Fred Kirschenmann: The New Food Revolution

01 Jul, 2011

“My friend Bill Heffernan, who is a retired rural sociologist at the University of Missouri, told me once that if the modern food system were to choose an appropriate motto for itself, it would be Just Eat It,” Fred Kirschenmann tells Organic Connections. “In other words, we do not want people to have a voice about the food system. They should just go into the supermarket and buy their food, or go into a restaurant and eat their food—without any knowledge of where it comes from or any other form of engagement.

“That era is coming rapidly to a close now, because we’ve got a kind of new food revolution that’s taking place. People want to know where their food comes from; they have some interest in the sort of food that their kids are going to eat.”

Kirschenmann was recently the recipient of the Growing Green Thought Leader award from the National Food Defense Council—and to those familiar with his work, it’s no surprise. Currently serving as both director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and president of the board of directors of Stone Barns Center in New York State, he is a longtime leader in the organic and sustainable agriculture movement. Among many other accomplishments, he served a five-year term on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Standards Board, and has chaired the administrative council for the USDA’s North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. He also has authored and co-authored many articles and books dealing with ethics and agriculture.

A Different Kind of Agriculture

Having spent his career examining in considerable detail our current agricultural system and the many sustainable alternatives available, Kirschenmann has much to say about industrial agriculture and why it must change or die—and how sustainable farming is the only future we have.

“There are two schools of thought about industrial agriculture now,” Kirschenmann says. “One is that the only way to feed the world is to intensify what we have been doing over the last 60 years. After all, it’s been successful, right? I mean, we’ve doubled and tripled and in some instances quadrupled yields of a few crops, and so what we’ve got to do is simply apply more technology and do more of the same.

“The other school of thought is, we have used and are using up our resources and we’ve had a lot of unintended consequences that nobody wanted to see happen, which are creating big problems for us. We now have over 400 ecological dead zones as a result of the kind of farming that we’re doing.

“That debate is currently going on and in some ways it’s a healthy debate. Unfortunately, on both sides people tend to be dismissive of the other side instead of engaging, which I think would make a better conversation.

“The difficulty with that first scenario—which I call ‘industrial agriculture’ because it really follows the industrial economy model—is that it is absolutely dependent on cheap energy and other resources like surplus fertilizers and fresh water. Those resources are not going to be there in the future, so I think we’re going to have to transition to a different kind of agriculture. It has to be a much more agroecologically designed system in which we have more diverse food systems on the landscape that use less energy because the energy stays nested in the system. In other words, if you have a diversity of crops and livestock, then the waste from the livestock becomes the food for the crops and the waste from the crops becomes food for the livestock; so you save energy in the system. I think there are going to have to be systems that are designed along those lines.”

The Economics of Farming

Besides the environment, today’s industrial agriculture has another victim: the farmer.

“We always say that we have a cheap food policy,” says Kirschenmann. “I’ve always argued that we don’t have a cheap food policy, we have a cheap labor and a cheap raw materials policy, and that creates a very different type of economy. The way it’s currently organized, in a typical food chain everybody competes with everybody else. The retailer wants to get the food products from the distributor as cheaply as possible; the distributor wants to get them from the processor as cheaply as possible; and the processor wants to get the raw materials from the farmer as cheaply as possible. But the farmer doesn’t have any market power, so he simply has to take whatever price he’s offered. And that leaves the farmer in a very vulnerable position economically.

“If you look at the data in terms of income that farmers have gotten from farming activities exclusive of off-farm jobs or government subsidies, there’s been very little net farm income since about the middle of the 1980s. Just this last year with prices going up the way they have for a short time, there is some net income; but if you look at the data over a longer period, what invariably happens is, as crop prices go up, all of the input costs including land rent go up as well. In a relatively short while it eats up that extra income. Then when the crop prices go down again, as they do in certain cycles, the input costs never go down as rapidly; thus, over a period of time, farmers actually tend to get penalized.”

These types of economics have had a serious impact on the farming industry as a whole. “When you start to break it down, as Mike Duffy, who is an agricultural economist and a friend of mine here at Iowa State University, has done for years, you see we now only have 192,442 farms that produce three-quarters of all our agricultural production,” Kirschenmann continues. “Additionally, 30 percent of our farmers are over age 65, and only 5 percent are under age 35. We’re headed for a very serious human capital problem and we have to begin doing something about that.”

A Different Agroeconomic Model

From his observation, Kirschenmann sees methods that are already working to remedy this situation.

“There is a growing demand for highly differentiated food products produced at a scale that’s attractive to our school systems, our healthcare institutions and restaurant chains. There are a number of companies now that are tapping into that market. It’s not just midsized farms, although it tends to be midsized farms that can transition to this new way of being in the market to produce and differentiate a food product. These farms can then network together into marketing networks, such as Organic Valley, Shepherd’s Grain, Country Natural Beef, and Red Tomato. Shepherd’s Grain is a great example, in which they don’t compete with other players in the food chain—they work cooperatively. With the Shepherd’s Grain farmers, when it comes time to get ready to plant the next crop of wheat, they meet with the millers and bakers, and then with the help of an extension specialist from Washington State University they determine what the cost of the farmers’ production is going to be. They take that number and add to it a reasonable return for investment and labor to the farmers, and then that’s the price per bushel of wheat that they guarantee to the farmers, regardless of what happens in the marketplace.”

