National Geographic : 1995 Dec
treadmill, and organic farming to a dance. The dance lies in the rhythm of seasons and crops, in the way the same piece of farm land is made to alternate year to year between cool-season plants, like wheat, rye, flax, and oats, and warm-season plants, like buckwheat and millet, between broadleaf and grassy plants, between deep-rooted and shallow-rooted plants, between cash grain crops and soil-building legumes like yellow-blossom sweet clover. The dance helps break up disease and pest cycles and restores nutrients to the soil. On a conventional farm, says Kirschenmann, you use a pesti cide one year and then find the next year that it's not effective anymore because the surviving pests have built up resistance to it. "Each time you do that," he says, "it ratchets up your costs, squeezes the margins more. Seven hundred fifty million pounds of pesticides are now being used on farms every year in the Unit ed States, and we're losing more crops than were lost before pes ticides came into use." (Crop loss due to all pests hovers around 37 percent, according to David Pimentel, professor of insect ecology at Cornell University.) In agriculture as in almost everything else, it's easy to believe that if the present has gone astray, things must have been better somewhere in the past. Yet Kirschenmann takes exception when people say to him: "You're farming the way your grandfather used to." Not true, Kirschenmann is likely to reply. "The way my grandfather farmed, he'd break up a piece of prairie, plant wheat, maybe oats, maybe occasionally some corn, until the nutrients were mined out, and then he'd go break up a new piece of prairie. If you look at this thing historically, just about the time they ran out of new prairie-during the war effort in the 1940s-the commercial fertilizers became available, and that made it possible for him to stay in one place and go on farming the tired land year after year." IN THE NOVEMBER WIND in Nebraska, 400 miles south of Fred Kirschenmann's farm, you can hear the rattle of dry cornstalks. On the horizon trains pass almost constantly along the tracks of the Union Pacific. This is corn country, a place where, as visibly as anywhere else in the U. S., the land scape has been shaped by the underlying economics of farming. "It's been all corn for, well, clear back into the fifties," says one farmer who is picking a field full of Pioneer 3417. To sustain 45 years of growing corn -a heavy user of nitro gen- so much fertilizer was poured into the soil that the ground water became contaminated with nitrates, and many towns and farms in this region have had to dig deeper wells to find safe water. Excessive nitrates in drinking water are believed to be responsible for reducing bloodstream oxygen to dangerous levels in infants. I have just visited David Vetter's farm near Marquette, in east-central Nebraska. In a region where single-family farms of more than 2,000 acres are common, Vetter farms on 280 acres. That land helps support his own family, his parents, and his sister's family. He employs 13 neighbors in his grain-processing operation. By rotating crops, Vetter, like his former teacher Fred Kirschenmann, is actually improving his soil, year by year, Agricultural oasis in subur ban Santa Barbara, Califor nia (below), is no eden for some neighbors, who com plain of crowing roosters and dust in swimming pools. But Fairview Gardens Farm wins praise for educating city children in the ways of the country. Like Fairview, the Community Supported Agriculture Program in Kimberton, Pennsylvania (right), sells shares. As man ager Kerry Sullivan bags carrots, a blackboard shows the current allotment, avail able once a week at $550 a year or twice a week at $880.