Fred Kirschenmann on Organics, Religion and Community

In September, Stone Barns Center President of the Board Fred Kirschenmann traveled to Germany to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). Fred was recognized as “an impressive example for the sustainable impact that one single person can have on society. He has rendered outstanding services to the organic movement and is a nationally and internationally recognized leader within the organic agriculture movement.”

We couldn’t agree more.

To mark this high honor, we spent some time with Fred, learning about his own early and transformational experiences with organic agriculture, the intersection of religion and soil, and where he still finds inspiration and energy.

How were you first introduced to the concept of organic farming?
It was teacher-student role reversal. In 1968, I was in Dayton, Ohio, serving as director of the Consortium for Higher Education Religion Studies. One day, a student came into my office and showed me a photograph of two different kinds of soil from his research plot at the University of Nebraska; he was investigating the differences that would take place under sound organic management. The photo showed two handfuls of soil that looked like they came from two different planets:  one was dark and porous—the organic soil; the other was just a handful of sand.

Immediately, the photo brought back to my own mind my father’s experience. I could see his finger raised in admonishment as he lectured me about how important it was to take care of the soil. My father had put a lot of conservation practices in place on our North Dakota farm after the Dust Bowl. But he wanted to be the best farmer in Sutsman County, and everything he’d read and heard told him to consider using fertilizer. He asked advisers: “Is this going to hurt my soil?” Everyone said, “Of course not; it will add nutrients to your soil. How could that hurt it?” So he started to use fertilizers. He soon raised more wheat than ever before, but then he needed herbicides and pesticides to deal with the problems of monocultures.

In the 1960s, I’d return to the farm to help out during summer vacations. One summer, I told my father about the conversation I’d had with my student. He got very quiet and said, “I think I understand what the problem is. The direction I’ve been going with the farm has not been good for the soil; we have fewer earthworms than before, and other signs.”  I asked, are you going to convert the farm to an organic farm? He was 68 at the time, and he said, “No, what you’re talking about is an altogether different way of farming, and that’s for someone else, not for me.” So I let it go.  

In the 1970s, you returned to North Dakota to run the farm, when your father became ill, and you decided to transition it to certified organic. Was your father receptive?
Father was very excited about it. He started seeing three to four years out the difference in the soil. The scene is in My Father’s Garden [a documentary made in 1995]. He was standing behind the field cultivator; he waved to me to come over. I stopped the tractor. He was holding a handful of soil, and he started to describe the difference. “If organic agriculture does this to soil, this is all we need to know. I don’t care if it makes money or not.” His reaction inspired me.

What was the transition to organic like?
The difficult part was learning how to do it. I knew the principles, and my former student and I were in contact. He was farming in Nebraska. But North Dakota is a different ecology than Nebraska. It took about three years of experimentation to figure out the cropping system and rotations that worked for our land and the marketplace. There was a lot of trial and error.

Our neighbors—they tell other neighbors what they think. “It’s so terrible,” they’d say. “His father worked so hard, and his son’s going to ruin it.” I made some mistakes in the trial-and-error period, and mistakes you can always see. The neighbors were convinced it wasn’t going to work out well. But when we got it working, our wheat fields looked just as good as theirs. They wanted to know if it was a different variety of wheat, but I was using the same variety they were using, so they were baffled. About 10 years later, some neighbors wanted to convert to organic growing themselves, but by that time, there were higher subsidies for a few specific crops, like wheat. So for them to give up subsidies, and assume the risks of transition—that was a big deal. Later on, the Tappan area, 30 miles to the west of our farm, became one of larger communities of organic agriculture in North Dakota.

How does the concept of soil figure into your ideas about religion and spirituality?
Because my father had such a different value around taking care of land than most of his neighbors did, it started to engender in me the question: what is it that causes people to acquire a different set of values? When I went off to college, I had no idea what I wanted to major in, and I became friends with some students who were majoring in religion. I began to realize they were wrestling in a disciplined way with exactly this question. That made me decide to major in religion. But it wasn’t until later that I began to apply my thinking about values and spirituality to organic agriculture and soil. I came to learn that soil is really a dynamic, living community of microbes, earthworms, ants, everything else. Especially when I started to read Aldo Leopold—he made the case that we’re not conquerors of the land but plain members and citizens of it; we’re part of this dynamic, living system. That then led me to think about soil as part of this living community of which I was a part. Leopold’s notion was to develop an ecological conscience where we not only cared for fellow humans but the entire biotic community. That deeply influenced me. Soil wasn’t just something to be used; it’s part of our community.

