California farmin': chemical-free

DICK HARTER is not your typical farmer. When weeds start to choke his carefully groomed rice paddies, for instance, he doesn't reach for a chemical herbicide. Instead, the burly Californian tries to figure out what combination of water and chicken manure will keep them under control naturally.

The fragrant mixture fertilizes the fields and helps snuff weeds, but it doesn't harm the wading birds that live in the paddy. Mr. Harter stopped using most pesticides 20 years ago, because he worried about what they were doing to the environment.

``My real love is the wildlife - farming is secondary to it.''

Harter represents a small but growing movement within American agriculture which is finding alternatives to chemical pesticides. It's estimated that there are between 30,000 and 40,000 farms in the United States that use little or no pesticides.

They go by various names, such as ``organic'' or ``natural'' farms.

Some are more radical than others. For instance, purists insist that using animal manure as fertilizer introduces chemicals indirectly - from the foods used to feed the animals. In most states, however, laws define organic foods as those that do not have man-made chemicals applied directly to them or the soil they're grown in.

Totally pure or not, business is booming. Consumers have grown more concerned about chemical residues on foods. Once the province of ferny health-food stores, a number of regional supermarket chains have begun labeling fruits and vegetables that qualify as organic.

One California chain is even setting up its own laboratory to test produce for purity.

The premium on these foods is high. Harter's organic rice earns him about twice as much per sack as the conventionally grown competition. It's a necessary advantage, he says, since he yields only half as much per acre.

Indeed, economics remains the Achilles' heel of organic farming. American agriculture has grown to rely on chemicals - and the plentiful harvests they ensure.

Harter says he turns a small profit on his ranch, but only with the help of ``auxiliary'' activities, such as the annual fee from a quail hunting club that uses his land every autumn. The hunters release captive quail, then hunt until they've taken 80 percent of those released.

He also raises commercial kiwi fruit. The odd-looking fruit, an import from New Zealand, fetch handsome prices.

But it's the natural world that motivates Harter. Cruising along beside his flooded fields in a battered Nissan pickup, he proudly points out cranes, hawks, and even a lonely jack rabbit. Only about a third of his 900-acre ranch is devoted to growing crops. Vast stretches are left in natural ground cover, which is ideal for nesting birds and other small animals.

All of this hasn't made Harter particularly popular with his neighbors. Nearby growers complain about the birds and insects that wander over from Harter's land.

Advocates of chemical pesticides say organic farmers sometimes draw indirect benefits from their neighbors who use chemicals.

Chemical-using farms may ``depress some of the insect populations,'' says Jack Early, president of the National Agricultural Chemicals Association.

A fourth-generation Californian with deep roots in this rural region of the Sacramento Valley, Harter joined the family farm after World War II. At first, he says, he was delighted with chemical pesticides. He even designed some of his own spraying equipment in the 1950s.

``To be able to kill the weeds and bugs, but not the crop, seemed like a pretty wonderful thing,'' he says. ``It meant more money.''

But he also saw the devastating impact the chemicals had on the region's environment. Many of the early pesticides had troubling side effects on wildlife. Chemicals such as the now-banned DDT, for example, tended to accumulate in animal tissues and hindered reproduction in some birds.

During the 1960s, Harter began experimenting with organic farming. But breaking away from chemicals was difficult. Harter says one of the problems for organic farmers is the lack of information on how to get started.

Much of today's university-based agricultural research is oriented toward serving the needs of mainstream farmers - who rely on chemicals.

Some resources are opening up, however. Several states, including California, have established research programs that focus on alternative farming techniques.

Organic farmers also have an image problem, stemming from the movement's early development during the ``back to the earth'' fad of the 1960s. ``Many people still think of us as kooks or hippies,'' Harter says. ``They don't realize that we're here to stay.''

Those familiar with chemical-free farming say it is as much a philosophy as a way of doing business.

``We share things with the birds and insects,'' Harter says. ``But, on the other hand, we aren't devastated by things like box-elder bugs and scale and mites and so many things that other people spend so much money on to control. We've established natural balances.''

Meanwhile, Harter doesn't reject all aspects of modern technology.

His rice-farming equipment includes a sophistocated laser-controlled measuring device that allows him to plow level rice paddies.

Level ground is best for rice, since it allows water depth to be carefully regulated across the entire field.

``There's got to be a way to use the best of what's modern,'' says Harter, ``without disrupting the natural world. That's what I'm searching for.''

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