Earth Matters – Fred Kirschenmann, Stone Barns Center, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

Rodger Wasson: Welcome to Farm to Table Talk, where we talk about our food and how it’s grown. I’m your host, Rodger Wasson.

If we can produce food without soil, why does soil matter? Well there’s no one better to speak up for soil than our guest today who has a lifetime of work as an advocate for soil health and a pioneer of organic farming. He’s a farmer, a distinguished fellow with The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, president of the board at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in New York and he’s widely recognized as a person that understands why soil does matter. And I’m just really delighted to welcome him back to Farm to Table Talk – Fred Kirschenmann. Fred – welcome to Farm to Table Talk.

Fred Kirschenmann: Well it’s my pleasure.

Rodger Wasson: Fred, you have spoken in favor of Earth and taking care of Mother Earth your entire career. And yet it just seems like Mother Earth needs defending all the time. And this has come up recently, Fred, because there’s been a lot of conversation that you’re able to produce food hydroponics, aquaponics, biponics, and you don’t necessarily have to have soil. So I think this begs the question – how do we explain soil and what shape the soil is in – why does that matter?

Fred Kirschenmann: Well at the heart of that issue for me is the whole issue of reductionism which has been part of our culture for a long time and we still seem to think we can continue to operate that way. That is that we basically want to have the maximum output for the minimum input. And so we’ve assumed that all we have to do if you want to raise food hydroponically, all we gotta do is put in the nutrients the water needs to produce the food we want and then it’s gonna be fine. And there are at least two major problems with that. One is that it does not take into consideration the complexity of natural systems. I think that for me, one of the recent publications that really bring that home to us is David Montgomery and Anne Biklé’s book The Hidden Half of Nature, which really goes into great detail to describe to us the kind of complex microbial community that lives in the soil and that maintains the soil and the affect that the soil has on the food when we know the soil comes from that complex living community.

The other part of it is that we’ve been able to “sustain” this high input system for about the last 100 years in our food system. And the reason we’ve been able to do it is because we had all these natural resources which were necessary to get those inputs. And if you think about our current food system it is enormously dependent on what Ernest Schusky called the “neocaloric era,” that is the era where we’ve been using old calories and they are old because they are not renewable and our whole food system has been dependent on that.

Rodger Wasson: Wait just a minute. That’s a really unusual way of putting it. Old calories. So I suppose they’re as old as dinosaurs that have been turned into oil.

Fred Kirschenmann: Some of them are. But the thing is most of these are calories that have been accumulated in the Earth, in the soil, for thousands and thousands of years. So you have for example fossil fuels in our current food system this high input system is very much dependent on these fossil fuels. Not only for mining them and processing them, and putting them in the soil, but for growing our agriculture products, etc. And there’s also things like rock phosphate that we mine and process into phosphorus and there are only four countries that have rock phosphate reserves and at the rate we are mining them, researchers that have looked at this are telling us that at best we have maybe 20 years of rock phosphate, maybe not more than another 10 years. So the question then becomes, how do you maintain a high input food production system when you no longer have these inputs and then you have to add other inputs that most of us don’t think about as non renewable, like water and soil.

Rodger Wasson: Wow. Using resources that are somewhat finite, we’re beginning to run out I suppose.

“We are beginning to move in the right direction in terms of understanding the kind of living community that soil is.” Fred Kirschenmann: Yeah. There are two things: The resources are finite, they’re old calories, we’re going to run out of them at some point. The other is also that if you really want to eat food that not only fills your gut but that sustains your health, then you have to look at all the complexity of the living systems, microbial activities that Montgomery and Biklé talk about in their book. So even if you were able to find all those non-renewable resources that you could plug in, in order to make it grow, or make it produce, you still are missing the kind of health producing capacities that are in good healthy soil. Not to say that all soil does that because if we don’t manage our soil for its regenerative capacity so that those microbes can come to life and multiply and produce all of those benefits, then it’s also not doing everything that soil can do. As recently as 15 years ago, even soil scientists would refer to soil as a material to hold a plant in place. Well, fortunately they aren’t doing that anymore. Almost all of the literature is talking about soil health, so we are beginning to move in the right direction in terms of understanding the kind of living community that soil is.

Rodger Wasson: Has anybody done any studies to see what the impact might be on human health?

Fred Kirschenmann: I haven’t yet seen a really good peer reviewed study but there are individual physicians who have begun to discover this in their own practices. Daphne Miller is a family health professional at the University of California and she teaches family medicine but also has her own clinic. She’s published a book called Farmacology. She has discovered in her own practice that when you put people on a diet of whole food from healthy soil, that does more to sustain their health than any kind of pharmaceuticals that you can come up with.

There’s a second physician, she’s published a book called The Dirt Cure. She runs a clinic for children and as we all know the rate of childhood diseases that are diet related have just been exploding. She opened a clinic based on her research and her experience as a practicing physician and she has found that when you put these children with these diseases on a diet of whole food from healthy soil, they start to become healthy in a matter of weeks. And in her book she goes into great detail on how we’ve gotten to where we are and how now we need to move in this new direction in terms of healthcare, grounded in healthy soil. Which comes from feeding the microbial community in the soil.

Rodger Wasson: Fred, I wonder if some of these large corporations, if they’ll try to promote and incorporate soil building into the system so they can tell that story. I mean if enough people want to hear the story about how it’s done and know that, maybe that’s something that they’ll be marketing in the future. My wishful thinking perhaps.

“Food from healthy soil… is the future of the food system.”

