Interview: Dr. William Albrecht

By Charles Walters

First published in Acres U.S.A. magazine in 1971. Acres U.S.A. founder Charles Walters studied from Dr. Albrecht in the early 1970s and used his studies to help build the eco-agriculture movement.

Acres U.S.A. and this interviewer, Charles Walters, served as an editor with Veterinary Medicine magazine in the 1950s and traveled the country for the NFO in the 1960s. This was the era when animal care and farming based not on natural processes but domination by toxic chemistry came into being. In fighting for the survival of family farmers — he entered agriculture as a trained economist — he saw the only way agriculture can be economical was to be ecological.

In rounding up the body of knowledge of the day he kept hearing the name William Albrecht, not from the University of Missouri, but from esteemed scientists and consultants around the world. He picked up the phone and learned Dr. Albrecht was still alive and held office hours, even though long in retirement. When dissuaded by the University he hopped into the car and drove two hours down the road to Columbia and met the good professor.

And so began a weekly tradition of tutorials, lessons which formed the foundation of the magazine and books and conferences of Acres U.S.A. And so began a remarkable friendship.

Dr. William Albrecht.

Here is an interview and an introduction from our second issue in 1971 with William A. Albrecht. “Let me help you catch a vision” was the phrase with which he greeted the Acres U.S.A. interviewer:

William A. ALBRECHT. If you want to reduce human medicine or veterinary medicine to a common denominator, you have to remember that when the animal’s physiology is deranged, it doesn’t make much difference what you call the problem — but it is very probably a mistake in nutrition often founded on the attempt to be economical. I have come to the conclusion that deficiencies are more often at the base of health irregularities than we realize. I have had occasion to test some trace elements. And two M.D.s hooked up with me at one point. So I jumped in at the deep end because if I got into trouble with the medical profession — and that’s very easy to do — I’d have two M.D.s to pull me out. I put a student on studying brucellosis contagious abortion, which they call contagion, which it isn’t at all. And we proved it with four generations of a herd of 85 milk cows that were labeled to be slaughtered. We fed them trace elements, and we treated the soil with trace elements while we were getting ready to feed the animals the products of the soil. In four years we had 17 female calves that became heifers and raised calves, and their calves were clean according to the veterinary tests. Because, you see, they introduced an artificial microbe they call a brucellosis abortus as though it were a grand name. It is nothing but the symptom name given to the microbe. We had 17 heifers mature after we started feeding trace elements, and they give us calves, and those 17 calves were as clean as could be by any test the veterinarian could run on the bloodstream.

ACRES U.S.A. The remedy turned out to be nutrition?

ALBRECHT. All by just feeding trace elements, and the four trace elements we picked were those a Cleveland concern showed were missing in the nervous tissue of the animals which were infected, and were not missing in the animals that were not infected.

ACRES U.S.A. What were the trace elements?

ALBRECHT. The four trace elements that were missing — manganese, some iron — and I put that in parenthesis, because that wasn’t necessarily missing, but it is always necessary to have iron, copper, cobalt and zinc.

ACRES U.S.A. Were these findings reported in the professional literature?   

ALBRECHT. Oh, yes. It was a volume, but not too many were printed. In 1949 we held a clinic because I got the state medical association on my neck. The doctors down in Springfield had been giving the people inoculations for brucellosis. The women and the men moved over to Dr. Allison, who fed them the trace elements, changed their blood corpuscles from all white pussey ones to red ones. He was feeding these trace elements with a coating so that they didn’t open until they got into the alkaline part of the intestines. We showed that Bang’s disease was the result of a trace element deficiency.

The early Albrecht papers.

ACRES U.S.A. Did you ever consider becoming a physician?

ALBRECHT. Yes. I had a good doctor friend who spent his lifetime teaching people about health, and when he died he had 72 percent of his business still on his books. So I got discouraged as a boy. I said, “I am afraid that I don’t have enough association with the medical profession to make a go of it.” Having been a country boy with a lot of curiosity, interested in the physiology of plants, animals and man, I decided I’d better stay with plants and agriculture. So I took soil fertility and soil microbiology for my major, and they brought me here to put out cultures of legume bacteria, because at that time soybeans were new and there were no cultures.

ACRES U.S.A. Where did you take your training?

ALBRECHT. All at Illinois. Four degrees. A.B., B.S. in agriculture, M.S. and Ph.D. I’m probably more of a plant microbial nutritionist than anything else. In other words you get down to the single cell.   

At this point Dr. Albrecht started questioning the editor of Acres U.S.A.

ALBRECHT. Does the veterinarian know which way to turn? His animal is on that soil and eats plants from that soil. Why doesn’t he get down to the basics? Why doesn’t he go down to the foundation?

ACRES U.S.A. You can’t get them to listen. Despite the evidence, you can’t make anyone listen if he doesn’t want to.

ALBRECHT. Now that’s one of my disappointments in teaching and writing and studying. They don’t use logic to explain what it is all about. They’re only commercial-minded. As a boy — before I left country school — I told my mother I’d learned something. There are no hoop snakes. And I said, “Mother, I’m going to study snakes.” I got myself an Osage orange cane with a little fork at the bottom. And a cane is longer than most snakes. That snake has to keep at least half of its body down to get the leverage for the other half to strike. It has to have an anchor. When I finished my graduate schoolwork, I had over 200 specimens of various things of that nature preserved and put away on the stockboard nailed on the joists in the basement, all cured.  Alcohol only cost 50 cents a quart. And I knew the saloonkeeper. The thing that disgusts me is that your scientists go to technology instead of teaching. They patent everything and make it secret. I don’t like that. So I decided that I was going to study and learn. If you analyze what I’ve done here that they’ve paid me for, it’s nothing but learning what nature did which had never before been recorded.

ACRES U.S.A. What has been the biggest revelation?

ALBRECHT. In agriculture, and soil microbiology, and in medicine, I discovered what the country boy said when he came home to his dad from the college of agriculture. He said, “Dad, they teach so much that ain’t so.” So I’ve spent most of my life finding what is so. As I learned, I wrote everything out and studied it out, and put it into manuscript form.

ACRES U.S.A. On the basis of your research, should fertilizers be soluble?

ALBRECHT. No. Fertilizers are made soluble, but it’s a damn fool idea. They should be insoluble but available. Most of our botany is solution botany. When it is solution botany, the first rain would take it out. There’s a big difference between the laboratory and the farm.

ACRES U.S.A. Is this the reason we have so many farm wells that are too hot to use?

ALBRECHT. There you are. And we live with our own damnable ignorance because we don’t sit and think. We copy to make money. And they teach copy stuff in college. And if a student has an idea, he never gets to say, “I have a hunch.” And teachers do not encourage students to have a hunch because they want them to memorize what they’ve said.

ACRES U.S.A. Is that why the “insoluble but available” idea has not been taught in school?

ALBRECHT. I wrote this (a paper entitled Insoluble Yet Available) and got it published in the British papers. We’ve put money between scientific study and publication of the results. So we only tell farmers about products that can make money for the companies.

ACRES U.S.A. I go around to these schools — including the University of Missouri — and all they’re teaching is this “soluble” business. There are regulations in some states that in effect define fertilizers as products that are NPK rated, and make it difficult for farmers to have ready access to humates, natural mineral fertilizers and the like. Some of my associates inform me that you are the best spokesman — with academic standing — in America today. 

ALBRECHT. I’ve had to stand alone.

ACRES U.S.A. I note that you’ve done a lot of work, and that this work is not being made available to younger generations — farmers under 40.

ALBRECHT. That’s the reason I’m happy to see you. As a journalist you can use quotation marks. You can report. I’ll just give you a simple principle. A root puts out carbonic acid and treats the rock with that acid and gets its nutrition. And yet we fight soil acidity.

ACRES U.S.A. In other words, this acidity breaks down the rocks? ALBRECHT. Of course. The only acid you like to drink is carbonic. You don’t drink hydrochloric acid. ACRES U.S.A. Why, then, have these states come to proscribe against acidity with their fertilizer laws?

ALBRECHT. Because what I say doesn’t amount to anything in the eyes of these people. They’ve bought a conventional truth because there is profit in it for a few big firms.

ACRES U.S.A. What you’re telling me isn’t what they’re teaching in this university? ALBRECHT. That’s the sad part. You see what people take is what the horde take. Not what the fellow who sits and thinks takes. ACRES U.S.A. Would you agree with the aphorism, “People take leave of their senses as a group. They come to their senses individually?”

ALBRECHT. Always, if they have the courage of their convictions.

ACRES U.S.A. Is this reprint, Insoluble Yet Available, your anchor piece?

ALBRECHT. Just horse sense, that’s all. I tried to put together the observations that mean something. Let’s take this matter of the plant’s nutrition. When I came here as a microbiologist, they wanted me to grow a culture. And they thought I could grow a bacteria that would make a plant fix nitrogen and be inoculated. And I was here six months before I discovered that was what they believed, and I was terribly disgusted. I said, I’ll have to tell those people that when a bull and a cow get together, the cow has to do her part too, not just the bull. All of my research here is merely that conviction that when my cultures do not make nodules on their legumes, I’ve got a plant that is too sick to carry its half. But I haven’t got that across so far.

ACRES U.S.A. Why has your research turned out so differently from results others have had — results, I might add, more pleasing to commercial firms?

ALBRECHT. Well, Professor Miller thought I should grow bacteria that would make the cow have a calf whether she wanted to or not. And I had to politely show the points I wanted to make. Here (at which point Albrecht produced a report titled, Some Soil Factors in Nitrogen Fixation by Legumes) is increasing calcium saturation of an electrodialyzed clay. I separated the finest part of the clay out in the centrifuge running 32,000 rpm after the clay had been suspended and settled for three weeks. At the bottom that clay plugged up finally, because the clay was too heavy. But we had thinner and thinner, smaller and smaller clay until about halfway up in that centrifuge — you know what the milk separator is? — there we had it as clear as Vaseline. Now we took the upper half of that clay — a clay so fine that it was like transparent Vaseline. We made pounds and pounds of that because we had put it into the electrical field and made it acidic and took all the cations off so it was an acid clay. That was the thing with which we studied plant nutrition. We studied plant nutrition with that clay by putting different elements on in different orders. We grew plants. We studied plants with this fraction of the clay in the soil that holds the positively charged nutrients. And we could mix them and balance them.

