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

He's cheered by the new proposed organic standards, which insist that farm animals can't be permanently packed in dense indoor bins but must be able to go outside and move freely; their feed must be 100 percent organic, and they can't be shot up with the antibiotics whose overuse has spawned so many antibiotic-resistant viruses. The USDA tried to loosen the standards last year, admitting genetically modified or irradiated foods and the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer. Stung by a record-breaking 290,000 comments, they cranked the rules tight again. Under the new proposal (whose comment period ended June 12), there's no genetic engineering, no irradiation, no sludge.

Meanwhile, Krautmann's been watching Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond (R-Mo.) boost genetic engineering as the hope of a hungry world (and the economic salvation of Missouri farmers). The rhetoric makes Krautmann crazy, not only because the science itself is so experimental but because "feeding the world" isn't likely until somebody attends to the soil quality. The Green Revolution's nitrate fertilizers and hybridization improved the quantity of the crops, "and in a market system that pays by the bushel, with no reference to protein content, amino acid ratios or profiles," he says, "it behooves farmers to grow as much as they can. But the thing that's insidious is, when the yields shot up, their protein content didn't. We just increased the sugars and starches and filled people's bellies without feeding them. Now biotech comes along and says it's going to feed the world. That's got to mean the right protein content. But we have done nothing to manage the nutrients in the soil.

"A plant invests everything it has in its seeds," he adds. "What's left is a lot of cellulose, which is primarily air, water and sunshine. But it's the 5 percent that comes from the soil's minerals that generates all the proteins, all those elegant molecules of reproduction. You take care of the soil, and the rest of life takes care of itself."

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."

Every March, the fields of Bellews Creek Farm are new again, a pale-green mist of clover and vetch floating above the silky reddish soil that once lined the riverbed.

Two months later, the fields are stalky and crowded, the nitrogen-fixing vetch 6 feet high and nearly unmowable. Krautmann blazes through on a tractor, then pokes at the ragged remains with his boot. It's time to chop away the sinewy fibers and plow them under, but there's no equipment to do it easily; people don't farm like this anymore.

He finds a way, and by June he's harvesting peas, and garnet-red radicchio veined with white, and radishes. "Look at these lovely radishes," he pipes, a perfect Julia Child. "They're called Easter-egg radishes, white, pink, red and purple, mild and completely irresistible." He combs through their leafy tops and pulls up fresh treasure. "Little French breakfast radishes. Elongated magenta cylinders with white tips, very juicy, with just a little bit of a bite. People in the Midwest are accustomed to eating radishes that are hot enough to ignite your face, usually because they didn't get enough water or the soil wasn't fertile. Any time a vegetable has had to work for a living, it'll have a raspy flavor or no flavor at all.

"In fall," he resumes, "we'll get the watermelon radishes -- they look like turnips, with a chartreuse shoulder, and they're an unbelievable red inside. They have to be grown into a shortening day; it's only after the summer solstice that they wake up and put some energy into a huge bulb."

After the June radishes come the fava beans, then vitamin-rich kale. "Cook it in butter and it'll have a mild broccoli flavor," he promises, "texture, too; this kale doesn't just melt away in a pile of green mush." Mid-July, the fields start tumbling out vegetables like a lucky slot machine -- summer squash, cabbage, jalapeno peppers, zucchini, cucumbers, husk-clad green tomatillos. Each week he packs a new assortment, 10 pounds (enough for a family of four) for $20. The crates are recycled -- he snags used ones from Soulard Farmers Market and carefully lines them with plastic, determined not to contaminate his pure produce with the previous contents.

"Look at this," he exclaims, holding one up by a corner and letting it tilt so the label's prominent. "This stuff came all the way from Belgium. It's been treated with such-and-such fungicide and has food-grade lacquer all over it. But the consumer never sees any of these labels. At the supermarket, the water beads up on the waxy cucumber and looks lovely."

Supermarket cucumbers are cheaper, too -- two for $1 at the Richmond Heights Schnucks this week, compared with $2.99 for a bag of two organic cucumbers. At Wild Oats, the organic cucumbers are 89 cents apiece, about 60 cents cheaper than Schnucks' organic cukes but almost double the price of the mass-produced hybrids.

Krautmann doesn't price by the individual veggie, but his weekly assortment averages out to $2 a pound for everything. When Nancy urges him to charge more, he reminds her, "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?" Besides, subscribers get his cucumbers only when they're in season, and they get them whether they want them or not, driving to a drop-off point every week to pick up their share of the harvest.

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