Fertile Imagination

In the era of modern agribusiness, organic farmer Paul Krautmann faces a tough row to hoe, but his innovative natural solutions yield delicious results

 ORGANIC: Acting as an instrument, of nature or art, to a certain end.
--Oxford English Dictionary

Cold March rain drums impatiently on the greenhouse roof, but inside it's a steady 80 degrees, the moist air heavy with the piney scent of rosemary. Shaking the rain from his curly black hair, Paul Krautmann, the owner of Bellews Creek Farm in Hillsboro, Mo., stoops at the first raised bed and runs a forefinger tenderly across the dotted line of arugula shoots. Then he tears off a piece of a delicate green called mache. "My chefs, who are supposed to know these things, pronounce it 'mosh,' and mine happens to be really big, so I call it the 'monster mosh.'" He folds the leaf into his mouth and chews, eyes half-shut. "It tastes," he announces solemnly, "like roses smell."

Next he bends over the fennel, glowing pale green in the early morning light. "This stuff's getting ready to send up a seed head. See, the foliage is more finely cut, and it's developing a stem." Reaching the ruffled heads of escarole, he pulls out a penknife to see how sweet it is. "In colder weather, plants maintain a heavier sugar load in their leaves," he explains. "At night, too, they break down some of the complex sugars. So in the morning, things are sweeter."

Linda Williams uses a tiller in the potato field. "It’s hard work," Paul Krautmann says. "You're up early taking care of the animals, and then you're bending and stooping in the hot sun all day."
Jennifer Silverberg
Linda Williams uses a tiller in the potato field. "It’s hard work," Paul Krautmann says. "You're up early taking care of the animals, and then you're bending and stooping in the hot sun all day."

He straightens, surveying the rest of the greenhouse, and grins at a month-old broad-breasted white turkey that's already trying to fly. "Gonna have to get 'em out of here before they eat the starts," he murmurs. His eyes pan across hundreds of seed flats and stop at the irrigation hose: It's sprouted a miniature geyser. He quickly knots a strip of rubber to clamp it off, but it spurts again, and by the time he's back with a clamp, three young turkeys are on the other side of the chicken wire, happily drinking from the fountain. Krautmann just shakes his head. "They're amazing little animals -- much smarter than everybody says."

Shooing the turkeys back to the enclosure, he braves the rainstorm again, heading for a plot of "fah-va beans" (the Hannibal Lecter imitation is flawless). "We're doing some research here," he calls, just louder than the thunder. "See this crinkling? That's because the cells can't expand properly. There are the same number of cells in this leaf as there ever were; as it grows, they just expand. So if you have an insect with a tiny threadlike proboscis pulling juice out of the plant -- well, when the leaf is in its infertile state, the cells are so densely packed that he can do a huge amount of damage." Krautmann prods another leaf. "Here's the little bastard," he mutters. "Aphids."

A conventional farmer would be reaching for a gallon can of pesticide, blasting the little green invaders out of space. But Krautmann can't make them his enemy. As an organic farmer, he scrutinizes every part of the ecosystem closely -- even insidious sap-sucking aphids -- then balances all that biodiversity like a juggler on a high wire, encouraging colonies of ladybugs and lacewings that will feed on the aphids. "It's a helluva lot of timing," he shrugs. "But if you want sustainability, a biological solution is always the best solution."

Demand for organic produce has never been higher: Sales are up worldwide, and in the U.S. they're increasing by about 20 percent a year, now well past $6 billion and forecast in the Nov. 28, 1999, issue of BusinessWorld to reach $47 billion by 2006. Last fall the Hartman Group, a market-research firm in Seattle, found 90 percent of American consumers either buying organic or considering it. "The market can do nothing but grow," remarks Krautmann. "Increasingly there will have to be a dual food-production system."

On the organic side of that dual system, lined up behind the health nuts, tree-huggers and agricultural purists, we'll see the floppy white toques of the world's best chefs. "There's a marked superiority to something that's organic and plucked out of the field the day before," says Matthew Leonard, chef de cuisine at the Arizona Biltmore. California chef Alice Waters, the first to champion organic ingredients publicly, retains a full-time "forager" to hunt down the best organic growers, and she recently urged President Bill Clinton to promote organic agriculture, citing the Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer.

Waters may have succeeded: The president's 2001 federal budget includes $5 million for organic-agriculture research, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is now piloting a crop-insurance program for organic farmers, who've long been shut out of the loop of crop support, farm loans and insurance. (Some banks won't loan you money unless you use pesticides, and the government subsidizes large-scale monocropping, not the healthier practice of crop rotation.)

European Union governments are also offering aid to organic farmers. Sweden intends to convert 20 percent of its farm acreage to organic production by 2005, and in England, more than 1,100 farmers have joined the Ministry of Agriculture's new Organic Aid Scheme. Here, even without governmental encouragement, the number of organic farmers has been increasing by 12 percent a year while other sectors lose farmers.

"There's ferocious demand," reports Krautmann. "More people call me every year, asking to subscribe -- and that's just by word of mouth, with no advertising at all. This area right here could easily swallow 25, maybe 50 farmers my size."

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