ACRES U.S.A. As controlled experiments, I suppose you reduced the variables so you could take up one element at a time. How did you start?

ALBRECHT. We began with calcium because we found that we had to come up here to 65 percent saturation. In other words, you’ve got to load that clay in that soil with 65 percent of that clay’s capacity to hold calcium against rainwater before you can grow a plant with enough calcium to be healthy.

ACRES U.S.A. Will you explain acidity to me?

ALBRECHT. Your acid clay is nothing more than one that doesn’t have the positive ions on it — hydrogen, calcium, potassium, magnesium, sodium and the trace elements. I’ve got to have 65 percent of that clay’s capacity loaded with calcium and 15 percent with magnesium. I’ve got to have four times as much calcium as magnesium. You see why we ought to lime the soil? We ought to lime it to get it up to where it feeds the plant calcium. Not because it fights acidity.

ACRES U.S.A. You can’t perform this function with any soluble fertilizer?

ALBRECHT. It’s got to be a positively charged element like your calcium, magnesium and so on.

ACRES U.S.A. When were these findings revealed?

ALBRECHT. This paper was given at the International Society of Soil Science the day Hitler moved into Poland, 1939. In this paper I summarized the work of about a dozen graduate students.

ACRES U.S.A. Why this clay method for research?

ALBRECHT. As a result of using this clay method of learning what plants are fed, I learned about plant nutrition in the soil, not in solutions, as is common laboratory procedure.

ACRES U.S.A. To what extent did the farm press pick up this material and make it available to farmers?

ALBRECHT. Very little. They say it’s too complicated. They say, “I don’t know anything about it,” and out it goes. But here comes something from the chemistry lab that’s advertised for sale, and they swallow it hook, bait and all.

ACRES U.S.A.  Do research grants influence scientific findings?

ALBRECHT.  Let me answer you this way. I have a concept as to how those positively charged elements are held in the soil against water. My problem is to get a vision, and my graduate students, helping me a leg at a time, let me catch the vision. I say let’s put it into the common man’s language of the Creator’s business of creation. Not commercialism. The moment you throw money into this thing for a boy to study, you’re on the wrong track.

ACRES U.S.A.  A couple of years ago, I was writing a book on farm bargaining. I came across some information to the effect that the continued application of salt fertilizers is delivering less and less production. In other words, the American farm plant is over the hill and on the way down. Would you care to comment?

ALBRECHT.  I have excellent data on the half-life of our soils. You see the soil is like a radioactive element newly created. When this soil was balanced out there in man’s absence, and before man took it over, it was virgin soil. It was in equilibrium with the forces of soil development and leaching. If you start with the desert in the west, on the east side of the coast ranges — because water has all been precipitated on the west side — that’s the raw rock with a slight weathering. As you come east, then it is heavier rainfall, and you develop the soil into more than a desert. And that American bison lived where conditions were about balanced, and that’s a little above 25 inches of rainfall. Because when you go above 25 inches of rainfall you began leaching. But at 25 inches, you’re just about balanced. That buffalo was smart. He had mineral rich soil and not mineral-leached soil.

ACRES U.S.A.  Yes, but that same soil is now being irrigated, and nature’s 25 inches of rainfall is being sidestepped?

ALBRECHT.  Yes. And it’s been grown with crops that suck only the back teat, we’ll say, and remove certain elements more than others. The buffalo didn’t go far east and west, but north and south. He went with the winter and summer, back and forth. He went long distances north and south, but he didn’t migrate far east and west, because he would have gone to less rainfall and more rainfall.

ACRES U.S.A.  This would put the center about the middle of Kansas?

ALBRECHT.  That’s right. Here in Missouri, we have virgin soil east of Columbia — soil that has never been plowed. The farm across the road hasn’t been farmed since it was broken out in the early days. So we studied that soil, and we have the rate of decline under the old-fashioned horse and collar days against that of virgin prairie. How rapidly did this system of farming tear that soil down after 60 years? Well, the 60 years show how fast it went down. On Sanborn Field we grew corn continuously with nothing put back. Everything taken off. In 40 years we took 2/5 of the fertility out of the soil. Where we put out corn continuously, in 40 years we exhausted 2/5 of the fertility. I grew wheat continuously for 25 years and used nitrogen fertilizer at 25 pounds per acre. And, including the nitrogen I put back, in 30 years we burned out 50 percent of the soil.

ACRES U.S.A.  So you can’t farm, say, 100 years on this ground? Not with techniques being used in America.

ALBRECHT.  Not if you take half of the remaining fertility out every 30 years. You see, with salt fertilizers NPK rated, you’re churning that soil to make the microbial fires burn.

ACRES U.S.A.  What can farmers do to farm scientifically and still preserve the topsoil for future generations?

ALBRECHT.  Supplement with the first item that is most exhausted. But this isn’t as simple as just putting nitrogen back. You have to know that nitrogen is an extremely significant item in the microbial life that is going to live in that soil. You’ve got to maintain the living soil, and not a dead soil. And the moment you start putting nitrogen on the soil, you burn the carbon out. And you burn out more than you put in.

ACRES U.S.A.  How can nitrogen be returned soundly?

ALBRECHT. On my garden I take the leaves of the trees and I compost them. And I keep that carbon high for the nitrogen I put in, and not the nitrogen high to make that carbon burn out and shoot the life out of the soil. I put calcium into that compost — it’s all leaves, kind of woody, so it’s like wheat straw — ratio of carbon to nitrogen of 100 to 1. But I just put a little nitrogen, and just that so that during the year I get down to where I’ve got still a lot of carbon. But there is enough nitrogen being used this way. The microbes don’t let it leach out because it’s always tied up. Carbon ties up the nitrogen.

ACRES U.S.A. Do you do anything else to that compost?

ALBRECHT. Oh, yes, you’ve got to take care of your phosphorus, calcium, potassium and magnesium. That’s nature’s way. But it has to be broken up. Now we haven’t learned how to appreciate carbon as excess because we’ve got 3/100ths of a percent in the atmosphere, and what does a plant do mainly? It ties up the active element into that excessive carbon. So you’ve always got to keep a black soil.

ACRES U.S.A.  That’s the significance of the black? Carbon?

ALBRECHT.  Yes. And you never can go very deep with the black because the air is shut off, and you can’t have a deep soil unless it is granulated with calcium. So we had our black soil in the prairie that still had a lot of calcium. And the depth of that black soil merely shows that balance, that accurate balance of good nutrition.

ACRES U.S.A.  Since I was a boy in Kansas, we’ve been growing wheat —

ALBRECHT.  High protein wheat —

ACRES U.S.A. — but the protein is slipping.

ALBRECHT.  Oh, yes, I kept the records of Kansas, and in the time I studied it protein dropped dramatically.

ACRES U.S.A.  Now they have deep wells, fantastic milo crops, and soil that is starting to leach out.

ALBRECHT.  In other words, they’re moving it to where the microbial fires are being fanned.

ACRES U.S.A.  This is being characterized as efficiency in agriculture, is it not?

ALBRECHT.  Efficiency in mining. Once the soil is exhausted, you’re on an ash heap. You don’t know what’s missing except that nothing grows. The mysteries of creation haven’t all been put under button pushing technology. And the trace elements are a part of it. I had a letter from a man in Florida. He had read something about my remark that we aren’t including an inventory of all the elements that are nutritional. He wrote, “Albrecht, I’m growing citrus down here. I graduated from Purdue.” He said, “Tell me what to put on the soil as trace elements. I’d like to try it.” I gave him a gunshot. Copper, magnesium, zinc — I gave him a list. Come Christmas he sent me some fruit. Earlier he said, “We’re having trouble keeping our dairy cows out of our citrus grove. Every morning that herd of cows goes through the fence. Now we have a strong fence, but we have one cow that goes right through it anyway. She’s in every morning.” So I said. ‘‘Don’t laugh at that critter. She’s just a little smarter. She’s an A student.” Anyway, I received this citrus; I put the fruit in my wine cellar. When we finished that grapefruit bushel, the last two in the bottom had been cracked. But they hadn’t spilled any juice. They had split so that the slices separated out. And I checked the shipping date, and it had taken six weeks for them to come to my place. This was interesting, because the fruit hadn’t been taken by the green mold, and citrus turns green in a hurry if it isn’t properly fertilized. I think the copper he had put on that land at about 5 lbs. per acre protected against the green mold. Later he wrote that he had corresponded with some 100 experts. Not one thought we knew what we were doing. But, he said, “I just closed my contract for all of my citrus at a nice markup because I had a better fruit.”

ACRES U.S.A.  Then the whole business in Florida is a matter of trace element deficiency?

ALBRECHT.  Of course. Now why can’t our farmers here see that? I’ve seen that Florida thing for years. They went to seedless fruit because they could grow more seedless fruit without making seeds because you’ve got to have balanced fertility to make seeds. I just talk straightforward to those people. They’re on sand down there, and they have to literally spoon feed their citrus fruit.

ACRES U.S.A.  Recently I visited with a man in Minnesota who told me it was costing him twice as much per pound of feedlot gain in Minnesota than it was costing him out West. Is that because the corn is deficient? What about blight? If grapefruit develops green mold because of mineral deficiency, does the same hold for corn blight?

ALBRECHT.  I have written several letters telling people that before they fight this corn blight, see what 5 lbs. of copper per acre will do to help corn protect itself. I ate the grapefruit. Mrs. Albrecht ate them. They were not green moldy.

ACRES U.S.A.  A lot of farmers are coming to their senses — one at a time. What’s the best starting point in considering sound farming, rather than soil mining?

ALBRECHT.  We should not start before we include all the potential stages, and see how they fit together. The first stage, when this farmer made his power and his manure, and handled it all himself, he was more nearly natural. We have lost sight of three factors. The microbes in the soil, and on top of the soil, they are the forces that which by decomposition do the recycling. Then we’ve got the plants that profit by that. And they synthesize sunshine. The microbes can’t do that. The microbes have to have synthesized plant foods. My Wastebasket of the Earth outlines this. The microbes in the soil are the decomposers. The plants are synthesizers. All else that grows is a predator on those two. That’s why it is so important to treat microbes in the soil with respect, and why it is so important to rebuild soil. Now the German manure system was a tremendous force in rebuilding, but you see that’s too much work.

ACRES U.S.A.  How can you farm and rebuild that soil if you pursue monoculture or one-crop farming?

