Moments of Crisis, Moments of Grace: A Farm Legacy Letter from North Dakota
A Farm Legacy Letter from PFI member Fred Kirschenmann:
My father and mother started farming in South-Central North Dakota when they got married in 1930. They originally had 500 acres that they rented and eventually bought. As land became available, they added additional acres to the farm. When I moved back to the farm in 1976, the farm was 2,500 acres. We bought another three-quarter section after I started farming. At its largest, the farm was 3,500 acres, with approximately 900 acres of that in native prairies, used for animal grazing and the rest cropped acres.
My parents’ farm was highly diversified. We raised wheat, rye and barley, plus oats to feed the horses. There was not a lot of alfalfa back then. We had beef cattle, ducks, guinea hens, chickens and some pigs. We also had dairy for our own use and sold cream to a creamery in Bismarck. Our egg enterprise was my mother’s; she used the income to buy groceries. Back then, you could take eggs into the grocery store to sell them.
The Dust Bowl, with its huge winds and soil erosion, had an enormous effect on the Northern Plains. My father somehow understood, intuitively, that the Dust Bowl was not just about the weather (which most of his neighbors assumed) but that it was also about the way farmers farmed. So he began to plant trees, and to keep fields relatively small and arranged in crop rotations so they were not as exposed to the wind. “It was Roosevelt who taught us how to farm because of his soil erosion programs,” he said, even though he was a Republican!
After World War II when fertilizers became available in North Dakota, my father started to hear about how they could increase yields. He was intrigued since he wanted to be the best wheat farmer in Stutsman County, but his passion for “taking care of the land” worried him because he wondered if applying the fertilizer would hurt his soils. He talked to his county Extension agent and other farmers whose judgment he valued, and everyone told him the fertilizer would just add nutrients, so he decided to start applying it. Wheat was the best cash crop and adding fertilizer increased yields without crop rotations so he started to raise more wheat. Then he had more weeds because of the reduced crop rotation. Then he started using herbicides to take care of the weeds.
My father was insistent I get as much education as I could, because he had been denied that. He only went through sixth grade, and he thought that if he had been allowed to go to school longer he would have been a better farmer. So I got a Ph.D. and started a career in higher education. It was during those years that I met David Vetter, a Nebraska farmer and student of mine. He introduced me to organic agriculture. His passion was to get more people to manage their soils better. He showed me the difference between organically managed and conventionally managed soil, and how farming organically could improve soil health.
The first summer after I met David, I showed my father photos comparing conventional versus organic soils. “Now it’s clear to me what the problem is,” my dad said. “I’ve noticed that earthworms have been disappearing.” A neighbor who had never bought into the fertilizer application scenario–instead he maintained a crop rotation that included yellow blossom sweet clover as a cover crop–had gotten ill and asked my father to rent his land from him on a crop share basis, which required that my father keep the crop harvested from the neighbor’s land separate. The test weight and protein levels of the wheat harvested from the neighbor’s land were always higher than that harvested from our land. It had been an annoying mystery; now my father concluded that it had to be the difference in the quality of the soil.
So I asked my father if he would consider converting our farm to an organic farm. My dad was 68 years old at the time, and decided he was too old to take on an “altogether different kind of farming.” In 1976 he had a mild heart attack, and his doctor said he could still be a farmer but that he had to get out of the stress of managing the farm. I spent some time with him during his recovery and asked him what he was going to do. He told me he was going to find someone to manage the farm for him. He was a Russian-German, who had stern ideas and I knew hiring a stranger to manage his farm for him was not likely to work out very well. I had a big organic garden, and had done research on organic farming and became increasingly intrigued by the concept. So my family and I decided to leave higher education and return to North Dakota to convert the farm to an organic operation.
By the time I came back, my father, like most of his neighbors, had begun to specialize. Wheat was his major crop. He still had some sheep, but the animal part of the farm was mostly a cow-calf operation.
I started to make some changes, experimenting with diverse crop rotations. My neighbors thought I was going to take my father’s farm from success to failure. Neighbors rarely tell you things directly, but they tell other neighbors. Eventually their concerns were communicated to me. “His father worked so hard all his life to create a successful farm and now his son is going to ruin it.”
