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Farmer-Philosopher Fred Kirschenmann on Food and the Warming Future

In this wide-ranging interview, Kirschenmann gives YES! the dirt on the future of farming.
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Fred Kirschenmann stands in a field.

Fred Kirschenmann stands in a field. Photo by Connie Faulk.

Farmer and philosopher Fred Kirschenmann has made it his life’s work to weave sustainability and resilience into the ever-changing agricultural landscape.

A world-renowned leader in sustainable agriculture and professor of religion and philosophy at Iowa State University, Kirschenmann is no stranger to practicing what he preaches. His 2,600-acre farmstead in North Dakota serves as a model for what’s possible on a mid-sized organic farm, showcasing the results of diverse crop rotation paired with soil remediation, and all of it done without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.

Kirschenmann decided to convert his farm to a wholly organic operation in 1976, after being introduced to the concept in the 1960s by one of his students. Crop yields sank initially, but five years of trial and error restored productivity and eventually boosted it. Today, he grows seven different grain crops—including winter rye, millet, and hard red spring wheat—on two-thirds of the land, while on the rest cattle graze on native prairie. The farm has been featured in such publications as National Geographic, BusinessWeek, Audubon, the LA Times, and Gourmet magazine.

As the Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, Kirschenmann travels across the country and the world to spread new ideas about land ethics, soil health, and biodiversity in agriculture. He is also an author, and the president of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York.

YES! Magazine caught up with Dr. Kirschenmann on Bainbridge Island and asked him about some of modern agriculture’s most vexing problems and the solutions he’s developed over his many years in the field (no pun intended).


Peter Pearsall: You’ve been called an “agri-intellectual” by Mother Jones writer Tom Philpott. What does that phrase mean to you?

Fred Kirschenmann: I think what Tom means by that is that I have put together a kind of vision for the food and agriculture system based on my own experience as a farmer, and my own efforts to anticipate the kinds of challenges we’re going to see in the future.

Peter: How has sustainable agriculture changed over the last 20 years?

Fred: For a long time, I think, there’s been two views on sustainable agriculture. In the first one, the aim is to increase or intensify what we’ve done in the past. There is some effort to reduce the negative impacts of conventional agriculture—such as reducing chemical inputs, soil erosion, and negative effects on water quality—but there is still the goal of maximizing production for short-term economic returns. That particular view looks at it like, “We’ve been so successful in increasing the yields of our crops and we’ve saved the lives of billions of people. Therefore we’re going to use the new technology to keep doing that, and intensify it even more.”

This older view says that the basic system of conventional agriculture was OK, but we needed to reduce our soil erosion, we needed to reduce the amount of toxic chemicals, we needed to improve our water quality. So we had to “green up” the system to make it sustainable.

"Simply intensifying agriculture in one part of the world to feed the rest of the world is not going to solve the problem."

More recently—and I include myself in this school of thought—we’re recognizing that we’re going to have some significant challenges in the future, where we’re not going to have the resources to sustain the agriculture of the past. So we’re going to have to fundamentally redesign it. Our agriculture system in the past was based on cheap energy, it depended on surplus available fresh water, and it depended on a stable climate. None of those things are going to be there in the future.

So those of us who are thinking about the future are thinking about it more in terms of resilience.

Peter: What does resilience mean to the sustainable farmer?

Fred: There’s a new professional society called the Resilience Alliance, which informs the kind of direction we’re taking as sustainable farmers. Now, again, the older version of sustainable agriculture—and you see this a lot still in the literature—asks, “How do we optimize the system?” Well, from the resilience perspective, optimization is the wrong way to go. To optimize something, you specialize it even more, because you want to get the maximum benefit from it. That’s the opposite direction from the one we need to go in.

If you want to make your farm resilient for the future, you have to think about it in two ways. First, there’s “specific resilience”: I look at my farm in North Dakota and say, “OK, in North Dakota now, and in the future, we’re likely to have a more unstable climate and to see the end of cheap energy. So how should I redesign my farm, so it can be resilient under those specific new circumstances?”

Then there’s “general resilience,” which none of us can predict. We think about what’s the larger global impact of climate change, and how we can begin to think about building more diversity and more redundancy into the system, so that we have more flexibility to respond to whatever comes along.

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Peter: Tom Philpott at Mother Jones has outlined three challenges for the sustainable food movement. I’d like you to comment briefly on each of them. First is soil fertility. How can we maintain soil fertility on a larger scale without synthetically produced fertilizers?

Fred: We have to start designing for soil health now, so that the soil becomes essentially self-renewing, self-regulating. One of the primary strategies that farmers are using now is a diversity of cover crops, which regenerates the biological activity in the soil.

"We have to diversify the food system if we’re going to diversify agriculture."