ALBRECHT.  You can’t because you haven’t got the manure. You have got to go back to the profile of the soil, maintain the carbon because the carbon reduced is what holds the other things there. When it is not black, she’s gone. Wide carbon ratio is the safety of your soil. You can’t do that out of a chemical company’s paper bag. And this whole business of what’s pollution is nothing more than having run the thing lopsided — out of balance.

ACRES U.S.A.  Can you give me a precise take on calcium?

ALBRECHT.  Calcium granulates your soil, and keeps it black. That granulation lets air go deeper. And that lets the microbes burn. Now if you don’t have enough air in there, you ferment, and you make alcohol. So when you make that soil anaerobic and don’t granulate it, you got too much hootch in it. Oh, that thing is delicate. You can’t put nitrogen in that soil without damage.

ACRES U.S.A.  Can you comment on natural minerals?

ALBRECHT.  I like to use natural minerals. That’s what limestone is. That’s what rock phosphate is. Your humates. That’s when your decomposition is carried under enough air exclusion.

ACRES U.S.A.   Humates are not soluble?

ALBRECHT.  No. And humus deep down in the soil is anaerobic and tends to be black. You bring it up and cultivate it and oxidize it and you release the things that were reduced.

ACRES U.S.A.  It is a sound approach?

ALBRECHT.  Oh, yes. Nature builds its own humus down only so far because it gets no air and is preserved down there. Down in Texas you do pretty well because your panhandle of Texas is high calcium. Your Kansas soils are high calcium. But they’ve been burning the calcium out awful fast.

ACRES U.S.A.  What will irrigation do?

ALBRECHT.  That saturates the land with water, gives it a fermentation and quick oxidization. Nature does this so gradually. And if there is plenty of calcium there to granulate it, the humus will move down and your roots go down, and you’ve got a deeper feeding.

ACRES U.S.A.  If 25 inches per annum rainfall means perfect balance in the high plains, what effect does irrigation have, especially when carried on to the point where catch basins are used?

ALBRECHT.  If you waterlog the field, you’re going to be in trouble. It doesn’t take many years. Just look what 25 years did on Sanborn Field — burned out 50 percent of our fertility.

ACRES U.S.A.  Let’s go back to your statement that fertilizers should not be water-soluble.

ALBRECHT.  It can’t be water-soluble because the preceding rain would have taken it out. The clay humus is a colloid on which the positive ions are held because the clay is negatively charged and holds positive elements. So your calcium is held on the clay. Your hydrogen is held on the clay humus. Your magnesium is held on the clay. Your potassium is held on the clay. You’ve got the cations — the positive ions — and they have to be balanced for the plant. And I told you, you had to have 65 percent saturation of the calcium, 15 percent of the magnesium, 2 to 5 percent of the potassium … for your legume plant to take nitrogen from the air, and grow, you’ve got to have 65 percent saturation on the clay of the calcium, and so on. Now that’s a balanced plant diet. But how many plants are fed on that kind of a diet? Nobody talks about a balanced plant diet in terms of positively charged elements because they don’t understand it. They only understand mining the soil for a fast profit, with no thought of future generations.

ACRES U.S.A.  To have an idea of what’s wrong with soil, you’d have to test the soil, wouldn’t you?

ALBRECHT.  Yes, But how many men doing the testing look for it to be balanced? They only start with the one element, that’s least, and dump on an excess and go overboard. So you might talk about the soil in terms of a balanced diet for the plant. But the plant has an advantage. As a root goes down, it is hunting. So you need a deep profile for that plant to be fed in. The plant struggles to survive. Its roots are hunting. The plant does  a lot of scratching around. So they’re trying to feed this plant and don’t realize that as the soil gets dry that root’s going for water. When they put water-soluble salts on that soil they unbalance the thing as if you took too much whiskey.

ACRES U.S.A.  Some of these points seem complicated. Does this plant physiology have a counterpart for illustration purposes?

ALBRECHT.  For about 25 years I’ve worked on this Epsom salts business. Frequently, after a hernia is repaired, bowels won’t move past that hernia. So they give Epsom salts. And if they check they’ll see that urine is throwing the protein out of the blood. Protein is wasted because the Epsom salts ruin the membrane in kidneys and keep them from doing their normal work. When you take Epsom salts, that salt replaces the calcium in the wall of your intestines and it throws everything it can because that membrane is no longer normal. It just throws everything from the blood stream till it flushes it and can go back to your bones to get some calcium to rebuild intestine walls. When I gave that to Dr. F.M. Pottenger, he said, “You’ve got a good theory because if we’ve got a highly rheumatic person and give him Epsom salts, he’s so low in calcium he throws the calcium out so badly that it kills him.” Now the medical profession  knows that they shouldn’t give Epsom salts, but they do. But you see with this hernia, the kidney wasn’t functioning when the magnesium went through. The magnesium that the bloodstream had to throw out through the kidney was knocking the kidney. Now here’s my theory. Now remember my work. If I didn’t have my soil loaded high enough with calcium, the nutrients were going from the plant back to the soil exactly the way they go from an intestine. If I don’t have this calcium-saturated soil high enough, the plants throw their fertility back to the clay, instead of from the clay to the plant.

ACRES U.S.A.  The plant feeds the soil instead of the soil feeding the plant?

ALBRECHT.  The plants will build the fertility up in the soil and the plants will starve to death. Now you see what I mean when I had a different vision of plant nutrition in the soil than solubility. This thing is delicately balanced, but who has a vision of it. If you put chemicals into that soil you’ve ruined that cell root. These laws of physiology — it doesn’t make much difference whether it is a person or a plant. I’m convinced that the Creator knew his business, and man still hasn’t learned.

ACRES U.S.A.  There is one problem with what you’re saying. Hardly any of these farm magazines put this information into laymen’s language so that farmers can understand.

ALBRECHT.  That’s the sad part of it. I just want you to do your own thinking. Let me fill you in on why we’ve been on the wrong track. You can then pass it on to your readers. I just want to say it the same way and have it repeated that way. Don’t worry too much if you don’t always understand. Keep on studying and it will all come clear.

The Albrecht Papers: Albrecht’s Foundation Concepts, Soil Fertility & Animal Health, Albrecht on Calcium and Albrecht on Pastures are all available from Acres U.S.A. as part of an 8-volume set.

Episode 31: Rodale Institute’s Pigs, & Cathy Payne, Author of Saving the Guinea Hog

Hosted by Ryan Slabaugh & Ben Trollinger / Sponsored by BCS America

Good day and welcome to Tractor Time podcast, brought to you by Acres U.S.A., the Voice of Eco-Agriculture. I’m your host, Ryan Slabaugh, and as always, I want to say thank you to our sponsors, BCS America. Today’s theme is all about happy pigs, and profitable pig operations, and an interesting breed called Guinea Hogs.

First, I’ve got someone to introduce to everyone this episode. It will be the new host of Tractor Time, which I’m proud to say is Ben Trollinger, the new editor at Acres USA. I’m not going too far, but will stay involved helping Ben produce and grow the podcast, while I get to go focus on getting a few new exciting projects up and running.

Ben will join before he interviews Cathy Payne, our guest on this episode. Cathy is the author of Saving the Guinea Hogs, a new book that is on sale in the Acres U.S.A. bookstore.

First, I recently took a trip to Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, and got a chance to tour their hog operation. To make sure this episode is all pig-themed, I thought I’d share some audio I got from touring their operation.  

Inside the pig facility at Rodale Institute. Photo by Ryan Slabaugh.

Thanks again to our listeners and our sponsor, BCS America. You can find this podcast at,, or anywhere podcasts can be played. Thanks, and have a great week.

If you want, shoot a note to Ben at He’d love to hear from you.

Subscribe to our channel on YouTube, iTunes or anywhere podcasts are available. Also, find us on,, and don’t forget to subscribe to our monthly magazine. Thanks for listening, and have a great week ahead.

Tools of the Trade — Using Refractometers & Penetrometers

By Gary Digiuseppe

Forage producers can measure the percentage of sucrose and other soluble content of their grasses with the use of a refractometer, although the accuracy of the reading can be dependent on the cost of the instrument.

Martin Capewell, owner of Agriculture Solutions LLC in Strong, Maine, says an analog refractometer costs around $50-$200, while a digital model can run anywhere from $190- $10,000. A “simple, hand held, decent” digital refractometer, Capewell says, costs about $350 and will last a long time provided it’s properly cleaned and maintained and protected from extreme temperatures.

All refractometers work by passing light through sap or juice extracted from a crop, and then measuring the angle of the light as refracted by a prism. The readout, a percentage of soluble content, is called Brix, named for one of the originators of the method, Adolf Brix. The Brix reading is determined by where the line produced by the light refraction crosses the scale on the device. Technically, Brix is the percentage by weight of sucrose in a solution, but the refractometer can’t differentiate between sucrose and other dissolved solids.

The scale is calibrated relative to a temperature of 20°C, and Capewell says refractometers are either temperature compensated or non-temperature compensated. “The great thing about one with automatic temperature compensation is that it gives you the correct Brix reading, and you don’t have to do that formula yourself,” he says.

pentrometer in use in field

An analog refractometer has to be held up to a light source to be read; digital models use an internal light source. “When you click the ‘measure’ button, within about 3 seconds you can get an exact reading to one decimal place,” said Capewell. “It’s much more accurate, quicker and easier to use.”

In order to extract a sample for measurement by the refractometer, the farmer crushes several blades of grass in a vice grip or garlic press that should have a filter so the crusher will not push the solid material through the holes.

Cheryl Pike of Pike Agri-Lab Supplies in Jay, Maine, says there are devices specially designed to squeeze juices out of plants or fruit for sampling purposes. If a garlic press is used, it should be sturdy and made from stainless steel. “Most of the cheaper garlic presses won’t stand up to it, especially if you’re talking about pasture and trying to get the juice from grasses.”

Pike says most recommendations for an acceptable Brix reading are at 12 or higher. “The higher you have that number, it’s going to be a higher quality grass,” she said. “There have been studies showing the feed quality values matching the Brix reading. They are positively correlated — as one goes up, the other goes up.” Some studies indicate higher sucrose levels in pasture grass increase a ruminant animal’s conversion rate of feed to milk.

Temperature is just one of four variables that affect the reading. Concentration of dissolved solids, the atomic weight of the substances in the liquid and the number of covalent bonds, which are higher when components like amino acids and proteins are present also play a part. However, the farmer just needs to know if the meter is temperature compensated and to adjust for temperature if it’s not.

