ORGANIC: Acting as an instrument, of nature or art, to a certain end.
--Oxford English Dictionary
Cold March rain drums impatiently on the greenhouse roof, but inside it's a steady 80 degrees, the moist air heavy with the piney scent of rosemary. Shaking the rain from his curly black hair, Paul Krautmann, the owner of Bellews Creek Farm in Hillsboro, Mo., stoops at the first raised bed and runs a forefinger tenderly across the dotted line of arugula shoots. Then he tears off a piece of a delicate green called mache. "My chefs, who are supposed to know these things, pronounce it 'mosh,' and mine happens to be really big, so I call it the 'monster mosh.'" He folds the leaf into his mouth and chews, eyes half-shut. "It tastes," he announces solemnly, "like roses smell."
Next he bends over the fennel, glowing pale green in the early morning light. "This stuff's getting ready to send up a seed head. See, the foliage is more finely cut, and it's developing a stem." Reaching the ruffled heads of escarole, he pulls out a penknife to see how sweet it is. "In colder weather, plants maintain a heavier sugar load in their leaves," he explains. "At night, too, they break down some of the complex sugars. So in the morning, things are sweeter."
He straightens, surveying the rest of the greenhouse, and grins at a month-old broad-breasted white turkey that's already trying to fly. "Gonna have to get 'em out of here before they eat the starts," he murmurs. His eyes pan across hundreds of seed flats and stop at the irrigation hose: It's sprouted a miniature geyser. He quickly knots a strip of rubber to clamp it off, but it spurts again, and by the time he's back with a clamp, three young turkeys are on the other side of the chicken wire, happily drinking from the fountain. Krautmann just shakes his head. "They're amazing little animals -- much smarter than everybody says."
Shooing the turkeys back to the enclosure, he braves the rainstorm again, heading for a plot of "fah-va beans" (the Hannibal Lecter imitation is flawless). "We're doing some research here," he calls, just louder than the thunder. "See this crinkling? That's because the cells can't expand properly. There are the same number of cells in this leaf as there ever were; as it grows, they just expand. So if you have an insect with a tiny threadlike proboscis pulling juice out of the plant -- well, when the leaf is in its infertile state, the cells are so densely packed that he can do a huge amount of damage." Krautmann prods another leaf. "Here's the little bastard," he mutters. "Aphids."
A conventional farmer would be reaching for a gallon can of pesticide, blasting the little green invaders out of space. But Krautmann can't make them his enemy. As an organic farmer, he scrutinizes every part of the ecosystem closely -- even insidious sap-sucking aphids -- then balances all that biodiversity like a juggler on a high wire, encouraging colonies of ladybugs and lacewings that will feed on the aphids. "It's a helluva lot of timing," he shrugs. "But if you want sustainability, a biological solution is always the best solution."
Demand for organic produce has never been higher: Sales are up worldwide, and in the U.S. they're increasing by about 20 percent a year, now well past $6 billion and forecast in the Nov. 28, 1999, issue of BusinessWorld to reach $47 billion by 2006. Last fall the Hartman Group, a market-research firm in Seattle, found 90 percent of American consumers either buying organic or considering it. "The market can do nothing but grow," remarks Krautmann. "Increasingly there will have to be a dual food-production system."
On the organic side of that dual system, lined up behind the health nuts, tree-huggers and agricultural purists, we'll see the floppy white toques of the world's best chefs. "There's a marked superiority to something that's organic and plucked out of the field the day before," says Matthew Leonard, chef de cuisine at the Arizona Biltmore. California chef Alice Waters, the first to champion organic ingredients publicly, retains a full-time "forager" to hunt down the best organic growers, and she recently urged President Bill Clinton to promote organic agriculture, citing the Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer.
Waters may have succeeded: The president's 2001 federal budget includes $5 million for organic-agriculture research, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is now piloting a crop-insurance program for organic farmers, who've long been shut out of the loop of crop support, farm loans and insurance. (Some banks won't loan you money unless you use pesticides, and the government subsidizes large-scale monocropping, not the healthier practice of crop rotation.)
European Union governments are also offering aid to organic farmers. Sweden intends to convert 20 percent of its farm acreage to organic production by 2005, and in England, more than 1,100 farmers have joined the Ministry of Agriculture's new Organic Aid Scheme. Here, even without governmental encouragement, the number of organic farmers has been increasing by 12 percent a year while other sectors lose farmers.
"There's ferocious demand," reports Krautmann. "More people call me every year, asking to subscribe -- and that's just by word of mouth, with no advertising at all. This area right here could easily swallow 25, maybe 50 farmers my size."
Instead, the number's shrinking.
