Wanted: Regenerative, Renewing, Resilient Agriculture
Fred Kirschenmann is a Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center, and the president of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York. He is a man of many talents, accustomed to wearing many hats: Iowa State University professor, TEDx speaker, farmer at his family’s 1,800-acre certified organic farm in south central North Dakota. In 2010 the University Press of Kentucky published Fred’s book Cultivating an Ecological Conscience: Essays from a Farmer Philosopher, in 2011 he became one of the first ten recipients of the James F. Beard Foundation Leadership award, and in 2012 he was given the Sustainable Agriculture Achievement Award by the Practical Farmers of Iowa.
Fred doesn’t entertain any illusions about the industrial agriculture economy. “Everybody operates on their own,” he says, explaining that this model is simply not conducive to a sustainable future for agriculture and for our planet. Instead, Fred emphasizes how important it is to work together as a community. “Why don’t we start producing our own food in our own region for our own communities?” he asks. But it’s not actually a question. Fred believes that localizing food systems within bioregions—regions defined by a natural environment rather than human lines—is the way forward.
“We need systems that are regenerative, that are renewing, that are resilient—because the other thing we have to take into consideration is the impact of climate change which is going to produce more weather patterns that are less predictable and more severe,” warns Fred, advocating for an approach to agriculture that aims to adapt to rather than control our environment. “Nature has it’s own system. Nature doesn’t operate on the basis of monocultures,” he points out.
This idea of adapting to rather than controlling nature, by honoring bioregions, diversifying farms and moving away from monocultures, is as Fred puts it, “an important philosophical underpinning that we all need to come to terms with as we think about our relationship to nature.”
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Fred Kirschenmann, a longtime national and international leader. I bet a lot of you out there have heard of Fred before. And he has worked so much in sustainable agriculture. He’s a distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and is president of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. Fred, it is truly an honor to have you here today with us, and welcome.
FRED KIRSCHENMANN: Well, it’s entirely my pleasure. I have been looking forward to this. You know, I’ve known you for a long time, and let’s go for it!
TM: For our listeners, Fred, besides being an accomplished speaker, you’re also working in sustainable ag for the Leopold Center and have been doing that forever. You’re providing tremendous leadership at Stone Barns. You’re an author. And on top of it, you’re a farmer! I’d love to ask you, do you think that we’ve come a long way with consumers as far as them understanding their role in food and agriculture?
FK: Yeah, well, as I’m sure you know, consumers, especially in the last decade, have played a much more important role, from my perspective at least, than they have in the past, because even companies like General Mills now are making some significant transitions in the way in which they want their food produced because that’s what their customers want. And I in fact spent about an hour and a half on a phone call with one of the presidents of Annie’s, which of course General Mills owns, and she told me right at the beginning, she said, “The reason I’m calling you is because the managers of my company now, General Mills, they want me to figure out how I can find farmers who manage their soil for soil health, because that’s the future of the food system.”
And so I think we’re starting to see consumers recognizing that there is a connection between healthy soil and healthy food, and they want food that is produced on healthy soil. And so that’s starting to have an impact.
But I think that there’s a, from my perspective, there’s a larger issue here, and that is that, you know, in the, what I like to call the industrial economy, which has really dominated for basically a century, everybody operates on their own. And in fact, two of our leading economists, Michael Porter and Mark Kramer, published an article in the Harvard Business Review back in 2011, the January–February issue, which they entitled “Creating Shared Value.” And they write this article to the business community, and the basic point in their article is that if you want to continue to be successful in business, you can’t any longer operate by what they called “the old playbook.” This is everybody in the industrial system. In the old playbook, everybody wants to get their raw materials and labor as cheaply as possible to maximize the profits in their own business, and they want to as much as possible externalize their social costs and their environmental costs, to maximize the profits in their own business.
And here are now these two leading economists that are saying if you continue to do business by this old playbook, you’re not going to be successful in the future. Why? Because we’re now so marginalizing the labor and raw materials—and you can put farmers in that category—that you’re not going to have the quality of raw materials that you need to be successful. And if you continue to externalize your social costs and your labor costs, then it makes our communities less vibrant, and you’re not going to have vibrant communities in which to do business. And so you now have to operate under a new basis of creating shared value, which you look at—in order to be successful, the value has to be shared throughout the system.
So it isn’t just a matter of consumers becoming more active, but it’s recognizing that in order to have successful economies—and this is not only true of organic, it’s true of all of our economies—then we have to do it more based on relationships rather than trying to simply capture as much value for ourselves and our own business, which has been the playbook for the industrial economy.
