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

Just lots of cardboardy carrots.

Organic methods aren't necessarily any less productive than conventional methods, once a farm's established, but there's a longer startup period, and they require a close eye, copious knowledge and sweaty hands-on intervention. Bottom line is, it's easier to keep the quality high if the operation stays relatively small. "Everybody's catch phrase is 'Get big or get out,'" notes Krautmann, "but there are people my size -- 65 acres, and only half of it farmable -- who are very successful with local markets, no long transport distances, no middlemen, no advertising."

And no national chains buying their produce.

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."

Krautmann used to sell a lot of his dense, molasses-flavored sweet potatoes to Wild Oats, for example. "When they were privately held, they could put forth this commitment to local organic agriculture and put some teeth in their organic philosophy," he remarks. "Then they went public, and all that changed." Now Wild Oats' vast Clayton and Chesterfield stores sell everything from organic grapefruit and hemp waffles shot up with fish oils to the token processed foods (frozen pizza with organic crust) and outright sins (Häagen-Dazs and Guinness). Customers still find more organic produce there than anywhere else -- and it's not hidden in the corner far away from the main aisles' fake thundershowers. But it's not locally grown, either. "We are sometimes required to go with what corporate in Boulder wants us to do," explains St. Louis marketing director Scott Emanuel. "We have these great big buys where we can get as many organic carrots as we can stand. So, unfortunately, I don't think we're the best example."

Krautmann shies away from the endless ideological debates. Can organic agriculture feed the world? "It's a stupid question: Conventional agriculture hasn't fed the world." Is organic any more nutritious? "Depends on the quality of the soil." Does it taste better than conventional produce? "Only if you plant the right seeds in the right soil and harvest them at the right time." Should every farm be run organically? "There's room for everybody."

Everybody, perhaps, but Dennis Avery, a former agriculture-policy analyst for the U.S. State Department who wrote a book called Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic: The Environmental Triumph of High-Yield Farming. Avery directs the Center for Global Food Issues at the conservative Hudson Institute in Indianapolis (funded by Monsanto, DowElanco, Ag-Chem Equipment Co. and other proponents of large-scale agriculture). "If we want to tread more lightly on the Earth," he wrote in an op-ed piece that ran Christmas Eve in the Montreal Gazette, "the best solution is to produce a lot more meat, milk and eggs from the land we're already farming. The way to do that is by using chemical fertilizers, confinement feeding and genetically enhanced seeds."

Avery accused the PBS program Frontline of perpetuating dangerous myths when it criticized farm pesticides; chemicals and nitrates aren't hurting our health one bit, he says. He dismisses all concerns about global warming, noting that the warm period from 900-1400 A.D. was "one of the most favorable periods in human history." Sure, we might see more malaria and other tropical plagues, but "these diseases are nowhere near as relentless as the scare scenarios assume" -- after all, he says, we conquered mosquitoes by fumigating.

Krautmann usually just shakes his head over Avery. "I don't understand how somebody like that gets the public forum. Either he's got his pocket lined, or he's got some sort of religious fervor that we are supposed to conquer and subdue nature, that we have some kind of manifest destiny over the entire biological world." Such thinking is easy for Krautmann to dismiss -- at least, it was until this spring, when the ABC program 20/20's noticeably conservative John Stossel featured Avery saying that organic produce was more likely to be infested with Escherichia coli bacteria than was conventional produce, because organic farmers used manure fertilizer.

The scare started with an article Avery wrote for his institute's fall 1999 American Outlook magazine. Excerpts were published in the Wall Street Journal, picked up by the Associated Press and headlined in newspapers all over the country by the time The New York Times had a chance to point out some of the flaws in his reasoning -- such as confusing "organic" with "natural," "unpasteurized" and "premium" foods and assuming that farmers use uncomposted waste as fertilizer (Feb. 17, 1999).

"It's as if I've got steaming piles of manure out there in my broccoli patch!" explodes Krautmann. "The whole idea of raw manure being put on fields -- there is no organic regulatory commission anywhere that would allow that. Manure has to be composted intensively for a year before you put it on your fields."

He'd rather see people worry about "stinking confinement farms where you're pulling resources off the entire Midwestern landscape, concentrating them in one large area and creating an enormous amount of waste that gets dumped in the surrounding fields, overfertilizing unused ground." Those nutrients should return to the land that grew the livestock's feed, says Krautmann -- closing the loop. Same thing in the cities, where we're all packed into a small area and our waste flushes itself into sewers and, ultimately, landfills. "We can't use sludge now; it's full of heavy metal residues, solvents, parking-lot (petroleum) runoff, industrial chemicals and pesticides. But that loop needs to be closed. You have to complete the cycle. This is the big Simba Lion 'Circle of Life' song -- although I'm not sure they knew that when they wrote it."

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