Dan Kittredge: Farming for Nutrient Quality
01 Mar, 2012
by Bruce Boyers
What if the criteria for success in agriculture were the nutrient content of produce, rather than quantity of yield per acre? Farmers growing high-nutrient crops could command a higher price by delivering greater value, and consumers would reap the healthful benefits. This might seem like a dream—but for Dan Kittredge it’s a vision and a passion he works at daily.
Remarkably, his seven-year journey to realize this vision all began with one simple, pragmatic decision: he just wanted to be a better farmer.
When Dan was four, his parents purchased an organic farm in Barre, Massachusetts. He grew up on that land and in his adult years managed it. But after he got married at age twenty-six, he saw that something had to change. “I realized that I needed to be able to make a living, not just subsist,” Dan told Organic Connections. “I wasn’t making very much, and I didn’t know how to create a higher income. The only thing I knew how to do was farm, so I figured I should actually learn how to do it instead of just going through the motions that I’d been brought up with.”
Dan set about reading books, attending seminars, and asking questions of those more knowledgeable. He was trying to get to the bottom of how a biological system worked, and as he researched he began applying what he was learning to the land.
“When I first started doing this, I was struggling with the fact that I was an organic farmer yet regularly experienced high levels of pestilence and disease in the crops that I grew,” he related. “It seemed to me there was something wrong with that picture. So I began initially by reading and by talking to people, then started applying various locally occurring basalt and granite materials to the soil. I next moved on to volcanic materials; then I deeply engaged in specific minerals, soil testing, and a whole array of management, monitoring and fertility practices.”
Quality, Not Volume
“As part of the process it became clear to me that the objective of agriculture should be quality and not volume,” Dan continued. “No one was really talking about quality and focusing on that as the objective. To obtain this quality, I found that there are basic principles involved in how biological systems operate—soil and plant interaction being the key one in this case.”
It wasn’t long before Dan realized that, as a farmer, he had struck pay dirt. “When I really began putting these factors into practice, I found that it was remarkably easy to make a living through farming. Pests and diseases do not have to be present in your fields. Yields can be much larger than you’ve ever experienced. Flavor can be augmented dramatically through fertility and management practices.”
As to that flavor, Dan certainly isn’t alone in the observation that high-nutrient crops yield the best taste. Some of the world’s top chefs—such as Alice Waters, Rick Bayless, Dan Barber and Suzanne Goin, to name but a few—firmly agree, and will only cook with ingredients that possess this exact quality.
“We’re talking about a living system,” Dan added. “The real essence of what we’re trying to do is remove the limiting factors in that living system. If we assume that the genetic potential of our crops is far beyond what we experience—which is what the geneticists will tell us—then the simple objective is to remove the stresses to our plants that are keeping them from fulfilling their full potential. If we’re viewing it from that lens, we need to talk about mineralogy, biology, hydrology, irrigation, tillage and structure. There are a number of components to this living soil system. What we’re trying to do is lay out what the normal stumbling blocks and limiting factors are, help people understand them, and give people the tools to address them.”
Getting the Word Out
While conducting his research, Dan connected up with like-minded individuals and organizations with similar paths. One notable example was Remineralize the Earth (RTE)—a nonprofit organization assisting the worldwide movement of remineralizing soils with finely ground rock dust, sea minerals, and other natural and sustainable means to increase plant growth, health and nutrient value. He became a board member of RTE and its president.
While working with RTE, Dan founded the Real Food Campaign—since renamed the Bionutrient Food Association—a nonprofit research, education and advocacy organization whose objective is to apply bionutrient farm techniques to improve quality in the food supply.
The needed change of viewpoint in produce quality is expressed in the name of Dan’s organization. “We’re coining a new term—bionutrient—that doesn’t exist anywhere,” Dan explained. “We’re going to use a term that describes that goodness—the nutrients that are biologically viable and valuable. Our focus is a shift from only concentrating on various standards and processes to a quality metric—the bionutrient level.”
The Bionutrient Food Association was, however, without funding. Thanks to the intervention of RTE board member Ken Whitman, president of the environmentally conscious supplement company Natural Vitality, that was to change. “For about a year after starting the Real Food Campaign, I had not done much,” Dan said. “I had given a couple of courses to growers, but had to work a full-time job at the same time as trying to get the organization going. At an RTE board meeting we discussed what we wanted and what it was we were able to do, and I said basically that if I could work at this full-time we could really kick the campaign into gear.”
Whitman clearly perceived the importance of Dan’s work and, through his company’s Natural Revitalization environmental action initiative, he and co-owner Justin Farmer provided the necessary funding. “As a country, we eat too much and get too little from it,” Whitman said. “Nutrition is, after all, the purpose of eating. I have tasted high-nutrient produce grown by boutique farmers in the field and prepared by top chefs in their restaurants. The truth is in the tasting, and I’m a believer. Supporting Dan and the BFA is an opportunity to be part of changing the way we farm, the way we eat, and, most importantly, opening the door to improved health simply from enjoying this good food.”
With that support, and the blessings of RTE, Dan was able to hire employees and garner a number of enthusiastic regular volunteers as well. He went out full time, giving talks and traveling around his native New England, teaching growers through hands-on workshops and classes how they could achieve these incredible results with their crops. Just a few short years later, some 700 farmers, landscapers, home gardeners and other growers have come through Dan’s training—with outstanding results.
