Farming Without Chemicals: How Can We Make Agriculture Greener? (Paperback)
Hanging on a gate is a sign reading: "Potatoes - healthy and delicious." The slogan, to which the word "rare" could justifiably be added, is in line with Cornel Lindemann-Berk's philosophy of quality over quantity. "We don't have enough rain in the summer," he tells DW. "And since we don't want to water them, we've turned this weakness into a strength."The yields are 50 percent lower than they might otherwise have been, but even the rare varieties such as Bergerac or Bamberg aren't watery. Customers from across the region come to the farm shop to buy these spuds known for their rich flavor and high mineral content.Wouldn't it be nice to hear, for a change, about a Midwest family farm that is not in trouble?Meet Dick and Sharon Thompson, of Boone, Iowa. They have worked their 300-acre farm, the one on which Dick was born, for 29 years now. They've raised four children. One son works with them, another has his own farm not far away. They are not in debt, not one penny. And for 19 years they have used no herbicides, no insecticides, almost no commercial fertilizers. Their animals are fed no hormones and no antibiotics.Dick went to Iowa State in Ames, 15 miles away, "and for ten years I applied what they taught me. Feeder cattle, feeder pigs, continuous corn. Two hundred pounds per acre of nitrogen fertilizer, and atrazine to kill the weeds. I was in debt up to my neck. If I'd gone on that way, I wouldn't be here now."The work load was as heavy as the debt load, the cattle were sick, and Sharon and Dick were deeply unsatisfied, not only economically, but spiritually.In 1967 a minister told them, "Listen. God will tell you how to farm." They listened, paid attention to their own hunches, started going to meetings about organic farming. And they made two decisions. Get out of debt. And quit the chemicals, cold turkey.Dick remembered the 5-year crop rotation of his childhood and he put it back into practice. Corn, soybeans, corn, oats, clover, and then repeat. That rotation immediately solved some insect problems, such as corn rootworm, which builds up in continuous cornHe knew he shouldn't leave the soil bare in the winter, exposed to erosion. So he started planting hairy vetch as a winter cover crop, a legume that fills the soil with nitrogen while protecting it from wind and rain.To control weeds he has perfected a ridge-till system. He forms a ridge a few inches high in each planting row. His planter, which he has tinkered with until he has it just right, disturbs only a small band down the center of each ridge, so weed seeds are not brought to the surface. A few cultivations down the furrows keep weeds from being a problem.Iowa has shifted almost entirely to a cash-grain system, which means animals are raised in huge centralized feedlots, and farmers produce only grain. That system never made sense to the Thompsons. It confines animals in dense populations in small spaces, where they must be constantly medicated to prevent diseases. The feed is hauled long distances to the animals, and the manure rarely gets hauled back to the land. "There used to be 11 farms on our road that kept animals," says Dick. "Now there are only two."The Thompsons raise 1200 hogs and 50 cattle a year. The animals are housed with clean indoor and outdoor spaces, sunshine and fresh air. Corncobs, lime, and straw are used for litter and returned with the manure to the fields. Drugs are used only for sickness, which is rare. "If you try to kill bugs, you get only superbugs," says Dick. He adds a lactobacillus acidophilus supplement to his feed, a "good bug" that naturally occurs in the digestive system of hogs. "It outcompetes the bad bugs."Dick used to compost manure before returning it to the fields, but he noticed that potassium was leaching out of the compost heaps, and his soil was beginning to test low for potassium. So now he has a new scheme. He has built a concrete retaining tank, into which he dumps all the manure.