from the system. "It isn't necessary to feed cattle on corn because they're ruminants and can eat all the hay and other things we can't eat," he said. "Hay and oats don't bring much of a price on the market because the feedlots don't use them anymore, but once I start running my hay and oats through cattle and putting the manure back on the field, I won't be losing anything anywhere in the system. I won't have to buy any fertilizers, and all I'll have to put into it is my labor. Everything that leaves this farm will be on four hooves and bringing a premium price, I hope. I've already been able to pay off most of my mortgage just from the money I've been making the last few years. Once I get my herds built up, every dollar I get from selling a pig or a cow is going to go right here," he said, patting his wallet for emphasis.
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."