Since the 1960s, organic farmers like Fred Kirschenmann have tended their fields and sewn their millet on the margins of American agriculture. Shunned by the mainstream, they were labeled as hippy idealists trying to return to nature.
In some ways, Mr. Kirschenmann fits that bill. A former professor of religious history, he returned to his family's North Dakota farm in the mid-'70s, determined to make it profitable and chemical-free.
He succeeded. The 2,600-acre Kirschenmann spread posts impressive crop yields and profits. And Kirschenmann has now become a spokesman for what is today called "sustainable" or "alternative" agriculture.
"The conventional model of agriculture stresses specialization, routinization, and control of nature," says Kirschenmann, whose farm is the nation's largest organic food producer. "We stress diversity and accommodation to the way natural ecosystems work."
In part because of the success of farmers such as Kirschenmann, sustainable agriculture is shedding its old image, finding a place in government agronomy labs, on American crop lands, and on supermarket shelves.
The Kirschenmanns of the world are said to be farming sustainably because their methods will not produce soil degradation or pollution.
Given the push for environmental methods, American agriculture is dividing into two different philosophies, say experts. The nature-based farming movement is resurging, even as the wider agricultural industry dives headlong into the age of bioengineering and automated "precision farming," that precisely measures fertilizers to reduce pollution.
"American agriculture is going in two completely different directions," says George Bird, a Michigan State University professor who's written reports on sustainable agriculture for Congress. "There's a small but vocal group making its presence increasingly felt, while on the other side, the very powerful conventional, high-tech agricultural system is still very much in the driver's seat.
Shortage of fossil fuels
But the success of modern industrial farming comes with a price, critics say. Conventional farming is seen as unsustainable because it relies on polluting fertilizers and pesticides.
These substances are largely derived from fossil fuels, which will someday dry up, say these critics. Meanwhile, large-scale, corporate farming has led to declining soil quality, erosion, water pollution, and the demise of small family farms, they say.
But it isn't easy for farmers to wean themselves of synthetic additives and remain competitive. Growers such as Kirschenmann do it by tapping into the cycles of nature, and replacing synthetic growth stimulants and pest-killers with hands-on management.
When Kirschenmann plans his spring crop rotations, for example, he puts cold-tolerant crops where warm-weather plants once grew, or sows deep-rooted vegetables where shallow roots earlier grew.
In this way, Kirschenmann disrupts pest cycles, taps new layers of nutrients, replenishes other layers, and keeps weeds down by crowding them out with "cover crops." Another common practice is planting legumes that naturally refertilize the soil with nitrogen, something many plants depend on.
All this means Kirschenmann spends no money on chemicals, keeping his farm in the black while employing only one farm hand.
Though still the exception to the norm, stories like this one are increasingly common. Around the country, small "community supported" farms are cropping up, serving locals who pay membership fees in return for produce deliveries. Organic seed banks, along with books and magazines on self-sufficient country life, are also proliferating.
At the same time, conventional agriculture has taken some tips from the sustainability crowd. Take, for example, the increasing use of "no-till" farming. By reducing the amount of soil turned over by plows, no-till farming limits erosion, water loss, and fertilizer use.
Research bears fruit
Some 37 percent of American farmlands use some form of "conservation-tillage," according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Other practices, such as integrated pest management, which uses a mix of pesticides and nonchemical management practices, are now commonplace.
Such research may be seen as less glamorous because it stresses management, not technological solutions. But Dr. Jan van Schilfgaarde, research director for USDA's Agricultural Research Service, says there's greater interest in sustainable farming because it bears fruit.
In just two cases, he notes, USDA scientists are working with tomato growers in the Southeast and vintners on the West Coast who are planting vetch (a low-growing legume sown between rows) to reduce erosion, replace nitrogen in the soil, and keep weeds down. The results, says Dr. Schilfgaarde, are less money spent on herbicides and more profits made on enhanced yields.
But while the USDA has studied sustainable farming for nearly a decade, advocates say more must be done.
Recent reports show only 1 percent of government agriculture research projects directly study sustainable systems. Groups such as The Land Institute in Salina, Kan., for example, say more research might further validate some of their findings that diverse crop plantings inhibit insect migration and maintain soil quality, and that perennial grains can be bred to produce higher yields.
With more research, farmers may no longer have to plow each season, or purchase high-yielding annual seeds and fertilizers, says the group's director, Wes Jackson. "With more support," he says, "it's possible that by 2015 we'll have an agriculture system that mimics the way ecosystems work."
But advocates for the petrochemical firms that make fertilizers and pesticides say the high-tech approach will reap greater environmental benefits. Monsanto, for example, is working on crop varieties that are resistant to environmentally friendly herbicides. That means farmers can use smaller doses of better weed-killers, supporters note.
Still others blame the alternative agriculture community for exaggerating the problems of industrial agriculture while promoting a rosy and unrealistic view of farming.
Fertilizers use only a small amount of petroleum, they note, adding that predictions of oil supplies drying up are unrealistic.
"In the next 25 years, the world's population is going to double, so there's a serious question of how we're going to clothe and feed [this population] on the same amount of arable land," says Chris Klose, vice president of communications for the American Crop Protection Association, a membership group of leading fertilizer and pesticide makers. "The way to do it is scientific agriculture. You can't do it by going back to 40 acres and mule."