Initially my crop rotation included wheat, winter rye, flax, buckwheat, millet and alfalfa. It became clear early on that a legume in the rotation was essential. I fed the cattle the alfalfa during the winter months, and alfalfa plus the composted manure accumulated during the winter months restored the health of the soil for crop production. Later I added canola. I alternated cool and warm season crops to help suppress weeds and disease.
900 acres of the farm continues to be reserved as native prairie, which we use for grazing our animals from Spring to Fall. This is land that has never been plowed and as long as I own it, it won’t be.
During the first couple of years while the crop lands were transitioned to organic, the crops didn’t always look that good. Once I figured out the rotation, my crops looked better or as good as the neighbors did with fertilizer. Eventually some neighbors became intrigued enough to explore farming organically for themselves. However, because government subsidies only applied to a few commodity crops and none for many of the crops essential to the rotation–plus the risks involved in the transition–most, understandably, never made the change.
My father’s health continued to make it impossible for him to be fully engaged in the farming operation so I hired a young man out of high school to join the farm and he supplied some of the labor for several years. Eventually he got married and decided to begin farming on his own.
I usually stopped by the local gas station on Sundays where Steve Sund, who was a tree surgeon, occasionally worked at the gas station. One Sunday, shortly after our hired help left the farm, Steve told me he his father was retiring, and his two older brothers both wanted to farm, and his father had decided that their farm couldn’t support three sons. “I’ve always wanted to be a farmer but now I can’t be one,” he said. So I said, “Steve, I have a farm.” We talked and within five minutes we had a deal. And Steve and his family joined our farm.
By July of 2000, when I was invited to become the second director of the Leopold Center in Iowa, I was able to accept that opportunity because by then Steve and his family were able to take over the day-to-day operations of the farm.
Steve wouldn’t be farming if he couldn’t do it organically. His oldest son has now taken over the beef operation. The family also raises draft horses, quarter horses and chickens. I always go up top North Dakota between Christmas and New Year’s to file our farm’s taxes, and sometimes we go out to dinner together. One year, during dinner, one of Steve’s six-year old sons told me he was especially excited about their donkeys. I said, “Donkeys?” He said, “Yes, and we sell them on the internet to sheep ranchers in the western Dakotas for predator control.”
When my father planned his estate, he operated on the assumption that our farm was a “family farm” and would always remain a family farm, and he put the farm in my sister’s and my name equally. He also requested that if we both decided some day to quit farming, he wanted the land to go to his grandchildren. But when my sister turned 80, she decided she wanted out, so we had to partition the farm four years ago. My current portion is about 1,900 acres, and the 900 acres of native prairie still belongs to me.
A lesson I learned in this process is that one should never operate on assumptions. If I had not assumed that my sister would always remain part of the farm, we would have developed a plan for ownership transition: In case one of us wants to get out, what is our plan for doing that? But we didn’t so we had problems.
The good news, from my perspective, is that once the farm was reduced in size, Steve said “I think we could take it over now.” They aren’t in a position to, or want to, buy the land and the buildings, but they are in the process of buying the equipment and starting to make all of the operation decisions. They continue to maintain it as an organic, biodynamic farm.
I treat Steve like family. To make this transition successfully, both he and I recognize that we need to really want to do this and work together to come up with creative and practical transition proposals. If either of us decided we only were doing it for the money, it would never work.
In the last 25 years, a number of things have happened that influenced what we can grow on our farm. Sunflowers are a warm season, leafy crop that fit perfectly into the crop rotation in our part of North Dakota. But we had to give up sunflowers because of blackbird predation. When all of our neighbors also raised sunflowers, the blackbirds were dispersed among all of our fields, and we could all live with some loss. But as seed companies started to produce earlier maturing varieties of corn and soybeans, and government subsidies for corn and beans far exceeded any subsidies for wheat and sunflowers, farmers quit growing sunflowers and consequently the blackbirds were all in my fields. As a result, by the mid-1990s, when I was the only farmer in our neighborhood who was still growing sunflowers, I began to lose 60 percent of my sunflower crop to the birds.