One farmer is quoted as saying that before he started managing for soil health, his soil had the capacity to absorb only a half inch of rainfall per hour before it would start running off. After he had restored his soil with these new ways of soil management, it was capable of storing eight inches of rain per hour.

The good news here is that while a lot of our traditional soil scientists are not yet talking much about soil health, we now have [farm equipment manufacturer] John Deere’s Furrow magazine, which has devoted a whole issue to soil health! Every single article is about soil health and about what farmers and soil scientists are doing to restore soil to health. For John Deere to take a lead on this in their magazine, when many of our land-grant universities still aren’t paying attention, is to me quite remarkable.

Peter: And how long does this remediation of the soil take?

Fred: It depends on what shape your soil is in to begin with, but generally it’ll be around three to five years before you see significant differences. But if you think about it, if your soil has gone from absorbing a half-inch of rainfall in an hour to eight inches of rainfall, then that means your soil has the capacity to absorb and retain more moisture, so it’s more resilient in drought circumstances. It also means you have less runoff and less erosion, and you also have less leaching, less nitrogen going down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico. So there are enormous benefits from this.

Peter: The second challenge that Philpott lays out is labor: Sustainable farming requires “more hands on the ground,” as he puts it. So how do you see the U.S. getting more workers in the fields, working for fair wages?

Fred: For me, that’s about labor in the larger sense. It’s about the number of farmers, not just the number of farm workers. Every five years, the USDA has an agriculture census, and they report the difference between the previous five years and the new data. So between 2002 and 2007, according to the census, we had an increase from 2.1 million to 2.2 million farmers.

"We have to do everything we can to enable this new generation of young people to actually become farmers."

Now, the problem with that is the definition the USDA is using to define a farm. When you think about 2.2 million farmers, the public thinks, “Well, that means 2.2 million people have a farmstead and are running a farm.” And that’s not at all the case. The definition the USDA is still using is one established in 1947. According to that definition, a farm is any place that produces $1,000 in gross [agricultural] sales, or would have produced $1,000 in gross sales had it maximized its full production capacity.

Mike Duffy at Iowa State University has been complaining about this definition for a long time because it’s not communicating to the public what’s actually happening to our farm population. When that report came out in 2007, there was only one journalist that picked up on the real issue, and it was because she had talked to Mike Duffy. That was Lisa Hamilton. She wrote an op-ed in the Prairie Writer’s Circle back then. According to Duffy’s statistics, as of 2007, 75 percent of our total agriculture sales were produced by just 192,442 farms. Thirty percent of our farmers were over age 65, and only 6 percent were under age 35.

Now, when you push those kinds of data, you can’t go very far into the future before you run into a big human capital problem. Where are the farmers going to come from, particularly as we face these new challenges with climate change, and so on? So that’s an issue we have to address.

The good-news side of this is that we have this new generation of young people across the country who want to farm—they’re in that late teens to early thirties age group. I’m connected with the Stone Barns Center out in New York now, and we have a young farmer program out there. These young people are amazing. They are very smart, they know the challenges they’re going to face, they know it’s going to be hard work, but they’re passionate about raising food for people. They’re not interested in doing corn and beans; they want to have that connection with the people they raised the food for. That’s an incredible gift of human capital that we have now.

The challenge is that they need access to land, they need access to affordable capital to invest in the resources they need to be farmers, and they need the kind of markets where they can get returns from farming so they can pay off their investment and have a decent life. That’s all they’re asking for. And those are all things we can address. We can address some of them in public policy. Increasingly, we’re finding that we can address them through community relationships—the CSAs are one way in which that is being done.

"I think the market infrastructure is going to start changing when the current market system no longer works."

But this is something that we must address, because, as [author] Richard Heinberg has projected, by the year 2040, [the United States is] going to need 40 to 50 million people to produce our food in one way or another. So we get 75 percent of our total agriculture sales from less than a quarter of a million farmers, and we need to get to 40 to 50 million. That’s a pretty big jump. So we have to do everything we can to enable this new generation of young people to actually become farmers and begin to fill that void.

The other bit of good news is the emergence of urban agriculture, where this new generation is not looking for a thousand acres, they’re looking for four or five acres, you know, to grow a lot of vegetables to be a part of that food source for local farmer’s markets and regional food systems. Also, there’s the whole concept of “food hubs” or “food sheds,” where you have these regional communities of food citizens. There’s a program called Food Commons—they’ve got two communities, one in Fresno and one in Atlanta, Ga., that want to become prototypes and show how this can be done on a local level.

So there’s a lot of good things happening, but we don’t have a lot of time. If Heinberg is correct—and I don’t know if he is—we’ve only got 50 years to so to make this transition.

Peter: Philpott’s third challenge is access: In an economy built on long-term wage stagnation, how can we move toward making sustainably grown food accessible to everyone?