TM: Boy, this, I’m sure, is music to many farmers’ ears, because farmers seem to always be, they’re at the end of the, or beginning of the chain, I should say. And we know personally, working with farmers, that they’re the ones that always get hammered on. Okay, you have to lower your cost, and so what do you do? You pass it on to the farmer. And certainly, those dairy farmers that are conventional, it’s almost abusive sometimes to see what they’re being paid. They’re almost paying people to take their product.
So it’s exciting to think that there might be this switch here. And yet on Monday, I read the Amazon announcement that they were going to go in and slash prices at Whole Foods Market, and the first thing I thought was, gee, who’s going to be actually paying for that? And I wondered about the farmers.
FK: That’s right. Yeah, they’re going to want to… When I read that, I thought exactly the same thing. What this means now is that farmers who are supplying Whole Foods are going to get hammered, because they’re going to need to supply their organic production cheaper, on a cheaper basis than they have before so that Amazon can reduce their prices in order to increase their own profits. That’s really what it’s all about.
TM: You mentioned Michael Porter and Mark Kramer as talking about the old playbook. And we’re seeing some new things. But are there other things that you’re seeing that are hopeful, for those of us who sure wish that we could see some better change in food and farming?
FK: Well, one of the other resources that I’ve found inspiring was another book that was published toward the end of 2015 by John Thackara, and the title of his book is How to Thrive in the Next Economy. And he writes this book based on his travels around the world. And he claims that there is a new economy that’s beginning to emerge now, and it’s emerging more in the developing world than in the developed world, although already to some extent happening in the developed world. And that is that people are beginning to realize that this industrial economy which we just talked about isn’t serving their own needs and their own communities. And so people are starting to come together in their own ecological regions—in other words, they look at the basic ecological resources of the communities in which they live. And these aren’t communities in terms of small towns in a community. They’re really a bioregion. And he uses the term bioregionalism as the new economy. And he claims that people are doing this together, so it isn’t just people saying to farmers, “You have to feed us,” but it’s how do we use our resources in a way that they’re renewed in the process of using them, and that it meets our needs as a people working together in this bioregion, as bioregionalism.
And one of the things he mentions is that within each of these bioregions that he visited, the concept of growth is no longer unlimited economic growth—which, of course, that’s what it is for the industrial economy—but rather growth is regenerating life on Earth. How do we regenerate life on Earth? Because that’s the core basis of the bioregional economy that’s going to sustain us and then enable us to thrive. And so I thought, gee, you know, this is already happening in many parts of the world. Then how can we learn from that in our own bioregions?
Another little booklet that came out just a few months ago, by a journalist who lives in Decorah, Iowa, which is right on the edge of that Driftless Region, which is one of those bioregions, which includes parts of Wisconsin and Minnesota and edges of Iowa and Illinois. And he claims that people in this Driftless Region are now asking the same kinds of questions that John Thackara talked about in his book. They’re saying, you know, “So we’re raising a lot of corn and soybeans and exporting it to who-knows-where, and we don’t get any real benefit from that. And then we have to import everything that we eat ourselves. Why don’t we start producing our own food in our own region for our own communities?” And he at least feels rather enthusiastic that this has a real potential, the Driftless Region has a real potential for becoming one of these bioregional economies.
And then there’s also another example, which started out in California, primarily, in the Fresno community, called the Food Commons, which are doing this same kind of thing. They’re working with farmers in that region to make sure that they’re adequately, their needs are met so that they can provide the food for that region. So, you know, it’s in the very, very early stages, but I think it’s something to be a little bit hopeful about.
TM: I know that you are very much involved in the Leopold Center, which I’m so grateful that the Leopold Center exists. And they certainly have done a tremendous amount of work in Iowa and in the whole nation, trying to bring more sustainable, more conservation practices, and so on. So do you see those things at the Leopold Center really contributing to this potential of trying to think bioregionally?
FK: That’s a really great question. And from my point of view… I mean, the Leopold Center really manages a research phenomenon. And each year, given the funding that we have available, we send out a request for proposals, and anybody connected with an educational institution or a nonprofit organization, and even farmers with a nonprofit organization, can apply for grants. And in that request for proposal, we indicate the kind of issues that we want to address during that funding period.