“If you have a very watery substance, it would read lower than something that has a lot of solids dissolved in the liquid,” said Pike.

In short, says Pike, “The more nutrition you have in your juice, the higher the reading will be … the more complex, and the more desirable things that are in our vegetables, fruits and grasses are the things that make the reading go higher.”

To ensure an accurate readout, Pike cautions that some inexpensive instruments they tested from overseas suppliers were not very accurate. “You get what you pay for.”


Another popular tool for farmers is the penetrometer, which measures resistance in soils. In addition to providing farmers with an idea of the tilth and oxygen content of soil, Capewell says it can also be used to determine the depth of the hardpan layer, so the producer can tell how much room a plant’s roots will have to grow.

He says in order to operate the penetrometer, push it into the soil at a constant rate while keeping an eye on the dial that shows how much resistance it is facing. “It might go up to 200 pounds per square inch (psi),” he said. “You’ll know that you’ve got oxygenation as you’re pushing it in, and you’ll certainly hear it go ‘thud’ as you’re hitting a harder layer. You can continue to push it past that point to see how hard it is to push through that, too, but when you hear it go ‘thud’ you can mark on the penetrometer where it met the harder layer, and you can see how deep your topsoil is and how good the tilth is.”

Penetrometers start at $250 with digital models being more expensive. They’re made of stainless steel and should last a number of years, but the tips may need replacing if they’re used very frequently. Capewell explains, “If you’re pushing into something all the time, you may hit rocks, and it may get blunted over time” which would affect the measurement. Luckily, the tips are inexpensive to replace.

Pike adds that plants do not perform well on ground where 300 psi or higher is required to push through the soil. The penetrometer produced by her company has marks along the length of the probe every 3 inches so the operator can record the depth at which the 200 psi, 300 psi mark, or hardpan is reached.

Finding the hardpan would be useful in a situation where the ground has been plowed. She says when that layer has been detected, “People are using different treatments, not necessarily just the plowing, that are supposed to either lighten up the soil or alleviate hardpans.” The penetrometer can be used before and after to gauge the efficacy of those treatments.

Editor’s Note: This article appears in the August 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.

A Passion for Quality Meat

By Samm Simpson

In 2007 Amanda Carter discovered the underbelly of the industrial food system after she and her husband, Will, drove from North Carolina to Washington state in their newly converted grease-powered panel truck.

Carter wrote a research paper on yellow grease, replete with details on roadkill, chicken carcasses and scraps being recycled into animal feed. She decided her family would never eat commercially fed animal protein again.

“We’d already eliminated trans fats, HFCS, hydrogenated oils, Red #40 and artificial flavors, so we decided we’d raise our own meat.”

The Carters experimented with broilers and rabbits and practiced humane backyard processing while introducing Simon and Alice, their first two children, to farm life. Carter developed a feed business, driving 800-mile round-trips to buy and supply non-GMO feed for her 150 customers. She crafted a newsletter with an eye to animal handling, health and ever-changing government regulations.

Carter family
Alice and Simon Carter (front) with Lucy, Amanda, Matilda and Will Carter on their farm in North Carolina.

Will, who had honed his construction skills since age 12, helped homeschool the children and began his journey into animal husbandry. When the Carters returned to North Carolina in February 2011, Amanda discovered the Pilot Plant Project and offered to do an internship. To demonstrate that she meant business, she produced research papers on waste stream and managing inputs. These were delivered to project manager Smithson Mills at the North Carolina Meat Conference in March 2011, and her internship began shortly after.

At this juncture, Will didn’t know that he and his children would eventually become the largest pastured poultry producers in western North Carolina. And while Amanda didn’t know that she’d be managing the processing plant that her family, and over 300 farmers from six states utilize, she had an inkling that just maybe, she could.

In June 2012 Amanda was on maternity leave with their third child, Matilda. She received an emergency call to come help redo the HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Plan).

“I sat down with a USDA inspector, a poultry scientist and Smithson to fix what was being used. I had five days to do it.” The three-page document written primarily for rabbits was expanded to 12 pages and included more species. Amanda was offered the management position.

“I took an aggressive approach to both production and marketing development with our farmers. Our job is not to tell [farmers] what they need, it is to take what they are doing and make it better.”

Carter, with family in tow, travels to client farms. She offers technical assistance on economies of scale, management and feeding practices, humane transport, handling and more. She’s even been known to tell farmers that they ought not raise birds, and they respect her for it. She also plays matchmaker, receiving calls from restaurants, institutional buyers or other farmers looking to purchase a consistent high-quality poultry product.

Meat birds at Amanda and Will Carter's Spirit Level Farm.
Meat birds at Amanda and Will Carter’s Spirit Level Farm.

“I see everybody’s bird with their feathers off, so I know what works and what doesn’t. This isn’t just a processing house, it’s an education house. We have a crucial piece of a much larger change in the food system, and we directly impact dozens of businesses annually. If we weren’t here, [some] farmers could not get into high-end restaurants. I tell people with confidence that if you have a USDA-inspected chicken at farmers’ markets from Charlottesville, Virginia to Atlanta, Georgia, and from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Raleigh, North Carolina, it probably came though my plant.”

Kenneth and Dani Strader own Meadows Family Farm in Julian, North Carolina. The facility they had used to process their turkeys suddenly shut down. It was the week before Thanksgiving, so Dani called Amanda in a panic. “She said she’d be delighted to do our 186 pre-ordered turkeys. They did an excellent job.”

Word of mouth from satisfied farmers continues to propel the numbers of chickens, turkeys, ducks, quail, rabbits and geese being processed: 31,000 in 2012 to approximately 82,000 in 2015. The condemn rate is 2 vs. 25 percent in industrial facilities.

Staff members are expected to learn three jobs. Jerad Buckley is the quality assurance manager. He handles USDA paperwork, makes sure the lots are marked and more. “Our packaging room is small, you have to have eyes in the back of your head. Farmer Joe doesn’t want Farmer Ted’s bird. In three and a half years, that hasn’t happened.”

The Foothills Pilot Plant in Marian, North Carolina
A typical afternoon at the Foothills Pilot Plant in Marian, North Carolina.

Jesse Burton, III is the killer. He averages 1,000 birds per day. Despite moving at lightning speed, he tenderly cups his hand around each and every bird’s head to place the stunner, ensuring the animal will feel no pain.

“I do have a heart,” He confided. “They don’t feel a thing.”

Amanda takes the Animal Welfare Approved label seriously. “I want little homeschool children who bring me their chickens with their moms to know we’re doing the best we can.”

The Taylor-Wright Farm Company is a sixth-generation farm in Broadnax, Virginia. Allen Wright and wife, Ann Taylor Wright, drive 400 miles one way.

“We were doing 100 birds, but now we do 1,500 because we outsource the processing. It’s increased our production and our profit. Now I can offer a boneless skinless breast and different cuts to my customers that they could only get at a grocery store.” This economy of scale discussion is one that Amanda relishes.

“You reach a volume where your business becomes economically viable, but you can’t find help to process on farm; that’s when you come to me.”

Will also takes that message to heart, along with Temple Grandin’s call for farmers big and small to work together. Those family farm visits sparked Will’s construction and design background. He came up with a method to significantly increase his own pastured poultry numbers.

Amanda Carter performs a final label check on an order of turkeys.
Amanda Carter performs a final label check on an order of turkeys.

“I spent the same amount of time raising 550 birds as I am now raising 6,000.” How? He’s invented a larger, extremely efficient multi-tasking mobile unit. A patent is in the works. Will is teaming up with farmers to buy/lease his equipment, or partner to raise birds. He projects an increase to 10,000 pastured poultry broilers in 2016. The children are all on board.

Amanda’s team works two shifts. Mornings are for killing; afternoons are for cutting and packaging. Non-GMO food grade acids are used for their antimicrobial dip, performed briefly just before refrigeration. An efficient use of chilled storage capacity and farmer’s pick up times are in constant motion. In between, there’s cleaning, scrubbing and disinfecting. They use organic compliant cleaning and processing chemicals; a lye-based sodium hypochlorite foaming cleaner, a quaternary sanitizer and peracetic acid for interval sanitization.

“I discovered a need for sheep and goat processing and grocery stores and restaurants that wanted whole hog work,” said Amanda. “So, I thought ‘let’s put in a line for sheep, goats and hogs to 350 pounds.’ We’ll break them into primals, no chops or sausage, but focus on whole animals.”

She received a $75,000 grant and Will helped design the line.

“By spring of 2016, I want to be able to put a whole hog in the cooler in 20 minutes.” She shared these projections while simultaneously instructing a farmer to properly unload his broilers. Five-month old Lucy, the Carter’s fourth child, was sound asleep and tucked into an Ergo on her mother’s chest. Carter’s commitment to her family, her employees, her farmers and the food supply is also nestled up there just as close, right next to her heart.

For more information on the Foothills Pilot Plant visit, email or call 828-803-2717.

Editor’s Note: This article appears in the March 2016 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Eco-Alternative Farmsteading

By Jill Henderson
From the January 2017 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine

Russellville, Missouri, is beautifully situated on the line that separates the rugged Ozark Mountains from the rolling prairies of the Midwest. This small town has a quaint charm that blends well with the dramatic rolling hills and rural farms that dot the landscape. It’s also a convenient 15 miles to the bustling state capital, Jefferson City.

Living smack dab in the middle of this classic slice of Americana are Emily and Brian Towne, self-described “eco-alternative farmsteaders” striving to produce the bulk of their own meat, dairy, eggs, produce and non-GMO animal feed, while building a fledgling retail business selling and bartering eggs, chicken, milk, produce, garlic and herbs to a small but growing consumer base.

The Townes love the country life —it’s in their blood. Emily grew up on a rocky Ozark hill farm and Brian was raised on a traditional row crop farm in Iowa. Yet, like so many farm kids, Brian and Emily set out into the world after high school to get an education and to find out if there was something else out there for them besides farming. When the couple met in Omaha, Nebraska, in the early ’90s, Emily was working for a Fortune 500 company and Brian worked as a mechanic. Soon after they were married, the couple moved back to Brian’s family farm where they grew corn, soy and a variety of livestock. Three years later, the couple moved to Columbia, Missouri, with the hopes of starting a farm of their own one day.

