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

In 1993, he started sowing seeds, choosing European and Asian varieties with superior taste, texture and resilience. "I've got no business growing iceberg lettuce out here," he remarks. "Iceberg's just light-green salad filler." He started with lollo rossa, "an unbelievably frilly lettuce -- very, very finely divided at the leaf tips -- with a substantive texture and flavor," and ermosa, "a real soft buttery texture to the leaf and a wonderful yellow-green core. It's also heat-tolerant and tolerant of bottom-rot; head lettuces accumulate a lot of moisture, so they're prone to fungus that rots the core out of them."

He planted, and then he watched the floodwaters rise steadily, soaking the fields, covering the car's tires, licking at the house. Vallie Stump, the kindly old gentleman who used to own Bellews Creek Farm, now lived up the road a ways, and he'd come down to tell Krautmann when a storm was coming and from where and show him what would get wet. "You get all uptight thinking there has to be something you can do -- jump up and down, shout at it to make it go away," he recalls. "Then you finally get your mind around the notion that there's nothing you can do, short of getting your stuff out of the barn."

By the spring of 1995, he had a few area chefs, consumers and natural-food stores interested, and he was ready for certification. But then, when he went to inflate the tire of a split-rim wheel from his manure spreader, it flipped around and exploded with more than 100 pounds of pressure against his arm. "I tried to get up and felt my arm flap," he recalls. "I didn't want the kids to see, so I cradled it against me, sat down in the kitchen and said, 'OK, we better call 911.'"

Jennifer Silverberg
Paul Krautmann: "Americans pay the least percentage of their income for food, but that's all they want to talk about: Why are you charging $1 a head for lettuce?"
Jennifer Silverberg
Paul Krautmann: "Americans pay the least percentage of their income for food, but that's all they want to talk about: Why are you charging $1 a head for lettuce?"

Medics helicoptered him to St. Louis University Medical Center, where surgeons transplanted bone from his leg to his wrist, set double fractures in his arm, splinted broken fingers and sewed his chin back together. It was six weeks from planting time.

"I came home ready to shut things down," says Krautmann, "but a woman from my parish was helping me out in the greenhouse, and she'd gotten pretty maternal about those seedlings, and she insisted she'd help me get through the season. She'd never even farmed. I said, 'Listen, you've got no idea.' But she marshaled some 300 people over the course of the summer, and the local butcher donated brats to the crews, and the septic-tank people donated Port-a-Potties...."

That autumn, an overwhelmed and grateful Krautmann turned plywood and bales of hay into a 30-foot smorgasbord, and the workers dragged everything they could out of the fields, drank and danced, celebrated the harvest.

Dangling a bucket of banana and mango peels, Krautmann hikes to the upper field. "Los chachos amigos!" he exclaims ("My pig friends!"), and two of the seven Yorkshire Duroc hogs amble to the solar-powered electric fence, greeting him with a symphony of grunts, moans, squeaks and snorts. He snorts back, reaching out to rub behind the big one's floppy triangular ears. "Pigs are ridiculously smart," he observes, just as one flops into the muck and rolls onto its side. "They do that as a vehicle to get cool," he explains. "Pigs don't sweat. Also, it's protection against sunburn, and it helps them get rid of external parasites." The hogs' mud-spattered coats are rough as a coir doormat, and hair sticks up every which way above their hard-plated snouts. "Pig-gies," Krautmann shrills, and a few more trot to the fence.

They are his prized cure for johnsongrass, an invasive weed with rhizomes 8 feet long. "You leave it exposed to frost, you mow it, you graze it, you tie it up. Or you look around for an animal that will eat the roots, and you recognize a pig as being very fond of johnsongrass." Krautmann had turned the hogs loose in the asparagus patch the month before, keeping them just hungry enough to forage for the weedy roots that were fast weaving a net above the deeper asparagus crowns. "Johnsongrass here, pork sausage over here," he grins. "And I don't have to use poisons."

Above the hogs, his other allies circle: the purple martins who live in hollow gourds hanging off an old hay-rake wheel he anchored to the top of an iron pipe. It's near, but not too near, the feisty bluebirds, and the wren houses and bat houses. "All the birds lay eggs at different times. The babies go from egg to adult in about 18 weeks -- the same transformation that takes us 18 years -- and that whole physical metamorphosis has to be fueled by bugs."

After rigging his feathered birth control for the flea beetles, plum curculio and squash bugs, Krautmann turns to the weeds. "Mother Nature can't leave soil bare," he sighs. "Either you plant so close together there's no bare soil, or she'll throw up something to fill the bare spots. You know those cockleburs you pull out of your dog? One of those seeds can stay in the ground for 20 years."

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