"There's a fellow in Bourbon, Mo., who retired," Krautmann says. "Gary, a fundamentalist-Christian home-schooler -- helluva nice guy -- moved to Bolivia on mission. Mueller Farm, out by the airport, has been organic for 90 years; old man Mueller's looking for somebody to take it over. And Leland Eikerman, grandfather of us all -- he went back to teaching to get the health insurance." Eikerman was a seasoned organic farmer, but for newcomers, "the failure rate's pretty high," adds Krautmann. "You have to know a lot. There is so much knowledge that's now in the hands of corporations, and farmers don't know it anymore."
Until recently, the Missouri Department of Agriculture couldn't offer organic farmers much help -- but every time consumers buy food, they vote on what agriculture methods they want used. So in December, Missouri put together a task force to look at setting up a state organic-certification program. "Organic farming is a socially responsible, environmentally friendly type of production," explains Judy Grundler, coordinator for the Missouri Department of Agriculture pest-management program. "People are interested in it, and we have a demand for it -- really, that's the main reason," she adds candidly. "We want to encourage commerce."
Fifteen other states already have certification programs -- but then, other states also have organic-ag conferences, researchers, advisors, associations and growers' groups. Why not agriculture-rich Missouri? "Stuff oozes in from the periphery," Krautmann says, shrugging.
But there are abundant organic resources in Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin ...
"Getting closer, isn't it?" Krautmann says. He turns serious. "I used to think St. Louis was pretty well rooted in all this, but we did a show at the Missouri Botanical Garden, selling big sunflower heads for birdseed -- people asked me, 'How did you do that?' The seeds were so well organized, they thought it was a craft project. Do I just be a smartass and say, 'Well, there's this little troupe of Japanese women I keep in a dark stable with glue guns?' I don't know whether nature terrifies people or they're just oblivious to it. But they're able to conduct their lives with enough technology that they don't even have to interface with bugs in their West County backyards."
Krautmann grew up "in the rolling hills of Chillicothe, Mo.," on 320 acres of black soil puddled with ponds. His dad, born on a farm in nearby Loose Creek, was a veterinarian -- "a farm vet, not a poodle practice in town" -- and his mom was a botanist who rattled off Latin names on their walks. Her own father, Eugene Poirot, had spent years observing the wildlife on a worn-out prairie in southwest Missouri. Instead of plowing it up, he squatted down and looked at the soil, watched it gobbling nutrients and recycling waste. Eventually he wrote Our Margin of Life, a slim classic of conservation that urged Americans to "close the loop," restoring what they pulled from the land.
Krautmann tried to ignore this legacy, studying ceramics and woodworking at the University of Missouri-Columbia, then carving rosewood cabinetry "for business jets that flew fat cats around the country. The place was one industrial hazard after another. There was this highly flammable solvent they used like water; we'd wash our hands in it to get the cement off. I'd watch this guy put an open container of the stuff in a metal locker, leave it there all night and then walk over in the morning with a lit cigar in his mouth and open the door."
Finally he couldn't take it anymore. He quit and started his own woodworking business in St. Louis, and every spring, he and his wife, Nancy, drove the back roads looking for a family farm -- cheap. With a creek. "Nancy grew up knockin' around in creeks, so she said we had to have a creek for the kids."
They looked for three years. Then, in the spring of 1992, they turned down Jefferson County Highway BB just before dusk, followed its curves, crossed a creek sprayed gold by the slanting sun and saw a "For Sale" sign propped at the end of a long driveway. The creek continued through the property, a patchwork of weedy fields that had once fed pigs and cows and row crops. They pulled up at the real-estate agent's office just as he was locking his door. Eight weeks later, Bellews Creek Farm was theirs.
Every influence in Krautmann's early life coalesced. He wanted to manage his farm knowledgeably, sustainably, artfully, and he wanted the produce to taste so good it made you glad to be alive. He read a few agriculture books but grew impatient with their cookbook formulas; instead, he relied on science, his own observations and the lore of his colleagues.
He had three years to purge the land of toxins so he could sell certified organic produce. No more fertilizers wrenched from crude oil; instead, he composted, fermenting clippings and manure until the insides of the piles were hot enough to burn your hand. He used soybean meal to add nitrogen to the soil, and he sprinkled in limestone phosphate and ground-up granite, "the parent rock for everything on the planet." Then he replaced the nitrates the crops had sucked from the soil by planting clover, beans, alfalfa, vetch -- amazing alchemists that eat nitrogen straight from the air, incorporating it into their proteins.
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.'"
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."
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.
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."
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."
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.
The food's as fresh as it comes, picked ripe at the peak of flavor. Some of the eggplant varieties are wildly colored, and some of the tomato shapes might seem odd to eyes accustomed to the predictable geometry of conventional hybrids. But Krautmann plants for taste, nutrition and uniqueness -- not the ability to endure a cross-country trip. "Most of my chefs could give a rip about it being organic," he comments. "They're interested in how it tastes, how fresh it is."