In 1998, Emily gave birth to their son, Henry. It was a joyous occasion, but it was also a serious wake-up call for the new parents.

The Townes had always eaten a healthy diet, but now GMO corn and soy had begun to hit the market, and the couple became increasingly doubtful as to the safety of the food system. As Emily puts it, “The state of the food and agriculture system, along with GMOs, became more of a concern for us. The idea of genetically modified food and the chemicals required to grow them was deeply disturbing, as was the thought of feeding our child and future generations the food that this kind of toxic system offered.”

Over the next few years, Emily pored over hundreds of books and articles on organic food production, permaculture and everything in between. Determined to produce as much of their own food as possible on their modest 1½-acre town lot, the couple raised a small flock of chickens and grew and processed a great deal of their own produce with the dream of eventually starting their own farm. As a stay-at-home mom who homeschools her son, Emily not only wanted to make sure that he grew up with the know-how to grow his own food and be a good steward of the natural world, but she also worked to provide her family with nutritious food.

“I wanted my son to know how to do things for himself so he would not have to be dependent on a toxic corporate food system. I knew that these lessons would become part of who he is, and he would always have that empowerment. We started him out gardening and raising a small chicken flock as a 4-H project, but we dreamed of a place in the country where we could expand our food production efforts.”

At that time, the housing bubble made small acreages difficult to afford, but in the fall of 2010, after five years of searching, the couple finally found an affordable place on the outskirts of Russellville to make their dreams of a farm of their own a reality. The new farm consisted of 15 acres and had a 1930s-era farmhouse, a shop with animal stalls, pasture and a small woodlot with a creek running through it. They quickly christened their new home Full Plate Farm. The property had once been part of a larger farm, but had been sold off in smaller lots over the years. As luck would have it, the couple was able to purchase an adjacent 15 acres one year later, which added a hay field and more pasture and woodland to their existing property. Now they could produce their own hay and still have additional pasture for their cattle and milk cows.

Starting a Sustainable Farmstead Business

Although Brian continues to work full-time, the Townes have built up their farmstead over the last six years to the point where they are producing all of their own beef, chicken and eggs, as well as most of their own produce, milk, butter and soft cheeses in-season. They are also on their way to producing their own pork and have recently added meat rabbits and a small flock of meat and laying ducks.

Fresh eggs for sale

Garlic, eggs and raw milk are our touchstone products. We use beyond organic methods to produce the highest nutritional value in our food,” said Emily. “For example, our eggs are exceptionally nutrient-dense because we don’t confine the chickens. We let them forage at-will from the pastures and fallow gardens and supplement with 100 percent organic grains. Chickens are omnivores and if you want them to produce eggs with super nutrition, they must have access to a wide variety of plants and plenty of insects. That’s hard to do if the chickens are restricted to pens, even moveable ones.”

Emily said when they first started selling eggs, they hesitated at the thought of asking a fair price that covered costs of production, “but because our customers know our commitment to the highest possible quality, they are willing to pay for them — and we have a waiting list. We sold them through a local grocery store for a while, but prefer direct marketing our food.”

It’s obvious that when the Townes decide to add a new product to their farm, they want to do it right. So when they wanted to raise their beef cattle and milk cows entirely on pasture, a visit to Joel Salatin’s Polyface farm was priceless.

“Most people start their beef on pasture and then finish them off with grain thinking that the grain will fatten up the beef and give it good marbling. But feeding grain to ruminant animals that are made to live on grasses and pasture will completely change the nutritional benefits of the pasturebased diet, which just makes sense. We leave the cattle on pasture longer than you would a grain-finished beef so that the animal has time to mature and develop a good fat and nutritional duced. She also built an email list that she uses to let customers know what products are available each week, take orders and direct customers to the designated exchange location, where all transactions are finalized.

“We hope to expand our food offerings as time goes on and continue to build our garlic business as well.”

As part of their “beyond organic” approach, the Townes are striving not only to use all organic non-GMO feed, but to grow their own heirloom varieties on-farm. They are able to purchase certified organic feed for their chickens and pigs, but clean feed for their newly introduced meat rabbits has been impossible to find. While they work on that issue, plans are under way to regenerate the former hay fields, with their clay and rock, to a more fertile landscape that can sustain heirloom grains and higher- quality hay.

Emily has also been doing her homework on alternative feed for their flock of hens by absorbing the wisdom of Harvey Ussery, whose methods include increasing “self-foraging” opportunities by cultivating specific crop plants for browsing and encouraging natural populations of live protein sources such as earthworms and soldier grubs. In turn, the chickens are used to increase soil fertility and control insect pests. This method works well with the Townes’ current plan, which begins with regenerating the soil by returning all of the farm’s organic inputs back to the soil, rotational grazing and a diversity of cover crops.

“It’s all about protecting the land and bringing it back to health. Not just taking what we can get from it, but giving back to the system to keep it fed.”

Saving Heirloom Seeds and Beans

For Emily, one of the aspects of living with the land and not just on it comes full circle in the form of seed — specifically, heirloom seed. In fact, heirloom seed was the reason I came to know Emily in the first place. It started a few years ago when I was volunteering at the Missouri Organic Association and Emily stopped by my table. We got to talking about farming and seeds and I offered her some of my rare red-seeded watermelon seeds. It was a passing moment between kindred seed spirits, but we were soon to be entwined in an heirloom seed saga involving a long lost cousin, endangered beans, Seed Savers Exchange and a rekindling of Emily’s Ozark heritage.

saving beans

It all came together when a woman I met while giving a seed saving presentation wrote and asked if I could help her save some old dry beans that had been passed down from her grandmother, to her mother and then to her. Her mother had passed and the beans were in poor condition and would not germinate. As we worked on the problem, she mentioned that her mother may have sent the same exact beans to Seed Savers Exchange back in the 1970s. It just so happened that my nonprofit project, Share the Seed, was affiliated with SSE through their Community Resource Program, so I contacted them to see if they had the seeds in question. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the Bessie Beans, but they did find several other family heirlooms, which made us all very happy. I was so happy that I posted a little something about the event on my Facebook page, excluding the names of the participants for privacy reasons.

Almost immediately, Emily sent me a private message saying that her family had been saving ‘Grandma Beans’ for years and wondered if I might possibly be talking about her long-lost cousin, whom she hadn’t seen since her days on the rocky hill farm in the Ozarks. Of course, it turned out that the woman was indeed her cousin and the Bessie Beans were a direct link to her father and great-grandmother from whom she obtained many other heirloom seed varieties, including her treasured ‘Grandma Beans.’ Through a series of emails, we hashed out the family connections and discovered a number of other family heirlooms that had been housed at SSE since the ’70s. One day, Emily not only hopes to obtain and grow all of the old family seeds, but to add to that inventory by including the family heirlooms that she has grown and saved for years.

When I began talking to Emily about heirloom seeds and farming, it was only natural that I would want to write a story that encompassed both — which, in my mind, go hand in hand with eco-farming and “getting back to the basics.” It didn’t surprise me at all when Emily told me that Full Plate Farm hosts a seed share on the farm each spring where friends, customers profile. And when our local butcher saw the hanging carcass of our beef for the first time, he told us we were doing it right.”

The Townes’ main goal is to have a high-quality food stream for their family and to be the change they want to see in agriculture. “We want to offer like-minded people high quality food that is the polar opposite of the factory food model.”

When it comes to building their fledgling farm business, Emily is delighted by the results.

Creating a Raw Milk Business

“In Missouri, it is legal to sell raw milk directly to individuals both on and off of the farm and raw milk sales paid for our first cow.” When asked if they sold at farmers’ markets, Emily replied, “We used to, but in our small town it just wasn’t working out for us. First of all, farmers’ markets here are only seasonal and only on weekends. We found that people are busy on weekends and didn’t really want to get up early in the morning on a Saturday to come and buy produce. Joel Salatin once said that farmers’ markets were ‘an inconvenient rendezvous’ and for us, that has been true.”

raw milk

So, instead of asking customers to come to them, the Townes decided it would be better if they went to their customers. This meant delivering once a week to Jefferson City, which is a short drive from Russellville. For a state capital, Jeff City, as Missourians affectionately call it, is fairly small. With only around 43,000 permanent residents inside the city limits, a large population of rural conventional farm culture and a community generating little demand for organic products, the Townes had their work cut out for them. But over time and by word of mouth, more and more people discovered the delicious and nutritious offerings from Full Plate Farm.

“The key was to talk to everyone we could about organic food and why it is better and more nutritious. Everywhere I go, I talk about organic farming and how healthy animals and healthy soil make healthy food.”

As word got around, Emily set up a Facebook page to help potential customers get in touch with the farm and to see for themselves the care and love put into the food they produce and neighbors come together to swap seeds and talk food and farming. For a while the seed share is obviously a great way to bring in new customers to the farm, that’s not the main goal. True success isn’t always about making money — sometimes it’s about making things better.

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the January 2017 issue of Acres, U.S.A.

About the Author

Jill Henderson is an artist, author and organic gardener. She is editor of Show Me Oz (showmeoz., a weekly blog featuring articles on gardening, seed saving, nature ecology, wild edible and medicinal plants and culinary herbs. She has written three books: The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country and The Garden Seed Saving Guide.

Regional Crops: Preserving Diversity

By Tamara Scully

Regional crops that fed our ancestors and provided a sense of place are disappearing, but some growers and researchers are dedicated to the continuation of these old favorites, refusing to allow them — and our food roots — to disappear.

Whether indigenous or introduced, wild-harvested or cultivated, these food crops at one time held great importance in their various localities. Interest in less commonly known specialty crops is increasing, even while their growing popularity is sometimes accompanied by controversy.

This article will examine four of them.

pollination experiment on beach plums
Jenny Caleo performs a pollination experiment on beach plums.

New England Roots

It goes by many names: Cape White turnip, Westport turnip, Eastham turnip. These names — all taken from New England locales — are used in lieu of its official one: the Macomber rutabaga. Traditionally a part of southern New England Thanksgiving celebrations, this rutabaga is a New England notable, although rutabagas — a hybrid between turnips and wild cabbage — are not native to the United States.

“It’s very similar to parsnips,” said Chris Clegg of Four Town Farm in Seekonk, Massachusetts. “It is not nearly as bitter as purple top rutabagas or bland as yellow rutabagas,” and is quite popular in the region.

