LISA's Newfound Luster

More farmers are looking into low-input sustainable agriculture. CHEMICAL-FREE FARMING

FARMERS didn't beat the door down when Ron Krupicka came to Nebraska preaching the need for environmentally sound agriculture. Now, 13 years later, that's changing. Farmers are eyeing LISA with new interest. LISA stands for low-input, sustainable agriculture, which emphasizes natural farming methods instead of artificial fertilizers and pesticides.

``The changes that have occurred in the last couple years are beyond my wildest dreams,'' says Mr. Krupicka, who heads the Sustainable Agriculture Project here in Hartington, Neb., which is part of the Center for Rural Affairs.

Two county agricultural officials in the area have looked into LISA. This summer one of them gave a farm tour that included two farms working with the Sustainable Agriculture Project. Local and university vocational-education officials have asked Krupicka's help in developing a sustainable-agriculture curriculum for vocational high schools.

On the national level, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has called 1989 the ``year of sustainable agriculture'' and next year's farm legislation ``the Farm Bill for Sustainability.''

Despite this new-found interest, acceptance will not come easily - either in the halls of Congress or out here in the Midwest.

``It will assuredly be an intense debate,'' says Clayton Yeutter, US secretary of agriculture and a Nebraska farmer. ``It's not that farmers would resist the argument that we ought to do what is necessary to protect the environment of this nation. ... But at the same time, we also have to be cognizant of the need for farmers to make a living.''

The joke about LISA around the American Farm Bureau Federation is that it stands for low-income, sustainable agriculture.

``We really don't have many answers in this area,'' says Terry Francl, a Farm Bureau economist. Thus, the 1990 farm bill should increase funding for more LISA research but avoid forcing farmers to carry out practices that would make them uncompetitive with the rest of the world, he says.

Krupicka says the combination of the recent farm crisis and a growing realization of the environmental threat of farm chemicals has spawned the new interest.

When a columnist for Successful Farming magazine wrote on the subject earlier this year, he saw farmers being wooed in three directions: by LISA, by HILLA (high-input, low-labor agriculture, with lots of machinery, fertilizers, and chemicals), and a middle road he called MISA (medium-input, sustainable agriculture). Since HILLA is too expensive and LISA is too much work for too little return, he opted for MISA in his column.

Farmer Gary Young in nearby McLean, Neb., thinks differently.

``This year I'm going to come out ahead of the neighbors,'' says Mr. Young, after a walk through one of his weedy but productive cornfields. He has been practicing LISA for 20 years.

``There's been years where the neighbors come out ahead of me,'' he says. ``But when you figure over a period of years, it'll take and all average out. And I've got a much better lifestyle, a more relaxed lifestyle. I can enjoy my kids more. I sure don't need to hassle with chemicals.''

LISA represents a big change in farming practices.

For example: Young never uses pesticides as a preventative measure. Weeds in a field, anathema to a conventional farmer, don't bother him. Instead of a conventional rotation among corn, soybeans, and in this part of the Midwest, milo, Young raises alfalfa and oats as well in an eight-year rotation scheme.

These crops diversify his operation, feed his cattle, and put nitrogen back into the soil, which in turn fertilizes his corn. These crops also keep down the weeds. In a normal year, as opposed to this year's drought, Young says his yield per acre might fall 10 to 20 bushels short of a conventional farm, but his costs are much lower, since he spends far less on pesticides and fertilizer.

Chemical companies stand to lose a huge chunk of farm business should LISA really take hold.

A move to LISA, however, would require big changes in farm programs, Krupicka says. Current programs force farmers to grow a certain amount of corn each year.

If they don't, they lose or reduce their corn base, which determines the potential size of their federal subsidy.

``You need to have a rotation occurring. And you can't have that and have simply a corn base that you're fearful of losing. Otherwise you will continue to mine the soil with corn and corn will become the cotton of the Midwest,'' he says.

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