Bellews Creek Farm gets credits on the menus at such gourmet restaurants as Harvest, Riddle's and Cardwell's on the Plaza -- places Krautmann can't afford to take his wife and three kids. "I haven't been able to set the world on fire with the income, that's for sure," he admits. "Nancy's an editor at MasterCard -- that feeds us. But the farm's not even at a break-even point yet, and I've still got a new barn to build."
It's a slow, expensive proposition. But every year when he walks into the field and finds that first bell pepper, the world falls into place. "Peppers drive me," he admits solemnly. "At harvest time, we even snack on them in the fields." But first he must pick late July's rosemary, Swiss chard and corno di toro -- a long red Italian sweet pepper, thin-walled and succulent. Then, early August brings the cosmic convergence: tomatoes, garlic and basil. "It seems we have no choice but to chop them all up (tomatoes kind of chunky, garlic and basil kind of fine) put them all in a large bowl and add chunks of feta cheese, drizzle with some good olive oil and stir gently," he wrote in last August's Bellews Creek Farm newsletter.
The convergence subsides into prosody: potatoes, soybeans, green beans and colossal red, yellow and orange sweet bell peppers. "At the supermarket they look like plastic, and they're rubbery," he notes. "These are spicy, sweet, crisp to the point of being brittle." Next comes delicata squash, followed by pinky-purple, brilliant white-and-purple-striped eggplant, followed by leeks. "We've got a horse named Patches over on the hill, so we get Patches over here to fix the leeks," he says and, over the kids' groans, describes the German heirloom tomatoes, yellow with red streaks, and the Anna Russian tomatoes, enormous meaty ox hearts, pointed at one end. "Picked just right, they have this full pregnant flavor, sweet and layered, with a hint of acid."
By the end of September, Krautmann is pulling up lettuce, arugula, butternut squash and red jalapenos, absolutely sweet. "There is good reason to go gaga over red peppers," he announces seriously. "The difference between green and red is the ripeness, the mature sugars." Midfall, he harvests root vegetables and mei quing choi, "not the whackin' big white gringo choi but a little green exquisite spoon-shaped choi, great to dip, very crisp and delicate." Then, at season's end, he hands everybody about 30 pounds of butternut squash and sweet potatoes, because both keep really well. "Sweet potatoes should not be kept below 55 degrees," he warns. "Make a nice arrangement on your coffee table, Martha."
When January snowstorms swirl, Riddle's Penultimate Wine Bar & Cafe is roasting chunks of Bellews Creek Farm butternut squash with cinnamon and maple syrup and drenching Bellews Creek Farm sweet potatoes with bourbon sauce. "The big industrial farmers grow varieties that can be packed tight, take a lot of vibration and be sold 11 days from now in New Jersey," explains proprietor Andy Ayers. "I even buy organic cabbage for my coleslaw, because the freshness makes a difference. I got some beautiful spinach from Bellews Creek this spring -- it had none of the bitterness that's so typical; it tasted like candy, with a lovely deep spinach flavor. I pay more for this stuff -- but my customers notice the difference."
Even the Queen of England has gone organic, ordering special grain for the shaggy highland cattle at her Balmoral country retreat. Her son, meanwhile, is dwelling on triumph's dangers: "There is a real risk that the kind of success demonstrated here today will attract people with the wrong motives and the wrong values to take up organic farming," Prince Charles told recipients of the 1998 Organic Food Awards. "The organic sector has no room for the 'get rich quick' mentality."
Tell H.J. Heinz, which recently bought 19 percent of the "organic and natural" Hain Food Group. Tell the 175-store grocery chain on the East Coast whose executives flew to California last year to make deals with organic farmers. Tell General Mills, which bought Cascadian Farm, one of the biggest organic-food companies in the country and owner of Muir-Glen, the nation's largest producer of organic tomatoes.
Merger fever is flushing the organic sector. "It's similar to what's happening in conventional farming -- we're seeing consolidation, more big growers coming in and pushing out smaller growers," California ag specialist Karen Klonsky told reporters last year.
What if organic agriculture loses its soul in all the buyouts and its taste, nutrition, sustainability and freshness start to deteriorate? "People will decide the organic label doesn't mean anything and they will quit buying," says Krautmann with a shrug. "Corporations are not drooling fang-mouthed bloody monsters. Corporations do what corporations do: They make money." He accepts the profit motive as calmly as he accepts the aphids' thirst -- but he's just as quick to describe the damage. "I plant about nine rows of carrots, interspersed among cabbage and radicchio and everything else I grow. The industrial model says, 'Hell, we're making money with carrots -- let's plant more. Soon you've got a monocrop, raised year after year, and they've decided it'd be nice to own the carrot seed, too. Once they get it all set up, all they have to do is hire some pumpkin-headed farmer to push the buttons." No intensive management, no nurturing of the soil, no biodiversity, no balance.
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.
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."
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."
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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