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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Organic Grain

Air Date: Week of

Not all organic products are in demand, according to Fred Kirschenmann, president of Farm Verified Organic, Inc. Mr. Kirshenmann, who serves on the National Organic Standards Board, says crop rotation for soil health is another important component in the organics movement.


CURWOOD: If demand for organic foods is up, this should be good news for organic farming, right? It's not necessarily so, says Fred Kirschenmann, president of Farm Verified Organic. Mr. Kirschenmann, who serves on the National Organic Standards Board, runs a 3,100 acre farm in North Dakota. He says increased profits for organic farmers only tell part of the story.

KIRSCHENMANN: Some of us worry there's a down side to this as well.

CURWOOD: What do you mean, a down side?

KIRSCHENMANN: Well, it seems that as the industry begins to take organic seriously and to include more organic products in their line, what they want to do is put a certified organic product alongside every conventional product. And if they do that, then it means that they're going to create a demand for the same narrow band of crops that are currently used in the conventional market, which is primarily corn, wheat, soybeans, and rice. So if you're going to create a demand for that very narrow band of crops, it's going to make it very difficult for organic farmers to maintain the kind of diversity of crops that they need in order to make that system work on their farms.

CURWOOD: Now, to your average consumer, looks like we have a fairly diverse food supply. I mean, you walk into the supermarket any day of the week, any time of the year, and you can get all kinds of produce.

KIRSCHENMANN: Sure. You know, we visit, consumers have come to believe that what variety and food means is being able to buy kiwi fruit from New Zealand in North Dakota in January. But that's only one way of thinking about variety. You know, if you really look at the major foods which are made available in the average supermarket today, there's actually very little choice. You know, you've got 3 different brands of labels or names for the same product. About the only place you have real choice is in the fresh produce area, and there again, the choice is based upon foods that's traveled thousands of miles, rather than looking at it in terms of variety, in terms of different kinds of foods which could be grown on a seasonal basis within that community. You know, that's another way to think about variety. But that doesn't make profit for the large food industries, and so consumers haven't had an opportunity to look at variety in terms of what they can produce locally.

CURWOOD: What's the danger that you're concerned about here?

KIRSCHENMANN: We have been in the last 50 years dramatically specializing agriculture all over the world. Agriculture traditionally used to rely on 80,000 different plants. Today we're relying on 15 to 20 plants for all of the calories of the food that's grown on this planet. That makes the system very vulnerable. It makes it vulnerable to pests, it makes it vulnerable to diseases. Now, at the same time that we're doing that, we're now dramatically increasing our global trade. And the global trade is going to inevitably bring alien pests into environments that are very specialized and very vulnerable, and it's a prescription for disaster.

CURWOOD: So, what do you propose we do?

KIRSCHENMANN: Well, it's really very difficult. You know, in the ideal world, what we would like to see is for the manufacturers and processors of organic foods to recognize this problem and to begin to diversify their food lines. When you have a diversified system, you rely upon the system itself. On our farm, for example, we have 8 different crops which we grow in various rotations. We grow a legume, which fixes the nitrogen. We grow a cool season cereal grain which is shallow rooted, which takes nutrients primarily from the top portions of the soil. We grow warm season broad-leaf crops, which are deep-rooted, which take fertility from deeper in the soil profile. And so it's those kinds of diverse elements that you have to fit together into a growing system to make it work without fertilizers and pesticides.

CURWOOD: What are your 8 crops?

KIRSCHENMANN: The 8 crops which we grow are wheat, sunflowers, buckwheat, millet, rye, barley, lentils, and flax.

CURWOOD: There's a problem, though. I mean, the market isn't asking for these products. I mean, how can you get this to be economically viable.

KIRSCHENMANN: Yeah, that's exactly the dilemma. And unless we all work at this together, you know, in my view, nutritionists need to get into the act, and help consumers understand that there are some really good, healthy food that can be produced from things like millet. And to begin to create a demand for that kind of food. But that's a long-term process and I realize it's a big problem.

CURWOOD: I know you think that this system of agriculture really can't be market-driven. But as consumers, what can we do to encourage farmers to rotate and diversify their crops?

KIRSCHENMANN: One of the really hopeful aspects of the food industry today is what's happening in many communities now, where farmers and consumers are actually sitting down together and saying okay, you know, let's, we'd like to have you, Mr. Farmer, produce our vegetables and our chickens and our eggs for us. And they actually contract with the farmer. So they learn what the farmer can do and can't do within that local community, and the farmer learns what the consumers would really like to have on their tables and makes every effort to try and produce that. That's still a very, very small part of the food system in this country, but it's growing very rapidly. Ten years ago there were only 2 of those kinds of arrangements in North America; today there are over 500. I think consumers do want this kind of food, and increasingly as the word gets out that's possible to do, that will increase.

CURWOOD: Fred Kirschenmann is president of Farm Verified Organic, Incorporated. Thanks for joining us.

KIRSCHENMANN: It's my pleasure.



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