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

When he planted carrots, for example, he knew the moist rows would be thick with waxy red-stemmed pigweed by the time the carrot seeds germinated. "You can put radish seeds in at the same time; they'll germinate in two or three days and mark out your row for you so you can hoe. Or there's flame-weeding, where you singe the weeds with a torch before the carrots come up. The heat's so intense, it boils the water in the plant cell and ruptures it, and you come back with an absolutely clean bed of carrots."

He stops, wipes away sweat, stretches. "I barely have time to get my head above my kneecaps in the summer," he says. "I'm swimming in the finest produce on the planet, and I don't have time to put any of it up; come winter, I'm defrosting green beans from Sam's to cook somebody dinner." During the first few years, he found help with weed-and-feed parties, promising friends and neighbors, "You will have to work, and then we will eat like kings and fall in the creek and howl at the moon." Now, he has trouble hiring people. "I mean, face it -- it's hard work, you're up early taking care of the animals, and then you're bending and stooping in the hot sun all day. There is great honor in it, in my own mind. But there aren't many people willing to do it for what I can pay."

Mainly he gets volunteers and part-timers interested in learning about sustainability, he says, nodding toward the greenhouse. He left Sister Susan McCormick there this morning, gliding a wallpaper brush over a dozen flats, smoothing the potting soil she'd poured over the seeds. Her Dominican order bought a farm in Springfield, Ill., and plan to run it organically, with an adjacent spirituality center. McCormick has been digging, hoeing and perspiring alongside Krautmann for two years, learning the intricate braid of the natural world.

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."

Hogs sated, Krautmann heads for the barn, passing a moldboard plow somebody else might donate to a museum for tax credit. He uses it. He also uses the disc harrow, its sharp plates set at ruthless angles to chop up the soil. As he's demonstrating, Licorice, the black Labrador retriever the kids named, runs wild circles around the Shetland pony, trying to get somebody to play. Krautmann picks up a bleached, chewed-edge Frisbee and sails it toward the creek. "Only disc she cares about," he quips.

Then, still staring at the creek, his eyes narrow: "All that moss has never been there before. It's runoff of nitrates and phosphates from somewhere upstream." Nitrates are precious, so rather than let them dissolve in water, nature ties them up in living plant material, belching moss and algae to the surface. Krautmann remembers watching his dad treat cattle that had drunk nitrate-laced water, overrich because so many nitrates had leached from the cattle's high-protein feed and waste. Now he's wondering whether the stuff floating downstream is concentrated because it's been such a dry spring.

When he first heard the drought predictions, he just shrugged and ordered extra mulch. "You listen to all the gloom and doom, and then you wake up every morning and deal with what's out there. Besides, organic soils are more productive in drought, because they hold a lot more moisture." (A recent study by the Rodale Institute reported that parched organic plots yielded 24-30 bushels of soybeans an acre compared with conventional plots doused with synthetic fertilizers, where yields plummeted to 16 bushels.) Ready to mulch, Krautmann instead found himself chasing after bales of cover crops that floated yards down the creek with a heavy May downpour. "Almost all of my irrigation pipe was strewn over an acre or two like a colossal game of pickup sticks."

Following Licorice toward the creek for a closer look, he stops to scuff chicken feathers in the path. "Scene of the crime here. We've had a lot of trouble with predators this spring, from coyotes and stray German shepherds to hawks. But the hawks also eat a lot of voles, which eat my sweet potatoes, so I'm not gonna shoot them just because they're chewin' on my chickens. I get a pretty intelligent crop of chickens this way -- the ones that are smart enough to get the hell outta there when they see a dark shadow fall across the yard."

In the absence of danger, these savvy birds, mainly Silver Laced Wyandottes, hang out in front of the ramshackle white farmhouse, clustering like old friends in the kitchen at a party. Krautmann pauses there now, watching G.P., a Golden Polish rooster with a comb so tall and zigzagged he looks like Sideshow Bob on The Simpsons, high-stepping toward the hens. "Outrageous bird," murmurs Krautmann. "There's almost a wildness to him -- he's more birdy than the others."

"There's a plant in southwest Missouri that processes a million chickens a day," he adds abruptly. "How do you keep a responsible eye on that? There's rat hairs and chicken feces showing up in everybody's chicken packages, and the carcasses are so contaminated you barely want to touch a chicken anymore. You wash your hands, you disinfect the cutting board.... The government's solution is food irradiation: enclosures with 6-foot-thick concrete walls where we expose our food to ionizing gamma radiation that has the ability to change its chemical structure." He stops himself with an effort. "The solution," he finishes grimly, "is not to have a million chickens: Disperse the product and the process."

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