Fred Kirschenmann on farming as a self-regulating, self-renewing system

By Ken Roseboro
Published: December 27, 2014
Category: Organic/Sustainable Farming

Fred Kirschenmann organic pioneer and leader in sustainable agriculture

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Fred Kirschenmann is a true organic pioneer and long-time leader in sustainable agriculture. He shares an appointment as Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and as President of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York. He also continues to manage his family’s 1,800-acre certified organic farm in North Dakota. He is also a professor in Iowa State University’s Department of Religion and Philosophy and holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Chicago. He has held numerous appointments, including the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board and the National Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production operated by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and funded by Pew Charitable Trusts. He helped found Farm Verified Organic, Inc., an international organic certification agency. His 2010 book, Cultivating an Ecological Conscience: Essays from a Farmer Philosopher, follows his writing on farming, philosophy, and sustainability. 

What have you been doing these days?

Fred Kirschenmann: I’ve been traveling a lot and speaking. I spend one week a month at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture just north of New York City.

The Stone Barns Center consists of 80 acres, and there’s literally a stone barn on the property dating back to 1921. John D. Rockefeller went to Europe where he saw some of the original stone barns and had one built on the Rockefeller property as a dairy barn. David Rockefeller’s wife, Peggy, raised grass-fed beef breeding cattle and used the Stone Barns for her calving barn and held auction sales in the open courtyard. Peggy was also a big proponent of farmland preservation and helped to start the American Farmland Trust. After Peggy died, David and his family later established the Stone Barns Center as a memorial for Peggy.

I’m also at the Leopold Center at Iowa State University.

It is intriguing to spend time in the heart of Midwest agriculture and also in urban agriculture in the Northeast.

Tell me about your farm.

Kirschenmann: My father and mother started the farm in 1930, right after they got married. My father understood the value of healthy soils.

I started my own career in higher education and learned about organic agriculture from David Vetter, who was a student of mine. I decided to come back to the farm in 1976 after my father had a mild heart attack to convert our farm to organic. My father was interested in doing that since he was a big proponent of taking care of the land.

At the time I didn’t know there was such a thing as an organic market; I just wanted to grow organic to improve soil quality. But I later discovered that there was a market for organic grains, so we became certified organic in 1980 and then biodynamic certified in 1982. Back then we got a $.50 per bushel premium, which we thought was pretty good!

Why did you decide to farm using biodynamic methods?

Kirschenmann: David Vetter introduced me to the writings of Rudolph Steiner, which included some interesting ideas. Steiner’s ideas about managing the farm as an organism particularly interested me. The more I learned about managing the farm organically the more I realized that it had to be managed as a self-renewing and self-regulating system—as an organism. Furthermore, our grain buyer told us that biodynamic grains were in bigger demand in Europe than organic so my original decision to go biodynamic was initially driven by market demand.

But I soon realized that the ideas of Rudolph Steiner were in some ways similar to those of Sir Albert Howard, one of the early proponents of organic agriculture. You have to farm like nature. The farm should be self-sustaining and self-renewing. According to both Howard and Steiner you need to pay attention to what is happening in nature and incorporate those principles on the farm. Those principles continue to engage me, especially as the non-renewable resources we have been using to “sustain” our farms are becoming depleted.

What is your perspective on the organic movement/industry?

Kirschenmann: There are problems with organic agriculture. A farmer can be certified organic by simply using “natural” inputs instead of synthetic. A farm can be certified organic growing a monoculture with little attention to biodiversity or soil health.

If we don’t manage organic agriculture to enhance that capacity of self-renewal and self-regulation, it won’t be sustainable for the longterm.

To the extent that organic management mimics conventional management for pest control it will likely see the same results. For example, much of our pest management strategies are based on a single tactic therapeutic intervention. If a pest emerges we try to intervene with a pest control technology. But the farmer will never get rid of all pests using that strategy, and in the process will also harm beneficial insects. For that reason a single tactic therapeutic intervention strategy won’t work in a natural system. As Joe Lewis with the Agriculture Research Service pointed out, such strategies are simply not sustainable.

We currently see this with Roundup. It’s not working; superweeds are emerging and soil quality is degraded. Going to another herbicide-resistant GM variety such as 2,4-D or dicamba only extends the problem because it is the same single tactic therapeutic intervention. Weeds became resistant to Roundup, and they will also become resistant to 2,4-D and dicamba.

We need an approach that builds resilience, such as using a three- and four- crop rotation system, and/or incorporating cover crops—such practices are a good place to start.

There are farmers in Iowa who now understand the value of cover crops and are incorporating them in their system.

Why don’t more conventional farmers adopt such an approach?

Kirschenmann: Our economic infrastructures put farmers in a box. They are forced to specialize, simplify management, and go for economies of scale.

(Iowa State University researcher) Matt Liebman’s research shows that if farmers increase rotations to three or four crops, such as corn, beans, small grains, and alfalfa, they can reduce fertilizers and pesticides by almost 90 percent without sacrificing yield. But a farmer will ask: What will I do with the small grain and alfalfa? He can’t take it to his local grain elevator. This is an example of the dilemma facing farmers.

What is your perspective on GMOs?

Kirschenmann: Scientists should use genetics to see how genes function in nature instead of how to manipulate nature.

I’m not demonizing genetics but the way we use GMOs is not a functional system because it continues the use of single tactic therapeutic intervention strategies. GM technology involves seeing nature as a collection of objects instead of a complex, emergent biological system.

What can we do to sustain and enrich the life of nature?

Kirschenmann: Attending to restoring the biological health of our soil is the foundation. We need to pay attention to the health of the whole.

Ultimately soil is the foundation of life on the planet. Albert Howard said if we have healthy soil, we have healthy plants, healthy animals, and healthy people.

A basic principle of Aldo Leopold is that you have to develop an ecological conscience and have a caring attitude to biotic communities. We have to stop treating the land as a commodity belonging to us, but rather as a community to which we belong. We have to find our place and enhance the capacity for self-renewal of living things.

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