Care and Feeding of Soil

Kirschenmann also sees the care of the soil as something that has been totally eliminated from “modern” farming, and something that needs to be restored if we are to succeed.

“Here again, we have part of industrial culture,” Kirschenmann explains. “It goes back to an essay that biological chemist Justus von Liebig wrote in 1840, in which he pointed out that we could use synthetic inputs—principally nitrogen, phosphorus and potash—and dramatically increase the production of our crops without having to go through the laborious process of ‘manuring our soils,’ as he put it. He envisioned this new way of producing food, and it was a perfect fit for the industrial culture. So we got away from this notion that we had to feed the soil, that we had to attend to the biological health of the soil; we simply inserted the synthetic inputs.

“Even as recently as 15 years ago, some of my colleagues who are in soil sciences referred to the soil as the material to hold a plant in place—that was the only function it performed. The truth is that soil is a living community; there are actually more living organisms beneath the surface of the soil than there are above. And that living community, as Sir Albert Howard1 pointed out 70 years ago, needs to be fed. The primary food for that living community is humus,2 and humus comes mainly from well-composted what we call waste materials: livestock manure, plant matter—any biodegradable material can be composted. All waste materials that are biodegradable can go into compost, which in turn feeds the soil.”

Stone Barns Center

Going beyond the intellectual discussion, the new agricultural model can be seen in action at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture—a non-profit farm and education center located just 25 miles north of Manhattan in Pocantico Hills, New York. Stone Barns Center is also home to its partner restaurant, world-renowned Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

“I’ve been involved with the Stone Barns Center from the beginning,” Kirschenmann tells us. “This was a project that was dreamt up basically by David Rockefeller and his daughter, Peggy. They wanted to create a center that honored Rockefeller’s wife, whose name was also Peggy. Rockefeller’s wife was a very strong proponent of sustainable agriculture and farmland preservation. It was largely her involvement and generosity that started the American Farmland Trust, for example.

“She died suddenly in 1996, so David wanted to do something to memorialize her passion and her gift. He and his daughter came up with the idea of creating a center for sustainable agriculture in an urban area that would accomplish that. David donated 80 acres of the Rockefeller estate, which had stone barns on it—originally dairy barns—that were actually built when J. D. Rockefeller was in charge of the family. They decided to renovate the barns and create this center.

“They wanted some help in determining what a center like this should be composed of, what it should do, what its program should be. They put together an advisory group—I believe there were 20 of us involved in it—to help them think through how to design this so that it would be of service to the greater community. They asked me to serve on the board, so I’ve been involved in it from the start. About two years ago they asked me to serve as the president of the board and become more involved on a daily basis; so I spend about a week a month out there on site now.

“It’s been an incredibly inspiring experience for me. One continuing part of our work is to have an educational place for children so that they can learn where food comes from and how it’s grown. Chefs at the restaurant also help the children understand how to prepare food. The changes that take place in these kids have just been so amazing and so heartening.

“Another aspect of what we do is our beginning farmer program. There’s a whole new generation of young people now that want to farm, and they don’t want to do commodity agriculture—they want to raise food for people. So they need experience in how to connect with the land, as well as how to get access to land, obtain affordable capital, and all of that. We have both a horticulture operation and a pasture animal operation, and the farm managers have a dozen to fifteen apprentices and interns that work with them. Most of them usually spend about a year at the place.

“It’s uplifting to work with these young people. Seventy percent of the apprentices and interns that have gone through the Stone Barns experience are now engaged in full-time farming in one way or another. That’s truly rewarding for me.

“The other thing that’s been inspiring is working closely with people in an urban community like New York City. There’s a new culture around food in this country, especially in urban centers. I’m encouraged now that we’ll begin to see a political force taking place in our urban communities that is going to help to eventually bring about a number of the policy changes we will need in order to meet some of these challenges for the future. And I find that very exciting.”

Man as Part of Nature

Kirschenmann concludes with an observation about needed cultural shifts.

“The reconnection of the community with the land isn’t just a problem for agriculture—it’s part of a more general problem,” Kirschenmann says. “One piece of good news here is that a number of authors now are recognizing that we are on the cusp of having to make some significant cultural shifts. For instance, Dianne Dumanoski, in her book about climate change called The End of the Long Summer, points out that in our current culture we see nature as something we dominate, something we are going to force to do what we want it to do. That’s a viewpoint which is a major contributor to the problem causing climate change. What we need to do now is to begin changing that culture into one in which we recognize that we are a part of nature and that we have to work with nature and operate in terms of both nature’s gifts and nature’s constraints.

“We need to bring some of that old wisdom into our consciousness and our culture. One of the things that we try to do at the Stone Barns Center, especially with children, is to help them understand and appreciate, with all of the rich biotic community that is there in the gardens and with the animals, that they’re a part of it and this is their world, and there’s a way to take care of it that enriches the whole. That enrichment then also contributes to their health and to their future. Cultural shifts as we know take time, but it is a shift that I think we need to nurture.”

To find out more about Stone Barns Center, visit www.stonebarnscenter.org.

For further information on the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, visit www.leopold.iastate.edu.

1. Sir Albert Howard (1873–1947): English botanist and organic farming pioneer; a principal figure in the early organic movement. He is considered by many in the English-speaking world as the father of modern organic agriculture.

2. humus: the dark organic material in soils, produced by the decomposition of vegetable or animal matter and essential to the fertility of the earth.

About the author