DEXTER, MICH. — Paul Guenther's business address is also his boyhood home. With his wife, Gwen, and his two daughters, he works the land his father began farming 40 years ago. Their family roots are firmly planted in the soil of southeastern Michigan.
But even though Mr. Guenther is cautious by nature and concerned primarily with the bottom line, his farming operation is far from conservative. By the current standard of agriculture in America, Guenther is a revolutionary.
After attending seminars, reading reports, and consulting with a variety of experts, Guenther met a group called Farm for Profit that encourages farmers to use more environmentally sound agricultural products and methods. He has become a persuasive voice in Washtenaw County, Mich., for what is termed low-input sustainable agriculture.
Just as Guenther spends a great deal of time preaching change, he also devotes himself to its practice. On an average day, he works from dawn until past sunset, managing livestock, working on machinery, and tending to his fields. He takes pride in his ability to determine the health of his soil by the smell of it, the number of worms a handful contains, or how fast it soaks up rain water. Often working on his hands and knees, he tinkers with a wide variety of experimental farming techniques. "I've turned
my whole farm into a test plot," he says.
One of his more elaborate trials has been growing a variety of crops organically, without chemicals. So far, the experiment has proved to be profitable and soil-friendly, but Guenther says his production has been hampered by the lack of an established distribution system for organic goods. He must contact retailers himself and deliver their orders in his own less-than-reliable trucks.
As a result of this difficulty, Guenther says he lowered his organic production last year from 7 percent to 1 percent of his 700-acre crop. "I'd like to go organic," he says. "It's not that I don't believe it can be done, but it's tough to make contacts."
While Guenther concedes that he can only adapt a small percentage of his experiments to the whole farm, he says his efforts to improve his land stewardship have lifted an added burden from his conscience.
"I think it's important to spread the word about these techniques," he says. "If we all pitch in a little bit, it adds up to a lot. I'm concerned about the kind of world we're giving our children."