You know, I think that most of us, and even within the Leopold Center for the last 30 years, we weren’t so much focused on these visionary kind of futures as we were on doing a better job of fixing the current system. I think everybody—well, maybe not everybody understands, but those of us engaged in these kinds of issues understand that we have some more significant challenges in the future for an industrial kind of economy, which is really heavily dependent on cheap inputs to sustain the system. And many of those cheap inputs are nonrenewable resources, like fossil fuels and rock phosphate, [unclear—possible?] water. We’re using up these resources so that they’re not going to be there in the next four or five decades. And so we have to learn how to put together these kinds of bioregional systems, which are essentially self-renewing and self-regulating.
And if you think about it, that’s what was at the core of organic agriculture from the beginning. You know, Sir Albert Howard, I think, was the person who first coined that phrase, “the Law of Return.” You know, you don’t depend on a lot of outside inputs. You rather put a system together so that everything that you use gets returned in the process of using as part of a self-renewing system. And then Rudolf Steiner also was even probably more articulate than that in the 1920s when he said that we have to manage our farms like an organism, so that it’s self-renewing and self-regulating. And as he said, any time you bring something in from outside the farm to sustain the farm, then it’s an indication of a sick farm, and you have to really look at how you’d make it healthy. So I think these are some of the core principles that we need to look at. And there’s a lot of research which we can do and need to do to provide not just farmers but all of us with the kinds of information and tools… And some of that, you know, again, is that some of that is already beginning to happen, even simple things like adding cover crops for agriculture.
And another—you know, I don’t want to keep throwing out books—but another really inspiring book, for me at least, came out in May of this year, 2017, by David Montgomery, entitled Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life. And he features, I think it was eight farmers in his book, and he visited each of these farmers, spent about two or three weeks on each of the farms to learn from them how they were managing their systems. And he mentions the word organic from time to time, but it really isn’t, for him, about organic. It’s about how these farmers are putting a system together that’s essentially self-renewing.
And they’re primarily doing three things: they’re reducing their tillage, they’ve added cover crops, and dramatically diversified their systems, either with crop-livestock interaction or with a diversity of crops. But each of these farmers have so dramatically reduced their input costs that they’re actually increasing their profit. And all of them have now said that they are no longer interested in getting bigger, because it’s the dynamics of the system that’s really the important thing, not the size.
And I like to think about this in terms of what I call the three R’s: that we need systems that are regenerative—in other words, they’re renewing, in the process of renewing them; that are resilient, because the other thing we have to take into consideration is the impact of climate change, which is going to provide us, produce more weather patterns that are less predictable and more severe. So if you only have one kind of crop or one kind of animal and you have a weather event which is damaging to that crop or that animal, then of course you’re going to have huge losses. But if you have more diversity that isn’t all affected in the same way by the same events, then you’re going to be more resilient. And then the third R is what we’ve been talking about, and that’s about relationships—that we have to do this together. Farmers can’t produce that kind of diversity unless there’s a market for the kind of diversity that they need to produce. And then everybody has to become engaged in that.
TM: Just so well said, but certainly it’s making my head spin with about a hundred questions. But certainly I want to go back to your comment that cheap inputs… And I’m knowing that from 2014, ’15, and ’16 in agriculture, each year the corn and soy producers didn’t make money—they lost money. In fact, I read that in 2016 that their income was 12 percent down. So I’m just wondering, I don’t think inputs are cheap anymore, for sure.
FK: I don’t either.
TM: And definitely the input of the amount of chemicals that are needed now to fight the superweeds that are coming up from the South surely can’t be cheap either.
FK: Yeah. Well, there are two major issues in what you’ve just brought up. One is that, you know, nature has its own system. Nature doesn’t operate on the basis of monocultures, which is the way we’re trying to operate agriculture. And Aldo Leopold made this point already back in the 1930s. He said that based on his observation of nature, it became very clear to him that nature always abhors a density of any species. It doesn’t make any difference what the species is. You get a certain density of a species so that it’s out of sync with the kind of relationship and interaction of species that’s necessary for the health of the whole. Then he says if any species reaches a density which puts it out of balance with that kind of health of the whole, then nature will reduce that density. And, he said, if one system fails, she will find another.
And this is exactly what we’re seeing in our huge monoculture system of agriculture, and that’s a density that nature does not support. And so the kind of resistance that’s developing against all of the technologies that we’ve developed to try to prevent the resistance to the kinds of weeds that emerge, et cetera, in these huge monocultures… And there have been a number of people in our past—even Liberty Hyde Bailey, who was one of our first deans of agriculture. In his book The Holy Earth, he said that we should not be operating our farms in terms of dominating nature and forcing nature to do what we want her to do, but we should regard nature as being sacred, and then learn from nature how we should be doing agriculture.
