When it comes to farming organically and building resilient, sustainable agricultural systems, Fred Kirschenmann is a prominent and oft-awarded elder statesman. And while you might expect him to be reflective (he’ll be 85 on February 4), the pioneering organic farmer is firmly forward-thinking.
Kirshchenmann is president of the board at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a regenerative agriculture farm and educational center located about 30 miles north of New York City. During an interview with Civil Eats at the center’s 2019 Young Farmers Conference in early December, Kirshchenmann referenced authors to illustrate the future of agriculture. Jared Diamond, for example, studied past civilizations to find out what caused some to thrive while others collapsed.
“The conclusion he came to was that those civilizations that recognized that changes were on the way and got a head start preparing for those changes—they were the ones that thrived,” Kirschenmann said. “Those that failed in that exercise were the ones that tended to collapse. And when I read that, I thought, ‘That’s an important lesson for us, because we do know that changes are on the way.’”
But Kirschenmann is not just observing changes related to the economic and environmental viability of farming sustainably—he’s living them.
Over the past few years, political maneuvering in Iowa resulted in a major loss of state research funding for the pioneering Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture based out of Iowa State University, where he is the distinguished fellow.
At his 1,800-acre, certified organic grain farm in south-central North Dakota, he was forced to rethink the crop rotation system after the market for buckwheat collapsed. And at a time when farm succession is one of the biggest challenges facing agriculture, he’s working on transferring ownership of the farm to the family that’s been working the land for many years.
Most importantly, though, Kirschenmann is acutely attuned to the erratic weather patterns that increasingly affect the farm. In the past year, planting was significantly delayed due to unseasonably late snow. Later, intense rain destroyed some of the wheat.
And yet, the hopefulness he retains is focused squarely on a group he referred to, at one point, as the “regenerative generation”—the young farmers who descend on Stone Barns once a year to talk about how they’re restoring soil health, sequestering carbon, and creating sustainable, equitable markets.
In terms of building an agricultural system that can withstand and mitigate the existential threat of climate change, Kirschenmann said, “I always try to think, ‘Am I just kidding myself? Are these real possibilities?’ And you know, meeting with the young farmers in our regenerative fellows group, they own farms and have already made these kinds of transitions. And they’re demonstrating that it’s working.”
Kirschenmann sat down with Civil Eats to talk more about the current state of sustainable agriculture and what makes him both worried and hopeful for the future.
What are some of the biggest issues you see in the current food system that you speak to young farmers about?
The biggest issue right now is that we need to make a cultural shift. We can’t continue using this input-intensive system as the inputs get depleted, because all of those inputs are non-renewable. In David Montgomery’s book, Growing a Revolution, the subtitle is “Bringing Our Soil Back to Life.” He spent time on [eight] farms, and the thing that he points out is that each of these farmers have now begun to recognize that the input-intensive system is not working for them, because they’re losing money. The input costs keep going up as [the resources] get depleted and returns keep going down.
They all begin to realize they can’t do this anymore, so they make this transition to bringing soil back to life. Essentially what they do is reduce their tillage, they include cover crops to revitalize the soil, and they significantly diversify the production systems. And then generally, they market what they produce in their own region, and then each of them is now making a profit. He argues, based on his research, that none of these farmers are any longer interested in getting bigger, because that’s not the solution to anything. What they’re interested in is further enhancing the biological dynamics of their system, so it’s more self-renewing and self-regulating.
I see that as the early beginnings of the kind of transformation that we’re going to see in our agriculture system. Now, the big question for me is, are we going to make that transition in the timeframe that we have? Based on the IPCC [the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report, we’ve only got 11 years to address climate change. It’s hard for me to imagine that we’ll make those kinds of changes significantly enough in 11 years to have the kind of culture shift that we need.
Do you think that many more farmers are making that culture shift today compared to in the past?