Most people prepare the dish as a holiday meal rather than for everyday use. The extremely short season this rutabaga is in demand, combined with the lack of knowledge of the crop outside of this small region, contributes to only a small number of farmers growing the crop.

Clegg selects the best plants — no disease and the most attractive shapes — for seed, which can last for several years when properly stored.

rare rutabagas
These rare rutabagas are known to southern New Englanders as a Thanksgiving staple.

He has multiple storage locations, including some refrigerated seed, to protect against loss.

His Macomber rutabagas are bred to be the best for his growing conditions, and he says he isn’t taking any chances.

“My sales are very consistent from year to year, so I think the market is saturated,” said Clegg. “They are difficult to sell out of season, and it is a very short season. Eighty percent of my sales are for the weeks prior to the Thanksgiving holiday.”

Growing a specialty crop, particularly one rooted to the food traditions of a given community, is vastly different than growing a commodity crop. When specialty crops begin to become commercialized, the risk of losing their identity and variability is often at odds with the desire to develop a crop suitable for widespread production and introduction outside of its home range.

Go Wild For Rice

Native wild rice is an annual aquatic grass with roots that grow in the soils beneath shallow waters. Wild rice species are found in very specific habitats in limited areas of the United States. Texas is home to a speci

es that only resides within the state. Two species — Zizania aquatica and Zizania palustris — are found primarily in the Great Lakes region, including Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, as well as in parts of Canada and along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts where conditions are favorable.

wild rice harvest
A wild rice harvest in Michigan.

Wild rice paddies play important roles in conservation, providing wildlife habitat and a food source for numerous species of birds, mammals and fish. These wild rice beds protect water quality by binding loose soils, tying up nutrients and acting as windbreaks.

Natural wild rice-growing areas are being endangered by development, pollution and the pursuit of recreational activities, and work to re-establish and protect these habitats is ongoing in some regions. Michigan’s largest wild rice bed is a mere 700 acres. Historically, numerous 4,000-acre beds were common in the state’s coastal marshes, now dredged and unsuitable for the plant.

Harvesting wild rice is labor-intensive. For every 100 pounds of harvested seed there will be about 40 pounds of finished wild rice. The crop is gathered in late summer, when the seed is gathered by hand from canoes. The grain is then dried in the sun and parched over a fire, de-hulled and winnowed.

One reason this wild food is disappearing is, perhaps ironically, the cultivation of the plant. Cultivation isn’t simply creating a viable market crop, which in turn could offer some protection to the remaining wild rice stands or increase interest in restoration of historic beds. Instead, it involves taking the wild rice and altering its traits to fit the demands of modern farming.

This altered rice is offensive to Native American tribes, to whom the plant and the customs and rituals associated with it are sacred.

“The reason [Native Americans] are here is because of wild rice,” said Barb Barton, endangered species consultant and author of Manoomin: The Story of Wild Rice in Michigan. “All cultures have wild food traditions associated with them, and now they are all disappearing.”

Cultivated wild rice paddies have been established in the Great Lakes region, but the majority of the wild rice found in stores today is grown in California.

wild river rice Zizania aquatica
Efforts are underway by the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi Indians to restore the state threatened wild river rice Zizania aquatica from Nottawa Creek to the Pine River Creek Reservation. Photo by Barb Barton.

In order to make wild rice a viable farm crop, the wild rice plant has been bred to mature at one time for ease of harvest, to produce higher yields, for shorter plants, to resist disease and to have seeds that are viable when stored dry. These traits have resulted in varieties that can only survive in cultivated rice paddies. If these cultivated plants crossbreed with wild natives, the survival of the wild rice plants in their natural habitat is at risk.

There is, however, a market demand for wild rice. Chefs are extremely interested. There are only a few remaining stands that produce enough rice to meet this demand. Instead, cultivated wild rice fills the gap. Domesticated varieties are less intensive to harvest and process and therefore sell at a lower cost per pound than the native wild rice that makes it to the market.

To the Native American tribes, the main purpose of the wild rice plant isn’t to make money, but rather “to feed your family and elders in your community, and have it available for ceremonies,” Barton explained.

Wild rice grown in its natural habitat, hand-harvested and processed via traditional means, retains its intrinsic values as a nutrient source, its role in conservation and its role in religion and in community. That value is of the kind that doesn’t carry a price tag. Ideally, natural wild rice habitats would be abundant and would allow for the sale of rice not needed by the foragers, keeping its identity intact.

“You can’t make a wild food a commodity,” said Barton. “It is not a domesticated crop where you have a monoculture. When you start to take these wild foods and then turn them into a money-making venture … there is always a loss.”

Regional Crops: Plum Crazy

Beach plums, or Prunus maritima, are native to New Jersey as well as other locales along the Eastern Seaboard from Maine to Maryland. Rutgers Cooperative Extension Agent Jenny Carleo and Joseph Goffreda, director at the Rutgers Fruit and Ornamental Research Extension Center, where 1,000 or so beach plums grow in the orchard, have been working to promote this crop to growers and eaters alike.

While the beach plum evolved on the sandy coastal soils, “Anywhere you can grow a peach you can grow a beach plum,” said Carleo. Interest from New Jersey farmers is “growing slowly, as we are getting more information year after year on how to grow this other commercial crop.”

Farmer Matt Stiles
Farmer Matt Stiles on a tour of Plantation Farm, run by CMCBPA President David van Vorst.

The highbush blueberry had a similar history in New Jersey — a native wild plant that was bred for traits to make it a desirable crop for farmers. The success of the blueberry — now a staple food in our diet — is hard to ignore. It’s the goal of the Rutgers program to usher in the same results for the beach plum.

Rutgers University introduced a new beach plum variety, “Rutgers Jersey Gem,” in 2017. It is a cross between a beach plum found on the dunes of Long Beach Island and a named variety, “Premier.” Scions are available. They are currently seeking a fruit tree specialty nursery grower to propagate the plant for widespread sales.

Carleo has surveyed customers who have tasted beach plum products, with positive results. Over 90 percent of tasters indicate that they will likely try beach plum products again. Wild-harvested beach plums, as well as those grown on several farms in the South Jersey region, are made into value-added products that “pretty much sell out every year,” she said.

Beach plum genetics need to be improved to make the crop suitable for orchard growing. Breeders are trying to select for better growth habits, simultaneous flowering, annual production and enhanced taste and quality. Propagation occurs via root cuttings due to extreme variations with sexual reproduction.

The existing native beach plum stands seemingly aren’t in any danger from the breeding of cultivars suitable for orchard commercialization. In fact, promoting their fruits might help to save wild stands as they gain increased recognition as a native coastal plant valuable for food and the environment.

The beach plum isn’t the only native fruit tree with potential for commercial production. There are other native plums, such as the Sand Hill Plum, Prunus angustifolia, which is native to much of Kansas, that might someday be common in grocery stores.

Regional Crops: Mayhaw Madness

“The mayhaw, being a native fruit tree, growing in swamps and flatlands near practically every rural settlement in much of the South, plays an important role in southern culture,” said Johnny Smith.

Johnny Smith with a mayhaw tree
Johnny Smith with a mayhaw tree loaded with fruit.

Located in Singer, in southwest Louisiana, Smith’s J & D Mayhaws is dedicated to finding the best of the best of the wild mayhaw trees and cloning them via grafting so their fruits can be propagated by orchard growers. It takes seven or eight years for a mayhaw to fruit when grown from seed, and collecting wild seedlings is time-consuming and they are often less fruitful than anticipated.

“A wild mayhaw seedling is often called a ‘chance mayhaw’ because there may be one chance in 100, or one in 1,000, that it will turn out to be a remarkable tree,” said Smith. “By grafting, I know what I’m getting.”

Wild mayhaws are selected for propagation based on fruit size, color, quality, ripening, reliable harvest dates, the ability to hold the fruit on the tree until fully ripened, yield and disease resistance. Smith also hybridizes new cultivars.

The fruit is traditionally made into jelly. Juice is extracted by steaming and pressing berries and is typically sold frozen by the gallon. Demand for the fruit is increasing and cannot currently be met by existing suppliers.

“The fruit is simply not available — at any price,” said Smith. “We harvest anywhere from 1 to 25 gallons per tree,” with production varying based on age, weather and individual cultivar. “The wide variety in production between cultivars is another reason to graft select varieties.”

Large orchards are being planted in the region in an attempt to satisfy some of the demand. Some mayhaw trees are viable outside of their native moist and swampy habitat, but most favor the hot southern climate.

Regional Crops: Risks of Commercialization

The renewed interest in heritage and regional foods is bringing crops such as the Macomber rutabaga, wild rice, beach plums and mayhaws into the spotlight, allowing us to enjoy and preserve important parts of our food culture. Increased exposure to these important foods does carry risks, though. Selective breeding for storability and shelf life could decrease flavor, as it has for tomatoes and other common produce items. They could also lose their luster and regional uniqueness if they one day become so commonplace that they end up in chain restaurants or grocery stores.

Foods with real roots — ones that have an identifiable place in our history — deserve to remain a part of our lives. Balancing their preservation with our quest to domesticate them may be the best way to move forward while keeping an eye on our past and working to enrich our future.


Barb Barton’s books, articles, music & information on wild rice:

Chris Clegg’s Four Town Farm

Rutgers Beach Plum information

J & D Mayhaws, LLC

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the September 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Veteran Farmers Making a Difference

By Jordan Strickler

Veterans are once again taking up the call for our country as veteran farmers. Charley Jordan stops to listen to the quiet and to feel the breeze as his cattle graze in the distance. The silence is a stark contrast from the thunderous helicopter rotors he knew in the Army.

Richard Gwilt no longer breathes the cordite he once did as a range master and paratrooper. His days in the 101st Airborne are over. Today he serves as director of operations for the Desert Forge Foundation, a nonprofit located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that is dedicated to transitioning veterans to farmers. The former chief warrant officer raises horses, cows and chilies, among other crops.

Tom Bennett has removed his staff sergeant stripes and left the Marines, but he still has the same gung-ho attitude, which he has been able to apply to raising pastured pigs and chickens. He has found a vocation that allows him to apply the problem-solving skills that he honed in the military.

Many veterans come home to a life completely different from the one they grew accustomed to in the military. Some aren’t lucky enough to adapt. For thousands of veterans, farming has become that new life: an occupation that is saving both them and agriculture.