“We give 30- to 40-hour year-long seminars for growers, starting in the fall and going through the entire growing season,” said Dan. “We’ve seen some really major successes. One farmer’s produce became so popular that nobody would line up at any other farm stand at a farmers’ market because his tasted so much better. On another farm, four years ago they were grossing about 60,000 pounds of produce, and this year I think it’s somewhere in the ballpark of 150,000—without expanding their production space. Elsewhere, we’ve seen decreases in harvest times and 40 percent to 100 percent increases in yield. Pests don’t attack anymore.”
These are remarkable claims—but the farmers back them up. Farmer Phil Jones of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, raises vegetables, has about 180 CSA customers and also sells through farmers’ markets. He has had amazing success with methods he learned from Dan. “The beauty of it is that what you’re doing is really interpreting what Mother Nature and God are telling you,” Jones said. “I think the wonderful part of the course is that you learn to really read the plants and the whole thing becomes part of you. To be able to see four flowers in my tomato cluster, to watch as I input more nutrition and more balance, and then all of a sudden see six, eight and ten on a cluster—I can read that and watch the leaves change and see so many things that the plants are telling me.”
Jones also noticed the distinct difference in flavor. “It’s much smoother on the palate,” he said. “To me, that’s the most phenomenal thing—when you think that you’re going to be getting something that will be a little bitter at the end of it and then that doesn’t come. The smoothness of the vegetable and the sweetness of it is what changes.”
Jones has been witness to the truth of Dan’s words regarding pests and their reaction to truly healthy crops. “It’s fun to see the insects go away,” he told OC. “You might have them for a week or two until the plants photosynthesize the complex carbohydrates, but then they kind of disappear. You change the frequency of the plant, or you make it so that they don’t want it.
“We experienced a great learning session about two years ago when there was a drought. We had a field of potatoes, and potato beetles had been in the grasses, not on the potatoes.” With the nutrient levels as high as they were, the beetles were leaving the potatoes alone. But then conditions changed. “We got into a drought situation and ran out of water,” Jones continued. “The nutrient levels dropped, and the beetles just moved right in. All of a sudden the complexity of the plant altered; it became simple sugars again and there they were. But it was interesting to see that whole thing happen where they left, then they came back when it was good food for them.”
Farmer Don Hess raises vegetables and blueberries in Oakdale, Connecticut. In applying the methods he learned in Dan’s training, his results have also been exceptional. “The quality of the crops definitely improved; there’s no doubt about that,” Hess said. “The plant vigor, productivity and taste all changed. It was really excellent. The first year I applied the methods it was also a fantastic growing year here in southeastern Connecticut; so those two things combined just pushed the productivity of the farm. It had to have at least doubled, if not a little more.
“The best crop I had this year was garlic, and a lot of people at the market said we had the best garlic going. People are also pretty much amazed at the fact that they can keep our lettuce for two to three weeks, and can keep arugula for three or four weeks.”
Only the Beginning
But the training is only the base. Dan has seen the future—and the future is bright, tasty and very healthy.
The initial part of his plan, which is well underway, is to get a high number of growers using bionutrient farming methods and record the practices in a way that they can be broadly disseminated. “The first step that we’ve been focusing on the last couple of years is codifying the how-to principles for the general public,” Dan said. “This would exist in something like a handbook. While a larger-scale farmer might be able to hire a consultant to help with these issues, the average small organic farmer does not have access to the foundational principles about how to maximize vitality. It’s not that this information isn’t known—it’s just not well disseminated. We feel it’s very important that a clear how-to guide be presented and made publicly available to anyone on the planet as a first step.”
Dan is also aiming at broadening the Bionutrient Food Association’s website so that growers can interconnect and benefit from each other’s knowledge. “We really want to build out the website so that farmers—and everybody who is engaged in this mission—can find each other. Right now there is no facility for people to coordinate around quality in the food supply. It’s all relationship based; if you’re not in the know, you’re not in the know. There’s no easy way, if you’re a farmer, to find consultants or mineral distributors—or if you’re a consumer, to find farmers and so on. We don’t have the infrastructure for communication in place, so that’s one important piece we’re working on.”
Measuring Nutrient Levels
A key part of Dan’s mission is the objective quantification of plant nutrient levels. He is working with a scientist to develop a device that would measure crop nutrient levels in detail. Not only would such a device allow growers to evaluate their own efforts, but it would eventually give retailers and consumers the facility to measure nutrients in produce as well. “What we’re proposing is a near-infrared spectroscopy device, which looks like a little flashlight or a pointer,” Dan explained. “Basically you flash the light at a carrot and monitor the light that bounces back in the near-infrared spectrum, which contains the vibration of the minerals in compounds. The technology for this exists currently and is used to a large degree in pharmaceutical industry manufacturing. We’re looking at two to three years to develop it for our uses.”
Boiling It Down
“We figure if we broadly put out the information about how to grow high-nutrient crops and the ramifications of doing so, we can then expose these farmers for the quality of their produce. Then we can really drive consumer power to bring about different fertility practices in agriculture,” Dan concluded.
Real food is for everyone. With Dan’s vision brought to full reality, the standards of high-nutrient crops will become mainstream—and change the whole dynamic of how produce is grown, processed, distributed and purchased.
For more information on the Bionutrient Food Association and their work, visit www.bionutrient.org.