Fred Kirschenmann

Fred: That’s a great question. There have been four reports that have come out of the U.N. the last five years: “Agriculture at the Crossroads,” “Agroecology and the Right to Food,” “Save and Grow,” and “Toward the Future We Walk.” All four are basically saying the same thing, and that is that simply intensifying agriculture in one part of the world to feed the rest of the world is not going to solve the problem.

What we have to do is work with people, especially small-holder farmers and women, in their own communities and give them the information that they need to develop self-sustaining agro-ecological systems. I don’t want to be self-promoting here, but I wrote a column for The Leopold Center that goes into this. Another article, an amazing article in YES! by Frances Moore-Lappé about women in India, is a perfect example of the kind of thing the U.N. reports were talking about.

It’s that “right to food” approach. You’re not saying, “Well, gee, we’ve got hungry people over there—we have to figure out how to feed them,” which continues to make them dependent. We have to figure out a way to give them the resources they need to feed themselves and empower them.

Peter: You’ve written much on the idea that a multitude of organisms is essential to healthy soil, and to producing good food in a sustainable way. How can modern farms incorporate more biodiversity?

Fred: Matt Leibman, a weed ecologist at Iowa State University, has done research over nine years comparing a typical two-crop rotation in Iowa—usually corn and soybeans, or sometimes continuous corn—and that system supported with synthetic inputs. So that’s four acres in this eight-acre research plot. He compared that two-crop rotation with a three-crop rotation—corn and beans with a small grain and red clover, with a lot of livestock manure—and then a four-crop rotation, which is corn and beans, a small grain, and alfalfa, followed by a second year of alfalfa. He has demonstrated that in the three- and four-crop rotation, you can reduce pesticide use by almost 90 percent, your fertilizer use by almost 90 percent, and the return to land that farmers get for each unit of labor is actually slightly higher than in the two-crop rotation.

So this raises an interesting question: Why wouldn’t farmers make this transition, if it has so many benefits? The answer is that the market infrastructure doesn’t support that kind of diversity. That’s a big problem. You know, you go to a farmer in Iowa—and I’ve done this—and say, “You’ve got all these benefits, why wouldn’t you do this?” And the first thing the farmers say is, “What the hell am I going to do with the alfalfa? I can’t take it to the local elevator and sell it.” So the farmers are under pressure to produce as much corn and soybeans as possible, and that’s what they’re going to do.

"There’s a lot of good things happening, but we don’t have a lot of time."

I’m not terribly optimistic that simply demonstrating how this is a better way to do it is going to change things. I think the market infrastructure is going to start changing when the current market system no longer works.

A good example is this: Given the drought that we’ve had in the Midwest, ranchers have had to sell some of their breeding stock because they didn’t have enough hay and pasture to keep the animals. That means there are now fewer calves coming into the marketplace, so the feedlots that have been receiving those calves aren’t getting enough to sustain their economic situation. That shows you just one example of how vulnerable this highly specialized food system that we have is.

As energy costs go up, I think we’re going to see these systems break down, and then we’re going to look for these alternatives that Leibman has been researching. We know the kinds of benefits we get from healthy soil and the resilience that goes with it. But you’re not going to see huge numbers of farmers adopting this until the other system doesn’t work for them, or for the market. We have to diversify the food system if we’re going to diversify agriculture.

Peter: What is most exciting to you about sustainable agriculture today? Any promising trends or ideas cropping up?

Fred: The culture that currently drives our agriculture and food system is the same culture that drives the rest of our industrial economy. It emphasizes maximum efficient production over the short term. So whether you’re manufacturing automobiles or computers or food, that’s what you do. And how do you do that? You specialize and increase efficiency. You simplify your management, so that it becomes more efficient, and you go for economies of scale.

The problem with that is it only works if you’ve got all of those resources to maintain that maximum-efficiency production. It creates a very brittle system, because, you know, in Iowa now, for example, 92 percent of our cultivated land is just two crops: corn and soybeans. So you need a climate that’s consistently favoring corn and soybeans, you need cheap energy, and so on. When all of that starts to disappear, it becomes a vulnerable system. It doesn’t adapt well to change.

I think we’re still in the early stages of moving in the right direction for sustainable agriculture. I think it’s fair to say that the majority of people engaged in it are still looking at it in terms of making the current system a little less bad. But what we have to do is to move beyond that.

What I am enthusiastic about is that we now have the Resilience Alliance group, the Ecological Economic Society—these are the early efforts that are starting to bubble up. I think that as we start to meet more and more of the actual day-to-day challenges in real life, we’ll be looking more and more to those resources, and how we can expand and adapt them to our actual enterprises.


Peter Pearsall wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Peter is an online reporting intern at YES! and a freelance science writer.

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