There are currently more than 23 million veterans in the United States. When their service ends and their tours are over, veterans often have no place to turn. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, today’s vets are more likely to be unemployed than both civilians and veterans of prior conflicts. Through 2012, veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan had an unemployment rate of 9.9 percent — compared to about 7.9 percent for the general U.S. population.

veteran farmer
Tom Bennett has removed his staff sergeant stripes and left the Marines, but he now brings the same gung-ho attitude to sustainably raising his pigs and chickens.

The median age of American farmers is almost 60 and is continuing to rise. Current farmers are retiring and no one is taking their place. Additionally, U.S. farmers over the age of 55 control more than half the country’s farmland. The long hours, meager pay and underappreciation have many opting to take up occupations in other sectors of agriculture or sometimes out of the industry altogether. The number of entry-level farmers has fallen by 30 percent since 1987. In fact, less than 1 percent of the American population consider themselves full-time farmers.

Veteran Farmers: New Ways to Serve

“Military veterans are used to the long hours it takes to be a successful farmer,” says Evan Eagan, communications manager for the Farmer/Veteran Coalition. Eagans was a combat correspondent in the Marines from 2003 to 2007. “In the military, they were constantly presented with new challenges for which they had to find solutions, a lot of the time on the fly. The same kind of skills are needed in farming, so it is natural that they would make a transition into that line of work.”

Bennett, owner of Bennett Farms in Edwardsburg, Michigan, has always had a passion for agriculture. Growing up, he admired farmers — something that might have had to do with the cow his neighbors raised, he says. Bennett knew that he wouldn’t be a Marine forever, so halfway through his tour he used the internet to teach himself how to farm.

He now owns 20 acres on which he raises hogs and chickens. He says it’s important to let consumers know where their food comes from, and he wants to help erase the negative stereotype that a lot of people have about farmers. He does this by always having an open-door policy for consumers to look at the farm and learn about his growing practices. He also loves to point out that pork from his farm tastes better.

“People don’t know what products exist,” says Bennett, whose hogs and chickens are pastured. “I want people to know that there is great-tasting food out there. Food can taste a lot better than the stuff you might find at the grocery store.”

veteran farmer by sign
Tom Bennett, owner of Bennett Farm in Edwardsburg, Michigan, has always had a passion for agriculture and now raises hogs and chickens.

The farmer/veteran movement got a tremendous boost with the 2014 Farm Bill. Under the Farm Bill, the USDA for the first time designated veterans as a distinct class of beginning farmers, allowing them access to low-interest rate loans to buy animals and equipment. It also allows them to apply for grants to upgrade their farm and can aid them in receiving extra payments to implement conservation practices on their land.

“The Farm Bill had a huge impact,” said Erin Kimbrough, program coordinator for Battleground to Breaking Ground, a program at Texas A&M that assists veterans transitioning into farming. “It gave a high priority to helping veterans get into farming. It was incredible.”

So why do some veterans gravitate to cultivation?

“One of the best things about farming is creating something from nothing,” said Jordan, owner of Circle J Ranch in Woodlawn, Tennessee. “It’s kind of addicting to watch something come from nothing. You plant a seed and watch it grow. You take a chicken, use its eggs and make an omelet. There is just something really special about it.”

Beginning a career in farming can be a calming antidote to years of stressful situations. Most veterans also believe it has a symbolic relation to the military’s trials and tribulations.

“Agriculture is rewarding hands-on work, in that you get to see actual ‘fruits’ of your work in the finished product,” said retired Major Jason Morgan, a teacher in the Texas A&M program and owner of Sweet Genevieve Farm. Morgan served 24 years in the Marines as an F-18 pilot. “It is low stress when it comes to dealing with people compared to fast-paced corporate ladder types of jobs. Animals are easier to deal with than people. You are your own boss, and you set the pace of operations.”

Jessica Stith served in the Navy from 2002 to 2004 and is part-owner of Stith Farm, located in Stamping Ground, Kentucky. She is on the board of directors of the veteran suicide prevention nonprofit, 22 Until Valhalla.

“I believe that the therapeutic qualities of agricultural life tend to attract veterans. Of course it can be very stressful, but I believe that we have all found peace in mild tasks like bush-hogging, dragging paddocks, mucking stalls, raking hay — those jobs that may seem mundane, but allow your mind to relax.”

Vets in Need

According to a 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, which analyzed 55 million veterans’ records from 1979 to 2014, an average of 20 veterans a day die from suicide. The VA also states that as many as one in five veterans returned from Iraq with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

veteran farmers in field
A group of veterans attends the UC Santa Cruz Center For Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems summer internship program.

In 2013, The Guardian reported that “for the first time in at least a generation, the number of active-duty soldiers who killed themselves, 177, exceeded the 176 who were killed while in the war zone. To put that another way, more of America’s serving soldiers died at their own hands than in pursuit of the enemy.”

In her role with 22 Until Valhalla, Stith works toward the prevention of veteran suicide. “That is very gratifying and definitely helpful when seeking a new purpose in your life. The veteran friends that I personally know who have transitioned into ag-life seem to be doing very well and are satisfied. The nice thing is that there is a supportive community around when you need it.”

Kimbrough echoes Stith’s sentiments.

“I absolutely believe farming saves lives. I have someone contact me at least once or twice a month telling me how farming saved their life. Some veterans hoping to use the program have had PTSD so bad that they have had to have others call on their behalf. Farming has a large impact on decreasing veteran suicide rates.”

Gwilt says farming can turn a veteran’s life around.

“For those who have been mentally affected, it can keep them alive. When you get back into nature, you get much more than any drugs the VA will give you.”

As those already involved in agriculture know, barriers to entry in farming are high. Expensive start-up costs, along with the steep learning curve, could cause many vets to balk at the prospect of taking up a new agriculture-based life. And while the workload and mentality are similar to the work in the military, most servicemembers do not have the experience and know-how to begin a new lifestyle in the fields. Luckily, there are a number of organizations rising to the occasion to put vets on the right path to their new endeavors.

Helping Vets Transition

Texas A&M’s Battleground to Breaking Ground provides a multi-tiered program involving months of teaching and educational tools in all aspects of agriculture, from aquaculture to ranching, including a course that pairs them with a mentor. Vets can take workshops on rural business ideas, business planning basics and resources for beginning farmers and ranchers. After the workshop stage, students undergo months of training for more detailed business planning and counseling in the areas of agriculture they wish to pursue.

“So many vets get a renewed purpose from farming,” said Kimbrough. “Nine-to-five jobs don’t suit a lot of them, and farming is restorative. It’s a place they can find peace, but they might not have the farming background or the business experience to do it. Our program gives them knowledge and tools for breaking into farming.”

Jordan also wants to make life a bit easier for veterans looking to make their way into farming. The former Army aviator helps head up the Tennessee Beginning Farmer Development Program (TBFD).

In conjunction with the University of Tennessee, the USDA, the University of Tennessee Extension, Tennessee State University Extension and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, TBFD provides resources and assistance to beginning farmers, with a focus on those who are military personnel, veterans and farmers with disabilities.

“We’ve got all kinds of cool programs,” says Jordan. “We’re teaching people not only some farming skills but programs like business management as well.”

One specific goal of TBFD is to give farmers a leg-up by teaching them how to create a business plan, as well as instructing them in marketing skills and encouraging them to generate a safety and health plan.

Additionally, the TBFD hopes to increase awareness of available programs that can assist farmers with planning and implementation of various aspects of a farm business plan. It seeks to encourage them to adopt recommended agricultural best practices, as well as to provide on-farm assistance.

The Army has also begun to offer many career-training opportunities through its Career Skills Program (CSP) for soldiers who are in the process of leaving the service. Soldiers within 180 days of their separation date can receive permissive temporary duty orders to attend training to learn skills such as welding, truck driving, business management and even farming.

The new Soldier to Agriculture program is a free five-week CSP training opportunity at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, that is run by NC State University. Participants, while still on active duty, receive hands-on training in a variety of ag-related fields as well as mentorship and assistance in starting a farming career.

USDA programs such as Homegrown By Heroes have gone a long way toward giving veteran farmers a fighting chance in the farming business. Established in 2013 by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, Homegrown By Heroes is now a nationwide service available to farmers, ranchers, fishermen and value-added producers who own 50 percent or more of a business or operation and are veterans of the armed forces. It is a program many vets take pride in becoming a part of.

The Homegrown By Heroes project, which is denoted by circular insignia consisting of a silhouette of a saluting solider in front of the American flag, supports farmers by branding their products and giving them marketing assistance.

As Bennett says, “Farming is 90 percent marketing, and Homegrown By Heroes lets everyone know that a veteran did this, something we take pride in.”

25 Programs Helping Vets Succeed in Agriculture

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the November 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Women in Agriculture Supporting One Another

By Jill Henderson

Women are the fastest growing group of organic and sustainable farmers in America, and they are forming groups to support one another, foster creativity and help make better laws for small farms

Anyone who has ever farmed knows that women are as integral to farming operations today as they ever have been. In many early cultures it was the role of women to grow food, tend small livestock, preserve everything that wasn’t eaten fresh and create household products such as baskets, soap, fiber, clothing, rope, tools, jewelry and much more. 

Yet despite their long history on the land, women have not always been given their proper dues as true farmers. Neither have they always been afforded the legal rights to inherit or own land or businesses, nor to vote or be fully engaged in the political arena surrounding these rights. 

Farmer Lisa Kivirist serves another woman guest at her farm.
Lisa Kivirist (left) serves a guest at the farm. Lisa and her husband, John Ivanko, often open their farm for tours and classes.

Women today are generally liberated in the sense that they are able to choose their employment and participate fully in the political process. However, women were not counted as farmers by the annual Ag Census until 1978. And since then they have often been profoundly under-counted due to the vagaries and complexities of the questionnaire. 

Yet according to the 2012 census, at least 30 percent of all farm operators in America are women, and women are currently the fastest growing group of organic and sustainable farmers. According to the 2017 Bureau of Labor Statistics, female farmers are out-earning their male counterparts by approximately 16 percent. 

Part of this new wave of female farmers includes women like me who have farmed for many years but for one reason or another were never counted. I am among those that slipped through the cracks largely due to my own vision of what I do as a profession. Despite years of tending the soil, raising food for my family and farming right alongside my husband, I considered myself a gardener and homemaker, not a farmer.

