On September 3, 2010 I was fortunate to become acquainted with Fred Kirschenmann, a visionary in the field of agriculture. He spoke at the University of Colorado’s "Local Foodshed Commons" conference which was sponsored, in part, by Transition Colorado.
Who is Fred Kirschenmann?
Fred Kirschenmann considers himself to be a philosopher and a farmer, holding a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Chicago. He was an organic farming pioneer, who transformed his family farm in North Dakota to certified organic back in 1980. The farm is a natural prairie livestock grazing system that combines a nine-crop rotation of cereal grains, forages, and green manure.
Kirschenmann is a Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. He is President of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York, also the site of the renowned eat-local Blue Hill Café. He holds and has held numerous other offices and appointments, including positions with the USDA, and in academia as Dean of Curry College in Boston, Massachusetts.
In 1995, Kirschenmann was profiled in an award-winning video, “My Father’s Garden,” by Miranda Productions, Inc. A quote worth noting from the movie producer is this…"Food cannot grow forever on a damaged earth, but Fred’s lesson is that we can bring health and beauty back into the Garden, if we are willing to cooperate with nature’s infinite intelligence. This wisdom holds the secret to our children’s future."
In 2010, Kirschenmann published a book, Cultivating an Ecological Conscience: Essays from a Farmer Philosopher (Culture of the Land). To quote Michael Pollan about the book, "Fred is one of the wisest, sanest, most practical, and most trusted voices in the movement to reform the American food system."
His Organic Farm in North Dakota
When his dad became ill in 1976, Fred went back home and turned the operation into a certified organic farm in 1980. This 3,500 acre farm is currently being transitioned to a younger farmer, using the state owned bank of North Dakota. This bank, formed in the populist/socialist days of the 1930’s and the only one of its kind in the nation, now has a policy offering loans to beginning farmers at a rate of less than two percent annual. The program is already having a positive impact. Fred says that he is planning ahead by helping his follower get established to buy and takeover the farm for "when I go off to meet with the microbes".
His list of the Largest Problems Facing Agriculture:
The question to challenge policy makers today is this, "What kind of system will we need when crude costs $300 per barrel? Since our current industrial agriculture model is based upon cheap energy, this is his number one concern. Fertilizers, pesticides, equipment manufacturing and operation, all rely upon cheap fossil fuels. When the cost of fossil fuels goes up, farming costs skyrocket. In Iowa, anhydrous ammonia went from $200 per ton to more than $1,000 per ton almost overnight when energy prices peaked in 2008. Farmers cannot operate profitably under such high input cost conditions. The Leopold Center expects crude oil to cost $200 per barrel in 4-5 years and $400 in 5-10 years.
Increases in energy costs are also a factor in local food production. This is a complex issue since a small farmer driving his produce fifty miles to his nearest farmer’s market can use relatively more energy than a full semi-truck of produce driving half-way across this country.
We have been drawing down our water supplies at an unsustainable rate. We have aggravated the water availability problem by ignoring soil health using industrialized systems. There are four main areas on the planet which are growing grain using rainfed agriculture. They are the central U.S., Brazil, Argentina, and edges of China.
Often, the population density areas match these same rainfed agricultural regions as displayed in the following map. [source]
The two main population centers, China and India are drawing down their water quickly. China, which relies upon irrigation for 80 percent of its grain production draws its aquifers down about ten feet per year and is drawing at depths of 1,000 feet in some places. India depends upon irrigation for 60 percent of its grain production and is drawing down aquifers at twenty feet per year to depths of 2,000 feet some places.
According to Kirschenmann, in the U.S., where 20 percent of our grain production is dependent upon irrigation, we have depleted our Ogallala aquifer by one-half since 1960. We are drawing it down at a rate 1.3 trillion gallons faster than it can be replaced.
His water challenge is to use half as much water as we do now and refocus on soil health so we farm in healthy soils which have the ability to retain water.
The latest thinking is that changes in climate probably won’t be gradual. Local eating will not solve extreme weather events effects upon agricultural production. To learn more, he encourages us to read the book, "The End of the Long Summer: Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive on a Volatile Earth" by Dianne Dumanoski.
