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

Instead, the number's shrinking.

"There's a fellow in Bourbon, Mo., who retired," Krautmann says. "Gary, a fundamentalist-Christian home-schooler -- helluva nice guy -- moved to Bolivia on mission. Mueller Farm, out by the airport, has been organic for 90 years; old man Mueller's looking for somebody to take it over. And Leland Eikerman, grandfather of us all -- he went back to teaching to get the health insurance." Eikerman was a seasoned organic farmer, but for newcomers, "the failure rate's pretty high," adds Krautmann. "You have to know a lot. There is so much knowledge that's now in the hands of corporations, and farmers don't know it anymore."

Until recently, the Missouri Department of Agriculture couldn't offer organic farmers much help -- but every time consumers buy food, they vote on what agriculture methods they want used. So in December, Missouri put together a task force to look at setting up a state organic-certification program. "Organic farming is a socially responsible, environmentally friendly type of production," explains Judy Grundler, coordinator for the Missouri Department of Agriculture pest-management program. "People are interested in it, and we have a demand for it -- really, that's the main reason," she adds candidly. "We want to encourage commerce."

"Pigs are ridiculously smart," remarks Paul Krautmann. Bellews Creek Farm is home to several Yorkshire Duroc hogs.
Jennifer Silverberg
"Pigs are ridiculously smart," remarks Paul Krautmann. Bellews Creek Farm is home to several Yorkshire Duroc hogs.
Severin Krautmann, 11, backs up a tractor to a mud-mired truck.
Jennifer Silverberg
Severin Krautmann, 11, backs up a tractor to a mud-mired truck.

Fifteen other states already have certification programs -- but then, other states also have organic-ag conferences, researchers, advisors, associations and growers' groups. Why not agriculture-rich Missouri? "Stuff oozes in from the periphery," Krautmann says, shrugging.

But there are abundant organic resources in Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin ...

"Getting closer, isn't it?" Krautmann says. He turns serious. "I used to think St. Louis was pretty well rooted in all this, but we did a show at the Missouri Botanical Garden, selling big sunflower heads for birdseed -- people asked me, 'How did you do that?' The seeds were so well organized, they thought it was a craft project. Do I just be a smartass and say, 'Well, there's this little troupe of Japanese women I keep in a dark stable with glue guns?' I don't know whether nature terrifies people or they're just oblivious to it. But they're able to conduct their lives with enough technology that they don't even have to interface with bugs in their West County backyards."

Krautmann grew up "in the rolling hills of Chillicothe, Mo.," on 320 acres of black soil puddled with ponds. His dad, born on a farm in nearby Loose Creek, was a veterinarian -- "a farm vet, not a poodle practice in town" -- and his mom was a botanist who rattled off Latin names on their walks. Her own father, Eugene Poirot, had spent years observing the wildlife on a worn-out prairie in southwest Missouri. Instead of plowing it up, he squatted down and looked at the soil, watched it gobbling nutrients and recycling waste. Eventually he wrote Our Margin of Life, a slim classic of conservation that urged Americans to "close the loop," restoring what they pulled from the land.

Krautmann tried to ignore this legacy, studying ceramics and woodworking at the University of Missouri-Columbia, then carving rosewood cabinetry "for business jets that flew fat cats around the country. The place was one industrial hazard after another. There was this highly flammable solvent they used like water; we'd wash our hands in it to get the cement off. I'd watch this guy put an open container of the stuff in a metal locker, leave it there all night and then walk over in the morning with a lit cigar in his mouth and open the door."

Finally he couldn't take it anymore. He quit and started his own woodworking business in St. Louis, and every spring, he and his wife, Nancy, drove the back roads looking for a family farm -- cheap. With a creek. "Nancy grew up knockin' around in creeks, so she said we had to have a creek for the kids."

They looked for three years. Then, in the spring of 1992, they turned down Jefferson County Highway BB just before dusk, followed its curves, crossed a creek sprayed gold by the slanting sun and saw a "For Sale" sign propped at the end of a long driveway. The creek continued through the property, a patchwork of weedy fields that had once fed pigs and cows and row crops. They pulled up at the real-estate agent's office just as he was locking his door. Eight weeks later, Bellews Creek Farm was theirs.

Every influence in Krautmann's early life coalesced. He wanted to manage his farm knowledgeably, sustainably, artfully, and he wanted the produce to taste so good it made you glad to be alive. He read a few agriculture books but grew impatient with their cookbook formulas; instead, he relied on science, his own observations and the lore of his colleagues.

He had three years to purge the land of toxins so he could sell certified organic produce. No more fertilizers wrenched from crude oil; instead, he composted, fermenting clippings and manure until the insides of the piles were hot enough to burn your hand. He used soybean meal to add nitrogen to the soil, and he sprinkled in limestone phosphate and ground-up granite, "the parent rock for everything on the planet." Then he replaced the nitrates the crops had sucked from the soil by planting clover, beans, alfalfa, vetch -- amazing alchemists that eat nitrogen straight from the air, incorporating it into their proteins.

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