We also had to give up canola. Canola is, of course, an insect-pollinated crop, and when our neighbors started planting Roundup Ready canola, a two-mile buffer was required to prevent cross-pollination. Our neighbors were always respectful of our farming methods and they would always tell me where they were going to plant their canola, and we could plant ours in the rotation at least two miles from their fields. However, eventually Roundup Ready canola became so popular there was no way to achieve a two-mile buffer. 1993 was the last year we raised canola. That change resulted in a $50,000 annual loss in income to our farm since there was a co-op in our area that processed our canola into organic canola oil, which was in huge demand in California.
Buckwheat was always an important crop in our rotation. Early on almost all of our organic grains were exported to Europe. Now we sell mostly in the United States. But buckwheat has never been used much as a food crop in the U.S., European farmers apparently figured out they could raise buckwheat for the markets in Europe so it has become difficult to market buckwheat.
So now the basic crops on my farm are winter rye, hard red spring wheat, some barley, golden flax and alfalfa. Our golden biodynamic flax is still in big demand in Europe, but in 2014 our flax sample contained .075 glyphosate contamination and the tolerance level in Europe is zero, which was my market. So we lost that market. Fortunately we have been able to find a market for golden organic flax in the U.S. where tolerance levels are higher. But it is probably only a matter of time before contamination reaches tolerance levels in the U.S. as well. Since we currently get more than a 50 percent premium for organic golden flax compared to conventional prices, that will be another serious loss to our farm.
I love the principle of coexistence. I believe that all farmers should be free to farm the way they want and that we all cooperate and that organic and conventional farming should be compatible. But you can’t fence out a part of nature, so there will likely increasingly be a problem.
For me the core value instilled in me by my father continues to be what guides my farming decisions. I can still see my father lecturing me when I was five years old, reminding me that “taking care of land is more important than making money, more important than anything else.” Years later, film makers created a video about our farm called My Father’s Garden. One of the scenes in that video was of my father and me standing behind a field cultivator. He was looking at the soil, pointing out how porous and rich it was, and reminding me that if the way we farmed now produced such soil, then that was all that mattered. Such moments continue to be significant for me.
My principal goal is that my farm be farmed like nature. I want my farm to be regenerative, and resilient so that the soil’s synergies are renewed and the resilient properties of biodiversity are increased. My ecologic goals are more important than economic ones. If the farm is not regenerative, it will not be economically viable, especially as all of the cheap inputs on which agriculture has become dependent, become depleted.
I prefer that the farmland is owned by my family in the future. But my ecologic goal trumps this wish.
I am abiding by the wishes of my father, and the land is being transferred to my son and daughter. They share my values, and they want it farmed organically as well. Indeed, ownership of the quarter section where my daughter lives has already been transferred to her.
Can a case be made for a conservation easement on my farm? If there were any doubt of the values of my children, I would go in that direction. But when you make decisions based on the current understanding of reality, you may not get to your end result 50 years from now. It was much more important to have the passion and commitment of my children.
One of my passions now is to try and think about sustainability and the design of our future agricultural and food systems. As challenging as some of the transition from conventional to organic is, that transition is simple compared to the challenges farmers are going to face when crude oil is $300 a barrel and rock phosphate, essential to conventional farmers, is $2,500 a ton rather than the $700 a ton it is now. And by most estimates we only have about 20 years of rock phosphate reserves left in the U.S. We are depleting our fresh water resources, and our climate is becoming more unstable.
On my North Dakota farm, Steve and I are thinking about these challenges and how we can have a farm that is “sustainable” 20 years from now. We cannot operate by the old playbook.
In The Great Work, Thomas Berry reminds us that moments of crisis are always moments of grace. We tend not to make changes until we feel the pain of our current operations. I suspect we will have a lot of moments of grace in our future! I am not that worried about my farm going non-organic with future generations. As energy and input costs increase, the way it is farmed now will become the basis for a practical strategy. As Sir Albert Howard reminded us almost 80 years ago, when we farm in nature’s image we will realize that: ”Mother Earth never attempts to farm without livestock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to preserve the soil and to prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; ample provision is made to maintain large reserves of fertility; the greatest care is taken to store the rain-fall. . . “. Those will be the given practical approach on my farm and, I suspect, on many others.
–Fred Kirschenmann, Medina, North Dakota