ON a cool Michigan morning, Paul Guenther walks through his fields of corn, soybeans, wheat, and alfalfa. He pokes at his crops, digs up weeds, and searches for signs of insects. Crouching down, he pulls up a handful of rich black topsoil and sifts through it with his fingers. "I know people who don't even see their fields between planting and harvest time," he says, examining the soil. "I'm not like that."
Eight seasons ago, Mr. Guenther noticed his fields had begun to dry and harden. Convinced that his use of synthetic chemicals was responsible, he reduced his application of pesticides and fertilizer by 75 percent and began experimenting with agricultural methods designed to improve soil quality. Last year, the test weights of his grains reached the highest levels he'd ever seen - an indication of heartier plants.
"You've got to raise healthy crops in healthy soil before you do anything else," Guenther says. "Since I cut my use of chemicals, I've seen an increase in biological activity in my soil. It continues to get rid of the toxic residues we've left behind."
Guenther attributes his success to his adoption of low-input sustainable agriculture (LISA). First introduced in the 1985 Farm Bill, the LISA program encourages farmers to pursue a two-sided strategy for their field crops: To drastically reduce chemical use and to plant cover crops, rotate crops, manage pests with natural predators, and practice conservation tillage. These methods are intended to curb erosion, protect crops, restore natural nutrients to the soil, and reverse the accumulation of toxins in
fields and farm ecosystems.
Recent research by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) indicates that low-input sustainable agriculture may be gaining momentum.
According to the USDA, farmers in some areas of the Midwest more than doubled their use of conservation tillage on fields of corn and soybeans between 1991 and 1992. Also, farmers reported using some form of conservation tillage on 31 percent of their total 1992 crop acreage.
But USDA estimates also project that American farmers will apply some form of chemical additive to 97 percent of this year's corn crop. And they will use nearly 20 million tons of synthetic fertilizer, and 472 million pounds of pesticides. Traces of agricultural chemicals have been found in the water of at least 40 states.
With these figures in mind, critics of chemical farming have embraced LISA as a farming system that reduces environmental pollution. "The fact is that any emission of chemicals into the soil is going to have some bad effects," says Barry Commoner, an ecologist at the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems in New York. "What we have to strive for is zero."
In 1974, Dr. Commoner concluded a five-year study that tracked 14 comparable Midwestern farms, seven of which applied chemicals to their crops and another seven that did not. His data showed that harvest yields for chemical-free farms were lower than yields on conventional farms.
But the study also found that revenues for both types of farm were nearly equal, because conventional farmers spent a large portion of their revenues paying off loans they took out to buy chemicals.
Commoner says that although these findings were "viciously attacked" initially, recent follow-ups - including a 1991 National Academy of Sciences study - reached a similar conclusion: The relationship between chemical usage and farm revenue may be negligible. Government action
As a result of these studies and mounting evidence of the presence of agricultural chemicals in human food, as well as in soil and water, federal policymakers have begun to consider chemical-reduction mandates.
In a statement Friday, officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and the USDA announced their intention to form an alliance to reduce pesticide use and "promote sustainable agriculture."
The statement was issued in advance of a National Academy of Sciences study released today that finds children especially susceptible to pesticide residues in food.
Sensing a possible onslaught of regulation, the agricultural chemical industry has joined the debate in Washington.
"I don't want to say we aren't part of the problem," says Ron Phillips, spokesman for the Fertilizer Institute, "but we're taking steps to safeguard the environment."
Mr. Phillips says the fertilizer industry has begun working extensively through its dealers to educate farmers about more efficient means of applying chemical fertilizer, methods that reduce waste and environmental pollution.
But he also says American farmers could not maintain their usual productivity by using only natural fertilizers like manure. He says the main goal of his industry's lobbying efforts is to promote legislation that mandates efficient use rather than restriction. "I hope the new administration will be supportive of our efforts," he says.
The Clinton budget would freeze funding for sustainable agriculture at the previous year's level of $6.7 million, with the exception of a $200,000 increase for research and education programs.
USDA spokesman Tom Amontree says the Clinton administration is "extremely positive" about low-input sustainable agriculture. He notes that the proposed allotment represents a 55 percent increase over what the Bush administration had asked for.
But Fred Hoefner, a spokesman for the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, expresses disappointment with the Clinton budget, describing the allotment for LISA as "an inflation adjustment." He says, however, that spending is less crucial to the future of LISA than the extent to which the administration can redesign farm policies, particularly the Federal Farm Subsidy Program.
According to Mr. Hoefner, the existing program fails because it pays farmers per harvested unit, rewarding those who attain high yields of subsidized crops. At the same time, he says, it discourages farmers from planting the less chemically intensive, less soil-erosive crop varieties that are not covered by federal subsidies. "We have to reduce the penalties for farmers who try to diversify," he says. "There's no incentive for farmers to take care of the land." Lack of incentive
Low-input sustainable agriculture has become a contentious topic among academics and lawmakers, but farming experts in the field have had trouble selling the idea directly to farmers.
Greg Welsh, a field representative for the Iowa State University Extension Service, notes that Iowa farms spend about $300 million on fertilizer each year. Yet a recent Harris Poll found that three-quarters said they would prefer to use fewer chemicals.
Welsh says that when he sits down with farmers, he explains that LISA methods will increase their long-term potential. But he says that his message is often stifled by the fact that, without any federal inducements, chemical farming makes more immediate financial sense than sustainable agriculture.
"Farmers are leery of risks," he says, "and they see this as a big change. I can't tell you how much incentives would help. We've got the technology to grow food without polluting the land, but we don't have the national leadership."
While federal policymakers prepare to hammer out the next generation of farm programs, speculation continues about the effects chemical reduction might have on the character of American farming.
According to George Bird of the USDA's Committee on Sustainable Agriculture, 15 percent of the active farms in the US now produce 85 percent of the total crop yield. But the proliferation of low-input sustainable agriculture, he says, might reverse this decades-old trend toward large, high-yield, incorporated farms. Hope for family farmers
Bird explains that the amount of labor required of farmers increases as their chemical use declines. Therefore, he says, adoption of the techniques associated with low-input sustainable agriculture would induce a shift in farm patterns. He argues that large farms with salaried employees would have a more difficult time adjusting to the increased labor demands than would smaller, more diversified units run by families or cooperative groups.
Bird says this shift would not only stabilize small-scale farming operations, it would also create job opportunities. "We're not talking about summer jobs for teenagers," he says. "We're talking about meaningful entreprenurial opportunities for adults as farmers. Many of these people will be working back on the land."
While the idea of LISA prompting a shift toward small-scale farming appeals to Dennis Keeney, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Iowa, he raises questions about its likelihood. "The scenario is beautiful," he says, "but I don't know how it's going to get paid for."
Mr. Keeney says that if the current world-market conditions continue, commodity prices will never reach a level that might support an increase in job growth in the agricultural sector. As things stand, he says, the only producers who would be able to afford increased labor are large corporate farms.
Keeney also suggests that the proposed 1994 Farm Bill might shape the complexion of farming far more powerfully than the rise of LISA. He cites an Iowa State University study that found the bill's provision to limit the acreage eligible for subsidies would hit small operations harder than large ones.
If the bill is enacted in its present form, Keeney says, small farmers would have an even tougher time dealing with the demands of increased labor. "It's hard to see a different scenario," he says.
In Michigan, Paul Guenther brushes the dark soil from his hands. "I hope to see more natural, responsible production," he says. "If you don't get down on your knees and get your hands dirty, how do you know what's going on?"