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
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"
"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
The Kirschenmanns of the world are said to be farming
sustainably because their methods will not produce soil degradation
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. …