Fred Kirschenmann: That’s another great observation. Some of the good news that I’ve been seeing at some major food companies – General Mills being one of them. General Mills purchased Annie’s a number of years ago and the Vice President of Annie’s called me a couple of months ago and she said I want to talk to you because what the managers of General Mills want me to figure out how they can find food from farmers that have produced food from healthy soil because that is the future of the food system.

There’s a beginning awareness and part of that is because, I don’t want to romanticize the millennial generation, but in my experience at least, there’s the beginnings of a transformation that is taking place in our culture. People in the millennial generation are trying to move to a future where we do things for the common good. And when you make that transition in your spiritual center, you begin to look more for the kind of food that comes from the kinds of things we’ve been talking about. Companies are starting to recognize that and if they want to be successful very far into the future, they have to pay attention to this.

Rodger Wasson: Soils are so different if you go from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Every part of the country probably has to have a different approach to how they have to treat their soils, don’t they?

Fred Kirschenmann: Yeah. And this brings up another issue. We’ve gotten so used to in our industrial culture – we can produce one kind of seed and sell it to farmers anywhere in the world. Or we can get food from wherever we want. Or sell it to wherever we want. And there’s this global uniformity because that’s the most efficient from an economic point of view.

John Thackara published a new book, How to Thrive in the Next Economy. John Thackara published an interesting book back in 2006 called In the Bubble on the Internet and he had a different perspective around the Internet and he was exactly right on that. But what he discovered and what he pointed out in The Hidden Half of Nature is that there’s a new economy developing now and he discovered this based on his travels around the world. And what he claims is already happening and much more in the developing world than in the developed world but to some extent even happening in the developed world is that people are beginning to recognize that this global economy just doesn’t function for them anymore. So they’ve begun to look at their own biological region and ask themselves – how do we thrive? How do we create an economy where we can thrive in our own region? And then they begin to come together and they look at their ecological resources and they figure out how to use those resources in a way that they get regenerated in the process of using them and then food and agriculture of course becomes a critical part of that.

He said for all of these bioregions there’s a similar kind of transformation and it’s about how people think about growth. Growth is no longer about unlimited economic growth. Growth now is about generating life on Earth and that becomes the primary focus of the way they can flourish and thrive in their own regions. I think that we’re going to see that as these resources that we’ve been dependent on for these inputs become dysfunctional, you’re going to see more and more people coming to look at bioregions.

Here in the Midwest, there’s an area called the driftless region. It’s a little bit of the corner of Iowa and Minnesota and Wisconsin and a little bit of Illinois. This driftless region is an absolutely rural economy. There’s a new study that’s come out and apparently there are people that are beginning to say – wait a minute. You know, we just produced some corn and beans and we shipped them out and we totally depend on other people to feed us? Why don’t we start growing some of our own food? And so there’s now the beginnings of a movement to transform that whole driftless region by people living in that region and looking at how they can have a much more thriving region, looking at how they can vitalize their own area for their own people.

Rodger Wasson: You know I hope that somebody that’s listening to this maybe has something to share that they are doing in their own region because I hear this from time to time. The thing that also strikes me about it, Fred, is that they are all doing whatever works for them. I mean, it’s not like somebody sent out a master plan from Washington saying – let’s all do this. They are finding what is the strength of the region and then finding links between the farmer and the restaurants and the schools and so forth. And it’s getting new people into the businesses too.

“The farmers and people in the city are developing a common bond and working at all of this together to have a food system that provides the kind of quality food that people what made available in an affordable way.”Fred Kirschenmann: Yeah. This is not just about people in the city asking farmers to do things differently. The farmers and people in the city are developing a common bond and working at all of this together to have a food system that provides the kind of quality of food that people want made available in an affordable way.

Also this driftless region, Robert Wolf who is a writer and he has written a little book about this called Building the Agricultural City – A Handbook for Rural Renewal and he goes into great detail about how this is happening in the driftless region.

Rodger Wasson: I tell you what, Fred… It is always great to talk to you because you’re so excited. You’ve spent decades in this and it doesn’t sound like your enthusiasm is any less at all. And that’s my final question for you – I want you to kindof revisit these enthusiasms we’ve been talking about and tell me over the next four to 5 years, what is it that gives you the most hope, the most reason to be enthusiastic about what’s going on with the food system?

Fred Kirschenmann: That’s a great question. You know, it’s very easy to become terribly discouraged and even pessimistic if you look at the downsides of things. I’ve always found that when there are things that are not going to work well, that are going to be bad for you, they always get to a point where enough people realize that this is not the way we ought to do this anymore. And then come incentives for innovative ways of doing things.

“There’s grounds, if you really look behind the scenes a little bit, I think we’re going to have a lot of opportunities for significant change in our future.”

I think there’s a lot of things that we often look at as being terrible and bad for us but they also become the motivators for bringing about change and doing things differently. This is why I like John Thackara’s way of how to thrive in the next economy. It’s really about flourishing and having a more flourishing life. I don’t talk to hardly anybody now that is totally focused on a flourishing life. Most of us are focused on the kindof bad things that are happening, and that’s understandable. But there’s also grounds, if you really look behind the scenes a little bit, I think we’re going to have a lot of opportunities for significant change in our future.

Rodger Wasson: Well that’s exciting. I think, Fred Kirchenmann, you live a flourishing life and you’re affecting a lot of us, providing inspiration for us to see both a bright side and a realistic way we are moving forward with our food system. I just want to thank you for being a friend and for talking to us today on farm to table talk.

Fred Kirschenmann: It’s my pleasure.

Interview has been condensed and edited. Listen to full interview on Farm to Table Talk.