Faith in farming

Fred Kirschenmann, AM’62, PhD’64, wants to pass on his self-taught sustainable-agriculture lessons to younger generations.

By Lydialyle Gibson
Photography by Stone Barns Center

Faith in farming
Stone Barns Center educates children and farmers about sustainable agriculture.

From success to failure. That’s what Fred Kirschenmann’s colleagues thought when he told them he was leaving his post as academic dean at Curry College, a liberal-arts school just outside Boston, to go home to North Dakota and take over the family farm. It was 1976. Kirschenmann’s father had just survived a mild heart attack, and the doctors told him it was time to leave the work and worry of managing 3,100 acres of wheat, oats, sunflowers, and cattle to someone else. At his father’s insistence, Kirschenmann, AM’62, PhD’64, had left for college more than two decades earlier, looking for opportunities beyond the farm.

Now, he decided, it was time to return. “I needed to get back onto the land,” Kirschenmann says. So he and his family moved west.

Neighboring farmers in North Dakota believed he was veering from success to failure too. Against all advice, Kirschenmann planned to convert the farm—which his parents had sustained through the Dust Bowl years and built into a lasting, profitable enterprise—to organic agriculture. “He’s going to farm organically? Without fertilizer?” Kirschenmann remembers his neighbors saying. “His father worked so hard all his life to create this great farm, and now he’s going to ruin it.”

But Kirschenmann’s earliest conservationism began with his father: “I can still remember him lecturing me when I was five years old, with his finger stuck out at me, about how important it was to take care of the land.” In 1973 Kirschenmann learned of organics from one of his students, a Nebraskan named David Vetter, and he tried to convince his father to convert. Intrigued, his father still said no: at his age, he couldn’t undertake such a radical change. When Kirschenmann came home to run the farm, he told his father he would go organic. “And his response was, ‘Well, whatever works.’”

Modern organic-farming practices were not widely known in the late 1970s, and Kirschenmann taught himself, mostly through trial and error. His crop yields dropped sharply at first, and weeds nearly took over his fields. He had trouble working out the right crop rotation; he didn’t plant enough legumes to restore his unfertilized soil; he didn’t understand the importance of composting manure. “We made some mistakes in those early years,” he says, “and then the neighbors were really sure we were going to ruin it. Because on a farm, your mistakes are visible to everybody.”

Within five years, the place was prosperous again. The crops were thriving. Kirschenmann was well into a project that would shape the rest of his life. In the decades since, he has become a spokesman and advocate, an educator and organizer for sustainable agriculture. He travels the country to speak at conferences and universities and has helped to found groups and programs that bring sustainable farmers together and that provide money and assistance.

He now splits his time between Ames, Iowa, where he’s a distinguished fellow and former director of Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and Pocantico Hills, New York, where he is board president of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, an 80-acre nonprofit farm and education center just north of New York City. Kirschenmann no longer runs the family farm day-to-day—that job now belongs to a hired farmer—but he comes home every August to help with the combining and to get in a few weeks of “tractor therapy.”

Last year Kirschenmann released Cultivating an Ecological Conscience (University Press of Kentucky), a selection of his essays on agriculture. “On Behalf of American Farmers,” first published in 1978, predicted the further consolidation of family farms into factory farms and lamented the economics responsible. “Farmers are the only American businessmen,” he writes, “who are forced to buy retail, sell wholesale, and pay the freight both ways.”

An ordained United Church of Christ minister who studied at the Divinity School, Kirschenmann also traces the country’s shifting ecological priorities and examines the ill effects of industrial farming and bioengineering. His book lays out an agrarian philosophy that is part science, part faith, and part firsthand experience. “Our industrial culture has taught us to detach ourselves from what we want to know, in order to be objective,” Kirschenmann writes in “Theological Reflections while Castrating Calves.” “On the farm, I know things best by immersing myself in the things I wish to know.”

Kirschenmann worries about economic and ecological threats to farming, but he is hopeful. At sustainable-agriculture conferences, he sees more people in their 20s and 30s, many of whom did not grow up on a farm but are interested in a new kind of agriculture. The interest hints at a revitalization, says Kirschenmann, in an industry that has long been growing older. “Thirty percent of our farmers are over age 65, and only five percent are under 35.” The annual Stone Barns Center conference for beginner farmers, especially organic or small-scale farmers, always generates a long waiting list. At any given time there, 12 to 20 interns and apprentices work on the farm; 70 percent of them wind up in full-time agriculture, Kirschenmann says. “They want to be farmers. ... They want to raise food for people.”

For many young farmers, the road ahead will be hard. “I don’t mean to romanticize this, because there are some real challenges,” he says. “Access to land, access to affordable capital, and access to the kind of markets that can give a return so they can pay off their investment.”

Kirschenmann is part of a project to help make that happen. Agriculture of the Middle, begun in 2003, aims to help midscale farms—those too large to sell directly to customers but too small to compete in the commodities markets. Kirschenmann, the project’s convening chair, wants to help them organize into marketing networks and develop their own brands. In a few places, midsized farms are already doing exactly that: Organic Valley, which began with seven Wisconsin farmers in 1988, has grown to a 1,600-farm cooperative, and Shepherd’s Grain, a group of mostly West Coast wheat growers, negotiates for prices as a unit with bakers and millers. “The young people who left the farm are coming back now, because there’s some economic security there for them,” Kirschenmann says. “That’s what people want: economic security and a decent life.”


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