Under this category he is concerned about the destruction of biodiversity, especially of previously healthy soils. The Rodale Institute tested water retention of soils according to content of organic matter and mulch and found that healthy soils containing organic matter retain much greater volumes of water. According to the Rodale Institute, soil containing 1% organic matter absorbs 33 pounds of water and 5% retains 135 pounds of water. He compared this to the irony of Monsanto wanting drought resistant seeds when the answer is in the soil quality, which same soil has been destroyed through the system embraced by Monsanto.
Kirschenmann referenced Dirt! The movie for learning more about soil.
Deborah Koons Garcia was present and joined him in a panel discussion about her upcoming movie, Symphony of the Soil, which was previewed earlier during "Eat Local" week here in Boulder.
Due to industrial agriculture systems, we have lost 75% of crop diversity over one-hundred years, and we’ve lost 33% of our animal species. To learn more, Kirschenmann recommends the book, "Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine" by Gary Paul Nabhan.
Also, he mentions population stress with the prediction of 9 billion people by 2050, as well as the loss of human capital in farming in industrialized areas which are now comprised of overwhelmingly aged farmers.
In the next part of the talk, Kirschenman listed his reasons for optimism.
The Good News:
1-We are in a food revolution.
The next generation sees the world differently. The older people alive today wanted to control the world. The new generation wants to work with it. Through his work at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in New York, he sees the many great young people working there who want to grow real food (not corn and soy). Seventy percent of them are now engaged in full time agriculture.
The problem is in the system, not the desire of the people. He stated that everyone now accepts the fact that government is dysfunctional so any change will happen from a grass roots level and that is, indeed, happening in the agriculture and food movement. He gave the positive example of people’s actions being that there are now two CSA’s in Pennsylvania which have reached annual sales of more than one million dollars in sales annually.
2-How Change Happens
He referenced the book, "Smart World: Breakthrough Creativity And the New Science of Ideas" by Richard Ogle. When people are dissatisfied with the current model, they embrace new ideas. The book uses the cubism style in art style a historical example. The book discusses the science of networks and new idea spaces. Ultimately, however, it’s nature that rules, not humans, and not technology.
3-There is a difference between hope, optimism, and pessimism.
"Neither optimists nor pessimists help. Optimists think everything will turn out OK. Pessimists assume it won’t. It’s the hopeful people that we need."
4-The Concept of the Foodshed.
This concept didn’t catch on until the food crisis of 2008. The foodshed is a model like a watershed. Growing food has to be appropriate to its locality or place. He referenced a Huffington Post article by Scott Stringer who wrote about the New York City Foodshed economics.
As an example of the benefit of keeping the economics of government school food spending local, Stringer suggested, "Just to give an example, twenty percent of the annual budget for the city’s $435 million school food programs alone would mean an investment of more than $80 million in producers within the New York City foodshed."
Feeding an area is the No. 1 priority in a foodshed. Exports and imports are the second priority.
In regards to the recent Salmonella scare from mega-farm egg production and beef E. coli breakouts, he cited the book Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies by Charles Perrow of Yale. Perrow says that accidents happen but we need to organize systems so that accidents don’t become catastrophes.
When asked whether the world would be better off if everyone were vegetarian, Kirschenmann answered that animals are an important part of a food production system and he does not know of any ecological models without animals that works as well. The waste of one species becomes the food for another. "We need animals in the system. Vegetarians are good, though. We need grazers."
He sees the difficulty of the economic barrier of starting to farm by younger people a big problem. "How does the younger generation start farming these days? Iowa farmland now costs $5,000/acre. Add new equipment totaling one million dollars. What would happen if a young person went to a banker and said, ‘I want to borrow three million dollars to start farming and I will have no net income.’ What will the banker say?"
Kirschenmann quoted his friend, Bill Heffernan, who says the slogan for industrial agriculture should be "just eat it". Another quote he likes is by Paul Thompson, who says our goal now is to "Produce as much as possible regardless of cost."
As a conclusion to this post, I thought I’d include this online video interview of Kirschenmann. This is from a 2009 talk where he speaks on "The Future of Agriculture".
"Monthly Review" article by Fred Kirschenmann "Do Increased Energy Costs Offer Opportunities for a New Agriculture?"