Back-to-Nature Farming Finds a Place Advocates of 'Sustainable' Agriculture Make Strides with Pollution-Free Growing Methods

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Since the 1960s, organic farmers like Fred Kirschenmann have tended their fields and sewn their millet on the margins of American agriculture. Shunned by the mainstream, they were labeled as hippy idealists trying to return to nature.

In some ways, Mr. Kirschenmann fits that bill. A former professor of religious history, he returned to his family's North Dakota farm in the mid-'70s, determined to make it profitable and chemical-free.

He succeeded. The 2,600-acre Kirschenmann spread posts impressive crop yields and profits. And Kirschenmann has now become a spokesman for what is today called "sustainable" or "alternative" agriculture. "The conventional model of agriculture stresses specialization, routinization, and control of nature," says Kirschenmann, whose farm is the nation's largest organic food producer. "We stress diversity and accommodation to the way natural ecosystems work." In part because of the success of farmers such as Kirschenmann, sustainable agriculture is shedding its old image, finding a place in government agronomy labs, on American crop lands, and on supermarket shelves. The Kirschenmanns of the world are said to be farming sustainably because their methods will not produce soil degradation or pollution. Given the push for environmental methods, American agriculture is dividing into two different philosophies, say experts. The nature-based farming movement is resurging, even as the wider agricultural industry dives headlong into the age of bioengineering and automated "precision farming," that precisely measures fertilizers to reduce pollution. "American agriculture is going in two completely different directions," says George Bird, a Michigan State University professor who's written reports on sustainable agriculture for Congress. "There's a small but vocal group making its presence increasingly felt, while on the other side, the very powerful conventional, high-tech agricultural system is still very much in the driver's seat. Shortage of fossil fuels But the success of modern industrial farming comes with a price, critics say. Conventional farming is seen as unsustainable because it relies on polluting fertilizers and pesticides. These substances are largely derived from fossil fuels, which will someday dry up, say these critics. Meanwhile, large-scale, corporate farming has led to declining soil quality, erosion, water pollution, and the demise of small family farms, they say. But it isn't easy for farmers to wean themselves of synthetic additives and remain competitive. Growers such as Kirschenmann do it by tapping into the cycles of nature, and replacing synthetic growth stimulants and pest-killers with hands-on management. When Kirschenmann plans his spring crop rotations, for example, he puts cold-tolerant crops where warm-weather plants once grew, or sows deep-rooted vegetables where shallow roots earlier grew. In this way, Kirschenmann disrupts pest cycles, taps new layers of nutrients, replenishes other layers, and keeps weeds down by crowding them out with "cover crops." Another common practice is planting legumes that naturally refertilize the soil with nitrogen, something many plants depend on. All this means Kirschenmann spends no money on chemicals, keeping his farm in the black while employing only one farm hand. Though still the exception to the norm, stories like this one are increasingly common. …