One of the reasons I’m excited about the regenerative farming fellows is they’re struggling with these kinds of things. They’re not only interested in figuring it out—they pretty much know what they can do and are doing it on their own farms—but [they’re also thinking about] how they can form a larger revolution that meets the future challenges for all of us.
I spend half of my time in Iowa, in commodity agriculture, and then the other half out here [in New York], and I’ve learned that young people who want to farm out here, they don’t want to raise commodities like corn and soybeans. They want to raise food for people and have that relationship. So that kind of new culture is emerging much more quickly here than it is in Iowa.
But even in Iowa, you have an organization like the Practical Farmers of Iowa. They’re not interested in getting farmers to raise more commodities; they’re interested in helping farmers understand how they can have an economically and ecologically sustainable system.
But even there, isn’t regenerative agriculture more of a niche movement? You’ve been doing this a long time, have you seen meaningful progress in Iowa?
Well, here’s the other restriction. The average age of our farmers now is almost 60, and that means that a lot of the farmers are in their 70s and 80s. These are all farmers who did exactly what we [the government] told them to do. We told them to get big or get out, to farm fencerow to fencerow. So that’s what they did, and now we want them to make these major changes. That’s probably not going to happen.
So, we really need to focus on this next generation of young people that are farming. Most of them recognize that their future depends on working with nature and not controlling nature and they’re starting to create systems to do that. But, of course, you have to have a marketing system and a cultural system that supports that. That’s what’s going to be the more difficult kind of transformation, but it’s starting to happen.
What about the Leopold Center losing its state funding?
Here again, we’ve got two cultures. From my point of view, one of the primary reasons that the Leopold Center lost its funding was that when the Republican party took over the politics in Iowa, they reached out to that culture that wants to keep the current system going. They wanted to support that, and that’s why they took funding away from the Leopold Center and gave it to a new organization that they call the Nutrient Reduction Center. Their view is that the system is fine, we just have to reduce the amount of inputs that we’re using, which I think from an ecological point of view is nonsense. But they were able to sell that concept.
We have a lot of people, like the students in [and graduates of] the graduate program for sustainable agriculture [at Iowa State], who are very adamant about restoring the Leopold Center’s funding. If the Democrats were to take over politics in Iowa again in 2020, they would have an avenue of promoting their view. Now, I’m hoping that if we get to that point that I’ll be able to help everybody understand that simply restoring the Leopold Center’s funding is not the solution. It’s only a piece of it.
We are now at a point that we can’t really make it happen as an individual institution anymore. We have to develop collaborative relationships with other institutions that share some of those values. The good news around that is that the Union of Concerned Scientists expressed interest in being part of that kind of collaborative action, and even the National Farmers Union expressed an interest.
One of the criticisms of the kinds of systems you advocate for is that they’re not scalable. Do organic, regenerative agricultural systems need to scale up, or do you think it’s possible to make the shift within more localized systems?
Well, Timothy Weiss is an economist and he’s published a new book called Eating Tomorrow based on his travels around the world. And one of the things that he claims is that in many parts of the world, the industrial concept of food and agriculture systems—where you produce one or two things in one place throughout the world and you import most of what you use yourself—that that’s not a viable system anymore.
And so people are now transitioning from these corporate-controlled food systems to a much more social system in which the farmers play a much more important role in how the food gets produced. He claims, for example, that 70 percent of the people in the developing world get fed by farmers farming five acres or less. It’s these family-sized farms that are becoming the way we do agriculture in the future, and the industrial approach and the corporate control is gradually disappearing.
Now, that’s not happening in the United States on any major scale yet. But again, if you look at Practical Farmers of Iowa, etc., there are the beginnings of moving in that direction. And as the corporate system dependent on these inputs—which are becoming increasingly expensive—becomes economically inviable, I think we’re going to definitely move in that direction. Whether we’ll make that transformation in terms of the ecological benefits in time to prevent the kind of catastrophic results that the climate scientists are saying we are likely to see, that’s the big question.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Top photo by Ben Hider, courtesy of Stone Barns.