Another incredible resource which came out, I think, in 2011 by Mary Evelyn Tucker and her colleague, where they go into how the whole cosmos has evolved over billions of years, and they end up, at the end of that, saying if we think, we humans think that we can control any part of that, whether it’s on Earth or anyplace else, we should just forget about it, because these evolutionary processes will continue to evolve and move forward. And so we need to learn how to adapt rather than how to control. And I think that’s an important, really, philosophical underpinning that we all need to come to terms with as we think about our relationship to nature.
TM: For our listeners, if you’re just joining us, you are listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Fred Kirschenmann, a longtime national and international leader in sustainable agriculture, distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and president of Stone Barns Center. And we are talking about adapting versus controlling nature, especially as it relates to farming and our food.
How do you answer those kinds of, you know, what the future of agriculture is? I mean, you just said it really clear: we have some models, diversity, regenerative, resilient, relationships. How are we talking to farmers to get that into their psyche? And especially—and I’m not saying that you’re really, really conservative, but you have to admit the farmer tends to be so conservative and not want to change at all.
FK: Yeah, it’s another really great question. And again, I don’t want anybody to get the impression that what I’m saying is that farmers are stupid or that they’re not creative, or any of that. But what we’re all—and it’s not just farmers—all of us have been captured by this culture that we’ve created for… Well, you know, you can go back to René Descartes, who back in 1641 made the point, he said that we humans have to recognize that we are not complacent to nature—that we have to become the masters and possessors of nature! So we’ve created this whole culture in which we just feel that we’ve just got to control it, we’ve got to make it happen, and if we don’t, why, we’re just not going to be successful at all.
I have to tell you that the most interesting and, I think, successful conversations that I’ve had with farmers now is when I meet with a group of a dozen farmers around a table in a bar, drinking beer. And I prefer to have them as a diversity of farmers—you know, some conventional farmers, some organic farmers, some CSA farmers, et cetera. And when you do that, of course, you can get into the food fight pretty quickly, as you well know.
And what I like to do is to say, okay, I don’t care how you’re farming right now; keep that to yourself, how you’re farming now. But let’s acknowledge the fact that sometime within the next couple, several decades, crude oil will probably be $300 a barrel. I didn’t come up with that number—T. Boone Pickens, who’s an oil guy in Texas, he said that we should expect crude oil to get to $350 a barrel within 10 years. And let’s assume that if you’re using phosphorus, either so-called natural phosphorus or synthetic phosphorus, its basic source is rock phosphate. And there are only four countries which still have rock phosphate reserves, the United States being one of them. But at the rate that we’re using the rock phosphate to make the phosphorus, the experts who have been looking at this have been telling us that at the most we have another 20 years of rock phosphate reserves—probably only, at the rate we’re using it, 10 more years. And of course, as those reserves become depleted, the costs go up. In fact, farmers were buying phosphorus for $60 a ton in 1960 and now it’s $700 a ton. So it’s not unimaginable to expect that sometime, 10 or 15 years from now, phosphorus will be $2,500 a ton.
So if you’re having to spend $300 a barrel for crude oil, $2,500 a ton for phosphorus, and also the availability of water is going to be much more scarce because we’ve been using up…about 70 percent of our freshwater resources are being used just for agricultural irrigation now, and we’re drawing down those resources all across the planet. So tell me, can you still do what you’re doing? Whether you’re a conventional farmer, organic farmer, or CSA farmer, can you still do what you’re doing under those circumstances? And I have yet to meet a single farmer that says, “Yeah, we can deal with that.” Suddenly everybody recognizes that they have these future challenges which they have to come to terms with if they’re going to be successful in agriculture.
Basically, it comes down to what are the gifts that nature is providing, and how can we use those gifts in a way that we’re not going to be dependent on all of these intensive inputs that have enabled us to be successful? And again, whether it’s synthetic inputs or natural inputs, it’s input-intensive systems and they simply won’t be functioning in the future. And it’s those bioregional communities that recognize this in advance and work together to put together these self-renewing and self-regulating systems. And it isn’t just about food and water, but those are the essential things for life for humans, of course. But I think those are the kinds of conversations that we need to start having.
TM: Fred, thank you so much for talking with us today, with me today, and for all the continual insight and inspiration that you give me and so many other people. It has been just such an honor and a pleasure to know you all these years.
FK: Well, thank you as well. And it was a pleasure to do this with you, and hopefully our paths will cross again soon.