Sustainable agriculture - where soil conservation and organic farming meet

PAUL DRENCKHAHN points beyond the buildings on his Minnesota dairy farm toward the valley below. He's seen lots of changes in that valley since he came to this farm nearly a half-century ago. ``There used to be a bridge down there,'' he says. ``You could ride a horse underneath it, wearing any style hat you wanted, and not worry about it getting knocked off. But if that bridge were there today, it would be completely buried.''

It would have been buried, Mr. Drenckhahn says, by soil that eroded from nearby slopes and hilltops and settled in the valley. He's seen firsthand what happens when people don't take care of the soil.

Today, Drenckhahn is a strong advocate for what is known as sustainable farming, a relatively new concept that blends soil conservation practices - which aren't so new, but have frequently been abandoned owing to economic pressures of recent years - and elements of organic farming.

As a result, Drenckhahn says, he has built up his soil quality over the years.

``This year was a real test,'' he says. ``The longer you've been building up the humus in your soil, the more able you are to go through a drought with less stress. The soil has more tilth and can hold water better.'' He says he got corn yields last summer of 130 bushels an acre, compared with neighbors' yields of 50 to 90 bushels an acre.

Sustainable farming differs from organic farming, notes Ron Kroese, director of the Land Stewardship Project in Stillwater, Minn., which assists farmers in making the transition to sustainable farming.

``Organic farming has an expectation of stringency that we're trying to get away from, because it turns off a lot of farmers,'' Mr. Kroese explains. ``Sustainable farming implies more tolerance. For example, someone who's still using chemicals, but trying to cut back on them, qualifies as practicing sustainable farming.''

Sustainable farming is based on working with nature, rather than combating it. It includes such practices as rotating crops and planting cover crops to replenish the soil, control weeds, and prevent erosion; applying animal manures on fields as fertilizer; and reducing - or even eliminating - the use of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers.

Those methods are put into practice on the Land Stewardship Project's demonstration farm, an hour's drive from Minneapolis/St. Paul.

The farm, donated by the Wilder Foundation, ``gives us some land underneath our rhetoric,'' says Kroese, as he waves an arm out toward 100 acres of field and pasture land.

``Our primary audience here is the urban person,'' Kroese explains. ``With a diminishing farm population, it's clear that if we're going to get agricultural policies that make sense and are sensitive to the land and small farmers, we have to have an informed urban constituency to back us up.''

While the project strives to educate Twin Cities urbanites through the demonstration farm, it also works directly with farmers 100 miles away in the small, rural community of Lewiston. The Stewardship Farming Program grew out of an earlier program that worked with farmers on soil conservation. ``But what farmers started talking about besides soil erosion was their concern about ground water and their use of chemicals,'' says Doug Nopar of the Lewiston staff.

Mr. Nopar and other staff work closely with 25 area farm families who are practicing sustainable farming. Beyond that, about 60 area farm families formed an independent organization, the Sustainable Farming Association, to share information.

Drenckhahn is one of the farmers in the program. He hasn't used herbicides and pesticides for about 20 years. The only chemical he still uses is a starter fertilizer he applies at spring planting.

Drenckhahn clearly has no fondness for the chemicals so widely and heavily used by area farmers. ``I wish people could understand the damage they're doing to the soil,'' he says. ``I remember something my dad said years ago. He was one of the first around here to plant in contours [to cut soil erosion]. Once he saw what contours did, he said, `We should have been doing this 20 years ago.'''

One day, says Drenckhahn, people may say the same thing about cutting chemical use. ``We're seeing things get worse in the ground water; that stuff won't break down. It just keeps going down and down into the ground.''

While Drenckhahn has used few chemicals for two decades, Bob Goss has just started looking at reducing chemicals. Mr. Goss came back to the family farm 11 years ago, after a stint in the service. He's the third generation of his family to work his land.

``I grew up in the conventional system,'' he says. ``I thought that was the way to go. I was told that was the way to go by the chemical dealers and the university - the system that tells you how to farm. Sure, you get higher yields, but at the end of the year you don't have any more money left. The yield is really irrelevant - it's how much you make on an acre that matters.'' When he was farming conventionally, Goss says, ``It was nothing to spend $10,000 a year on chemicals.''

Besides economic reasons, Goss cites environmental concerns and the need to recognize a land ethic. ``We've got to leave something here for the next generation and the ones after that,'' he says. ``We can't just farm this like it's a mine, and run it till it's gone.''

So while Goss was, in his own words, ``strictly conventional'' two years ago, last year he reduced his chemical use, cutting herbicides 75 percent by applying at a lower rate and by banding - that is, applying only in crop furrows, rather than spraying an entire field.

While Goss is still among only a minority of proponents of sustainable farming, he says things are changing. ``People are seeing that what they're doing isn't working,'' he says. ``All of the guys who are farming are having financial problems. Maybe they're afraid to change - everyone is. But I knew if I didn't change, things were going to get a lot worse.''

It will, however, take more than willingness to change on the part of the farmers themselves. Current agricultural policies often hinder, rather than help, farmers who want to shift to sustainable farming, according to Kroese. And government financial support has been minuscule, with only $4 million allocated this year for sustainable-farming programs nationwide. ``In Washington, that's just pocket dust,'' says Kroese.

``People have to start to realize that our whole life is based on six inches of topsoil,'' says Goss. ``Everything we do stems from that.''

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