This fall, you spoke at the "Faith, Food & the Environment" conference in St. Paul, Minn.  What are the top concerns regarding food and agriculture for people of faith?
They asked me to speak about big-picture issues—challenges we’ll be seeing in the future: climate change, the end of cheap energy, the depletion of resources, how this will be a big transition for agriculture and for the whole economy. I painted that picture and reminded them that whenever you go through these very foreboding challenges, the faith community has a big role to play because it’s about what people regard as important—their values—then people will pay attention.

Is there a growing awareness about taking care of the earth in the faith community?
The sense I have is that awareness is growing. In Iowa, there’s a faith community—the Iowa Interfaith, Power and Light—an interdenominational effort focused on the responsibility that we have to care for creation. The conference in Minnesota, organized by the University of St. Thomas, is another indication. But many churches still only focus on personal salvation rather than the care of creation. I think that the role of the arts is important in this regard. At the end of [the documentary] Symphony of the Soil, Deborah Koons Garcia interviews a rabbi who very quickly goes to the point made in the Book of Genesis, where we are told that we are to “serve and preserve” the garden in which we live. That’s the original Hebrew—not “to till it and care for it,” as many modern translations would have it. Coming at the end of a film about the community of life that is the soil, it’s a very powerful message.

Are you starting to see conventional Midwestern farmers changing their practices?
The thing that excites me right now is the adoption of cover cropping. What’s driving that is an awareness that the current system is in some serious trouble. Like others in our economy, many farmers have been forced to do maximum production for short-term economic return. Now what’s happening is because of specialization and the use of specific therapeutic intervention technologies, the resistance to Roundup and other herbicides is dramatic. Farmers are aware of this and starting to look for alternatives. The Natural Resources Conservation Service has become a strong advocate for cover cropping as an alternative approach; so even if you’re growing monocultures, if you include a diversity of cover corps in that monoculture system, you can improve a lot of things. Farmers are finding now after six or seven years using cover crops that they can reduce pesticide and fertilizer use by 70%, still maintain their yield, and the biological health of the soil is improved to the point where soil can absorb eight inches of rainwater an hour as opposed to a half-inch an hour. Even some large monoculture farmers in Iowa are doing this. It’s still a small percentage of farmers overall, but significant.

You’re a voracious reader. What books have influenced you lately?
Paul Roberts’ The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification. He does a brilliant job of describing how the majority of us in our culture operate out of a sense of what’s mine and now, not what’s good for us as a community and the future. This is why it’s so critical for the faith community to step into the culture now. Judeo-Christian, Muslim, Buddhist—all have elements of their theology that speak about the role of community and caring for each other. As Jesus said: As you do unto the least of us, you do it unto me. We need to re-cultivate that idea as we move into difficult challenges in the future.

Andrew Winston’s The Big Pivot is also such an important message. To see a leading figure in the business world say, you can’t solve problems by simply tweaking things. You need to make a big pivot. You’re depleting natural resources, climate change is happening. You have to get engaged.

You’re a busy man: You split your time between the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and Stone Barns Center; you travel to speak at conferences and to meet with others who are bent on change; and you still help advise on the management of the family farm. How do you recharge yourself in this hectic schedule?
For me, there isn’t anything more pleasurable than spending time at Stone Barns with young farmers. I see my mission as engaging the next generation of people who will be part of a future that many have been ignoring. I want to see people begin to work together collaboratively, and the common flourishing of life. That sense of community is what I’m fighting for. There’s no option for me; you don’t retire from a lifestyle.

As Wendell Berry, one of my heroes, wrote: “It may be that . . .when we no longer know which way to go, we have come to our real journey. . . .The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

Read Fred's bio, here.

See Fred's remarks at the 2014 New York Times Food for Tomorrow Conference, here.

His book, Cultivating an Ecological Conscience: Essays from a Farmer Philosopher, is available from the University of Kentucky Press.