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Fields of Dreams: Old Farming Is New Again

Somewhere between religious beliefs and news reporting, old school natural and organic farming has found its place in the modern market

Fields of Dreams: Old Farming Is New Again

View of a farm in Nebraska, circa 1935

Anthony Potter Collection/Getty

In 1981 the award-winning reporter Ward Sinclair was assigned to the farm beat at the Washington Post. After 20 years of general assignment reporting, Sinclair figured this was no way to be treated. He was sure his byline would never again see the light of the front page.

But, in fact, Sinclair transformed his beat into one of the hottest on the paper, writing dozens of major articles about guys in overalls who didn’t return his telephone calls till the sun went down. Sinclair was a tough and conscientious reporter. I remember him once at a news conference called by the Rodale Institute, the Pennsylvania research group that for the last half century has tried to turn back the clock on American agriculture. Robert Rodale, the son of the founder, was trying to impress us with the amazing success (”crop yields in the upper 10 percent year after year”) of a Lancaster County farmer who used neither pesticides nor petrochemical fertilizers.

”Yes, but is this someone who doesn’t use chemicals because of his religious convictions?” Sinclair asked. This was the key question, because the farmer was, as a matter of fact, a member of the Amish sect. The Amish live–by choice–without most of the conveniences of modern society; including pesticides. Their self-denying way of life affords them the time and the discipline to put in long days of hard work, which is precisely what the use of chemicals has been designed to reduce for the great majority of American farmers. It seemed unfair to compare the religiously committed with everyone else.

Last year, to the astonishment of everyone at the Post, Sinclair quit his job. He was too young, at the age of 55, for retirement and he appeared to have nothing else lined up. One Sunday morning early this summer, I ran into him at a farmer’s market in Takoma Park, Maryland, a suburb of Washington. A number of people in the news business do their shopping there, and it took a while before I realized that Sinclair was not buying any produce. He was selling. The lettuce, green beans and strawberries in his baskets were from his own farm in the Pennsylvania hill country.

Sinclair told me that he had 65 acres and that he had given his farm a most un-Amish name–the Flickerville Mountain Farm and Groundhog Ranch–lest anyone confuse it with a place of biblical injunction. He said he got up early, worked all day and fought bugs and weeds with no help from chemicals. Indeed, Sinclair has become in his new career as old-fashioned as any Amish man of the soil. What’s different is that Sinclair and many other farmers are standing the word old-fashioned on its head. After many years of low-key debate, there is intensifying alarm in the United States and Europe about the application of chemicals to growing food. New, highly publicized studies linking farm chemicals to increased rates of cancer, birth defects and other health problems have brought the issue into public view. The result is that ”old farming” is now being called ”new farming.”

Sinclair left the big city for the sake of his sanity. ”You get fed up with rush hour,” he says. He didn’t intend to be a crusader but now finds himself caught up in a national movement. Only a year ago Sinclair was interviewing state agricultural commissioners such as Gus Schumacher of Massachusetts and Jim Nichols of Minnesota. Now the roles are reversed.

Schumacher and Nichols, along with Texas agricultural commissioner Jim Hightower, are among the country’s most respected and forward-looking farm officials. All believe that the Chemical Age of American Agriculture is on the decline. ”Most American consumers will not eat food they believe has been poisoned,” says Hightower, a leading candidate to become U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in the next Democratic administration.

The use of chemicals to ward off pests and boost production began in earnest after World War II, thanks to an advertising campaign by Dow Chemical, Monsanto and other chemical companies. This came to be known as the “green revolution.” Fears about possible health hazards from farm chemicals started to surface two decades ago. But not until this past spring did consumers begin to panic. Reports on 60 Minutes and in a Newsweek cover story about the heightened risk of cancer from apples sprayed with daminozide (trade name, Alar) did what earlier stories about pesticides had failed to do.

Sales of apples dropped sharply, and so did those of other fruits and some vegetables. In New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, all apples were removed from school cafeterias. Even before the frenzy of publicity about Alar, consumers had been getting nervous about the dangers of pesticides. Half the people interviewed by the Harris Poll last year said they would be willing to pay extra for food grown the way our forebears grew it. Many varieties of apples, for instance, are tasty and crisp without Alar. On his farm, Sinclair has an apple orchard consisting mostly of trees that haven’t been popular since the 19h century–Winter Banana, Seek No Further, Arkansas Black and the one that (according to Sinclair) was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite, Sheepnose. These, and similar varieties, are making a comeback across the country.

