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

Krautmann recently taught an organic-gardening class at Jefferson College. "They wanted the Martha Stewart solution," he says wryly. "Go down to Frank's and buy this brand, not that one....'"

Instead, he opened the class with a two-hour lecture on the formation of the Midwestern prairie. Ignoring the dazed faces, he talked about the prevailing winds, the rainshed, the way the river chewed through the Missouri bluffs and left flat fertile plains in its wake. Then he discussed soil chemistry and plant physiology; how to vary your crops to keep the topsoil healthy; how to create habitats for predators so nature can keep her own balance.

"We've been burning up fossil fuels, liberating carbon dioxide that was tied up in plant material 5 million years ago," he reminded his students. "That's what generated the oil reserves we have now. We're also liberating 5 million-year-old sunshine -- that's the part we're interested in to warm our butts. But there's an additive effect of all that carbon dioxide in the environment. These ferocious storms we're having are all powered by heat, by sunshine. It's nature's way of blowing a hangover, equalizing the energy buildup."

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."

They scribbled furiously, some only later realizing what he was driving at: Organic methods keep carbon and nitrogen in the soil, reducing greenhouse gases. Krautmann wasn't about to spell it out; he wanted them to think and observe for themselves instead of looking up every problem in a how-to book that never said why.

"There is this quality we like to refer to as life," he remarks now, "and it takes energy to maintain it. Chemical agriculture relies too much on inputs; it's too energy-expensive. When you boil everything on the planet down to solar units, it takes more energy to produce corn that way than the corn generates. The thing that organic agriculture has going for it that nothing else does is that it's absolutely sustainable. Everybody wants to say, 'Organic, that's the food you don't have to wash, they don't use pesticides.' All negative statements. But organic has a lot more to do with what you do, how you close the loops."

"Nature," he concludes, "wastes nothing."

For more information, see Food for All Seasons.

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