To be certified as a farmer who grows food free of pesticides has become good for business. A handful of major supermarket chains (Stop and Shop, Petrini’s and Ralphs) have set up prominently placed, well-advertised display tables of certified produce. Meanwhile, an increasing number of states have programs identifying farmers who bring naturally grown products to market.

***

In June, with the wettest spring in memory sliding into summer, slugs as big as your thumb were laying waste to Sinclair’s pepper patches. He had planted 14 varieties, figuring this would be the best way to find which appealed the least to slugs. Then, too, he was expecting to discover which was worse: last year’s killer drought or this year’s killing rains.

Late one evening, Sinclair was at his desk filling out an application form for a farmer’s market in Rockville, Maryland. When he had started in farming, it hadn’t occurred to him that supply might be a bigger problem than demand. But on his desk was an application for another market in upscale McLean, Virginia, and he already had a regular run to restaurants, delis, country stores and food co-ops.

Every Tuesday, Sinclair drove his truck into downtown Washington, parked outside the Post building on 15th Street and carried inside special, hand-packed bags for 115 former colleagues who had become his customers. The executive editor, Ben Bradlee, was one, as were the cartoonist Herblock and the restaurant critic Phyllis Richman. While unloading his truck, Sinclair would often find himself approached by strangers desperate to get on his list. But Sinclair always turned them down. He felt that the point of a personal delivery was to have friends on the other side of the transaction.

With all his commitments, Sinclair decided to forgo the McLean market in favor of Rockville, which was offering $50 a day to all farmers–which until recently was an unheard-of idea among market owners. The anti-pesticide movement was building the confidence of Sinclair and other natural growers. ”You have to be crazy to try to make it as an organic farmer, but I’m crazy enough to believe I can,” says Sinclair, who expects to turn a profit this year. ”I believe consumers will have their say.”

What consumers have been saying for years is that they want cheap, plentiful food–which the “green revolution” provided. What they are saying now is that the food they eat must, above all, be safe. ”The hidden costs to people’s health were always there,” Sinclair says. ”We chose to look the other way.” In effect, consumers have become their own test subjects.

Although DDT was banned from agricultural use a decade after Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was published in 1962, scores of other pesticides eventually took its place, most of them without extensive testing by government regulators. In 1979 aldicarb, a cancer-causing pesticide, was found to have run off potato fields and contaminated drinking water on Long Island. In 1984, tons of grain had to be destroyed because of another pesticide, ethylene dibromide. In 1985, pesticides sprayed on watermelons in the western U.S. and Canada poisoned 500 people, many of whom required hospitalization. In 1986, the pesticide heptachlor contaminated milk and meat in seven states. In 1988, cucumbers with excessive aldicarb had to be confiscated.

These were all important news stories, some with Sinclair’s byline. He began to wonder why modern farmers and consumers had accepted chemical helpers so unquestioningly. ”Something is wrong when you can’t eat what you grow,” Sinclair says.

***

The next question was whether other methods of farming might succeed. Farmers who make do without chemicals must resort to such traditional methods as rotating crops, fertilizing with manure, planting a number of varieties, encouraging natural predators and–the most time-tested of all–wielding hoes and sickles. ”The longer I listened to the iconoclasts and the dissenters, the more sense they made,” Sinclair says. ”Bob Rodale, for instance.”

Rodale is a restrained, gracious man. He is more of a visionary than a farmer. He inherited from his father, J.I. Rodale, a small publishing business and a mission. Despite suffering the slings and arrows of a skeptical press, the younger Rodale was able to turn the business into an empire (Prevention and Organic Gardening are his two most successful magazine titles) and the mission into a movement. He also had to overcome the relentless antagonism of the chemical industry–not to mention the unfortunate timing of his father’s death (J.I. Rodale was singing the joys of organic living on The Dick Cavett Show when his heart gave out).

Until several years ago, Rodale had to support his small research institute in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, with private money, most of it from his own pocket. And yet Rodale has always been feared by the industry–way out of proportion to the threat he poses. I happened to mention Rodale’s name once to Robert Tennant, who was Dow Chemical’s marketing man for pesticides. ”Oh, so you’ve met the enemy,” Tennant snapped.

Attitudes towards Rodale began to change in 1979, after the Carter administration sent USDA researchers to get his list of organic farmers for a study they were conducting about the economics of farming without chemicals. The USDA study, released a year later, found that contrary to conventional wisdom, organic farmers had as much chance as chemical farmers to make a profit. Unfortunately, the report was not filed until Carter’s final days in the White House, and it was ignored by the Reagan administration.

Then, in 1982, a top Rodale official, John Haberern, came up with an idea. Why not circumvent the White House and push Congress to pay attention to the report’s findings? Three years later, after exhaustive lobbying by Rodale and Haberern, Congress established the Low-Input Sustainable Agriculture (LISA) program. Under LISA the USDA was mandated to fund research into alternatives to chemical farming. Last year 78 projects were funded, three at the Rodale Institute.

Few current federal programs are as radical. In the long term, LISA may well drastically reduce chemical farming. In the meantime, it gives political cover to elected farm officials such as Hightower, who must defend his belief in organic farming in a state dominated by agribusiness. Potentially, it will also provide Sinclair and other organic farmers the kind of federal research support that chemical farmers have enjoyed for years.

***

Of course, reports of the death of chemical farming can easily be exaggerated. The chemical industry remains an established political power with billions in profits at stake. Still, signs of change are everywhere.

To start with, late this spring Alar was withdrawn voluntarily by its manufacturer, Uniroyal Chemical, when the headlines and consumer complaints would not abate. Within the last couple of years, two of the industry’s biggest companies, Monsanto and Du Pont, have begun to invest large amounts of research money into genetic engineering. Instead of being treated with massive doses of chemicals, some crops will now be genetically altered to increase natural resistances to pests.

By every indication, agriculture is preparing for the possibility of a postchemical era. This summer in California, the epicenter of chemical farming, the world-class Superior Farming Company harvested its first crop of organically grown table grapes. Thomas Morrison, the president of Superior Farming, says his company was responding to ”consumer demand.” Several other large agribusinesses are trying now to grow crops with manure and to eliminate bugs with experimental vacuum machines. Natural predators of pests, such as ladybugs and praying mantises, are also being let loose.

As for consumers, they are represented now on talk shows and in newspaper and magazine articles by the coolly passionate presence of Meryl Streep. She and Rodale’s daughter, Maria, serve together on the board of Mothers and Others for Pesticide Limits, a group that gained prominence during the Alar scare. The April issue of Organic Gardening featured Streep on the cover. A meeting of two different worlds, to be sure. But it is no small matter that Streep and Rodale between them have many admirers in Congress, which next year will take up the issue of expanding the LISA program.

In all likelihood, the Bush administration will oppose such expansion. Bush’s Secretary of Agriculture, Clayton Yeutter, placed himself squarely on the side of chemical farming in a confrontation with Hightower last January. The European Community had forced the issue by setting trade restrictions on American meat containing chemical hormones. When Yeutter announced that the U.S. would rather have a trade war, Hightower undercut him by promising to find enough Texans to raise chemical-free beef cattle to fill the European quota.

Bush and Yeutter were both furious with Hightower. But there is a footnote to this story that says a lot about the future of chemical farming. Chemical-free beef cattle are being raised on at least one ranch outside Santa Barbara, California. This is the Ranchman del Cielo, and its owner is Ronald Reagan.

Meanwhile, on the Flickerville Mountain Farm and Groundhog Ranch, a goodly number of pepper plants survived the slugs. As new pests make their appearance, Sinclair finds himself consulting regularly with the Rodale Institute. Every day brings another lesson in both the strengths and weaknesses of the natural order of growing things. The summer of 1989 has been a good one for Sinclair, the best in a long time.

In May there was another resignation from the Post. This time it was Cass Peterson, the heralded environmental writer, who, like Sinclair, was leaving at the peak of her career. Peterson is Sinclair’s longtime girlfriend and partner, and she had decided to join him full time on the farm.

In This Article: Coverwall, Farm Aid

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