Like me, at least some of the women now being counted as farmers are simply redefining themselves as such, based on what they’ve been doing for years. Others are women who have always farmed but were not the head of their household. Then of course there are women who have dreamed of farming but lacked the skillset, support or nerve to start a farm-based enterprise; these pioneers are quickly finding new ways to do just that and are jumping into the farming arena in striking numbers. 

“Women indeed have been raising food and feeding their families and communities since the dawn of agriculture,” says farmer, activist, mentor and author Lisa Kivirist. “However, in the last century, particularly in the past fifty years, women finally achieved stronger economic and legal rights when it comes to recognition of their work. Couple that with the growing local food movement and farm and food business scene and there’s never been a better time for a woman to launch her farm dream.” 

Farming and Ecopreneurship

Lisa and her husband, John Ivanko — along with their adult son, Liam — have been farming five lush acres in the rolling hill country of Browntown, Wisconsin, for the better part of 23 years. Both grew up in the city and worked high-stress corporate advertising jobs in Chicago. By the time they met, both were already dreaming of escaping the rat race. 

Lisa Kivirist stands in her kitchen. Lisa is involved in the cottage food industry.
Lisa is paving the way for the cottage food industry.

“Back in our twenties, John and I were very much on that expected societal track: get a college degree, corporate job and paycheck, and a house in the suburbs — in that order. Fortunately for us, we realized early on that corporate cubicle life was not for us,” says Lisa. “We started ‘escaping’ across the border to Wisconsin, heading out from Chicago for weekends of typical tourist stuff like hiking and camping. It was those weekends in Wisconsin, where we could see stars and rolling green hills that went on for miles, where we first connected with this idea of rural living, sparking visions of the farm journey we continue today.” 

Part of their farm plan was to operate a cozy bed and breakfast that served fresh, homegrown foods and allowed visitors to soak in the beauty and serenity of the countryside. So, shortly after they bought their land in 1996, they set out to build their dream of offering hospitality through ecopreneurship. 

“We prioritize looking at things from a ‘Seventh Generation’ perspective, always considering how our actions will affect future generations and what can we do today to work towards a better future,” John says. 

Their creation, Inn Serendipity, has become a world-class, award-winning ecological bed and breakfast. “The farm-stay works very well in partnership with our farm, as increasingly people are looking for this type of agritourism experience,” says Lisa. “We love giving guests farm tours, and they appreciate and are drawn to the fact that our seasonal breakfasts are ‘ten feet from garden to plate.’” 

Soil Sisters

As exciting as it was to move onto their new place and into a new way of life, Lisa sometimes found herself wishing she had other female farmers that she could turn to — not only for friendship and experienced advice, but to cultivate creative ideas and to develop a support network of like-minded women. 

The farm and the Inn Serendipity Bed and Breakfast.
John and Lisa’s farm, with the Inn Serendipity Bed and Breakfast.

“When I first moved to the farm and jumped into this diversified agricultural livelihood, it was quite lonely and overwhelming,” Lisa says. “I found back then, and still most definitely do today, that I need support and inspiration through other women farmers.” 

Not one to sit around and wait for something to happen, Lisa got busy organizing her own kitchen table gatherings of farming women. This eventually grew into the South Central Wisconsin Women in Sustainable Agriculture (SCWWSA) group. 

“The collaborative spirit of women committed to sustainability and land stewardship make this movement thrive,” she says. “These women’s stories are so empowering and yet underrepresented in the media that I love to champion their stories and further create these connections and networks.”

Lisa went on to create a farm tour she called Soil Sisters: A Celebration of Wisconsin Farms and Rural Life. This unique public food tour highlighted ecological and organic female farmers from around the region. It encouraged regional farm tourism in general, but it also generated a powerful sense of belonging and empowerment to the women who were involved. 

In 2009, Lisa was asked by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) to head up a new project called In Her Boots. 

In Her Boots provides “training, outreach and a voice for women in organic and sustainable agriculture, both in the Midwest and nationally,” explains the MOSES website. “It includes programs to facilitate collaboration and support the growing number of women starting farms and food-based businesses, strengthening local food systems and building committed, engaged partnerships with other non-profits and agencies such as the Wisconsin Farmers Union and the Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN).”

The project is one of the longest-running educational efforts specifically targeting women farmers. “We host several In Her Boots workshops over the summer that are held on women-owned farms, celebrating the peer networking learning model that shows women learn best from each other,” Lisa says.

Lisa also continues to be involved in the annual Soil Sisters gathering, which has grown into the largest women-farmer-led event of its kind in the country. This summer’s celebration will take place in and around the southern Wisconsin farming communities of Monroe, New Glarus, Blachardville and Brodhead from August 2 to 4.

Farm Income Diversification

“I’m a big fan of diversification, which particularly resonates with women,” Lisa says. “Women naturally love to have multiple projects going on that then creatively support each other. Such a strategy also makes sense from a risk management perspective on the farm: having a diversity of businesses — from value-added products made in your home kitchen under cottage food law to running a farm-stay — all support a healthy bottom line.”

Lisa giving a workshop on cultivating a home-based cottage food business.
Lisa giving a workshop on cultivating a home-based cottage food business.

Like many farm families, John and Lisa have found many ways to diversify their income. Their bed and breakfast is one way; another is practicing the skills they had before they became farmers. Their son, Liam, has become a talented technical adviser, helping Lisa and John with a wide array of computer and technical issues. John is a gifted photographer and the author of two children’s books written for the Global Fund for Children. And the couple has authored six books together, including Farmstead Chef, Ecopreneuring: Putting Purpose and the Planet Before Profits and Rural Renaissance: Renewing the Quest for the Good Life.

In addition to writing many articles for publications such as Mother Earth News, Grit, Hobby Farms and Natural Awakenings, Lisa’s grassroots passion for ecopreneurship and women in farming led her to author her wildly popular book, Soil Sisters: A Toolkit for Women Farmers. Not only does this book coin a new description of women in agriculture — it goes a long way toward helping them find valuable information, inspiration and kindred support in their quest to run a successful business based on organic and sustainable agriculture.

Improving Cottage Food Laws

Lisa and many of her female farmer friends have taken it upon themselves to fight for better cottage food laws in Wisconsin. One the first issues they took on was the Wisconsin “Cookie Bill,” which was actually a lawsuit that two of Lisa’s friends — Dela Ends of Scotch Hill Farm and Kriss Marion of Circle M Farm — filed against the state of Wisconsin to lift the ban on the sale of home-baked goods. 

“As I write about in my book, Homemade for Sale, the opportunity for farmers — particularly women — to diversify farm businesses through adding a value-added component through baking in their home farm kitchen is a tremendous opportunity,” Lisa says. 

Lisa Kivirist and her husband John Ivanko.
Lisa Kivirist and her husband, John Ivanko.

As a result of this experience, Lisa was appointed a Senior Fellow of the University of Minnesota Endowed Chair in Agricultural Systems for the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. The position allows Lisa to further impact the cottage food industry, which is a key farm enterprise for women. 

“They wanted someone outside of academia for this project, and my work continues to look at how we can increase and support more women farmers in leadership positions and how developing local networks can support this process,” she said. “We are currently working on developing packaging and low-moisture recipes for baked goods that do not require cold storage. And soon we’ll be releasing a toolkit for farmers in the cottage food industry to work from.” 

Lisa Kivirist is a prime example of the impact that women farmers can have both on and off the farm. She was recognized by In Business Magazine as a “Woman of Industry” for her leadership in the sustainable agriculture movement. “While it’s great to see an increase in the number of women running farm businesses, we need greater representation on the leadership level — more women around the decision-making table in particular when decisions on policy and funding are being made.” 

The key for women who want to work in agriculture — and for those who already do — is to just go ahead and jump in with both boots on, networking with other sisters of the soil and believing that the possibilities are endless. 


Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Jill Henderson is an artist, author and organic gardener. She is editor of Show Me Oz, a blog featuring articles on gardening, seed saving, nature ecology, wild edible and medicinal plants and culinary herbs. She has written three books: The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country and The Garden Seed Saving Guide.

Interview: Eric Holt-Gimenez Part 2: Farmers Supporting Farmers

Interviewed by Tracey Frisch

Editor’s Note: This is part 2 of a two-part interview with Eric Holt-Giménez. Read Part 1 here. 

Who is Eric Holt-Giménez

Since 2006 scholar and activist Eric Holt-Giménez has been executive director of Food First(Institute for Food and Development Policy), a people’s think tank founded by Frances Moore Lappé in 1975. As a leading critic of the global food system his work is grounded in a quarter-century of experience working in Latin America with peasant farmers in the agroecology movement. His latest book, and the central focus of this interview, is A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat. Holt-Giménez, who is of Basque and Puerto Rican heritage and the son of farmworkers, grew up milking cows and pitching hay on Marin County, California, dairy farms. He studied rural education and biology at the University of Oregon and Evergreen State College and later earned his M.Sc. in international development (UC Davis, 1981) and Ph.D. in environmental studies (UC Santa Cruz, 2002).

On his first project in Mexico after college, Holt-Giménez was charged with teaching sustainable agriculture to impoverished subsistence farmers, but quickly realized that he could learn a lot more from them. There he witnessed the impact of larger social and political forces on small farmers through the Green Revolution, which was getting them hooked on a treadmill of purchased inputs and imposing a farming system that was destructive to their land and well-being. A visit by several Mayan farmers from Guatemala to hold a field course on restoring degraded land marked a critical turning point for both Holt-Giménez and the peasant farmers. That encounter helped launch the Campesino a Campesino (farmer to farmer) movement through which untold numbers of small farmers around Latin America created more productive and ecologically sound, innovative farming systems, increased their livelihoods and amplified their voice.

Eric Holt-Giménez
Eric Holt-Giménez

Holt-Giménez’s Ph.D. dissertation on that movement formed the basis for his book Campesino a Campesino: Voices from Latin America’s Farmer to Farmer Movement for Sustainable Agriculture. He also co-authored, with Raj Patel and Annie Shattuck, Food Rebellions! Crisis and the Hunger for Justice and is the editor of Food Movements Unite! Strategies to Transform Our Food System. His writing has appeared in prominent newspapers, and he has a blog on Huffington Post. He also teaches internationally at the graduate level.

Learning From Farmers

ACRES U.S.A. After you graduated from college, what motivated you to immerse yourself in peasant communities in Latin America?

ERIC HOLT-GIMENÉZ. I was already in the highlands of Guatemala doing a study for my college thesis. I saw that schoolteachers there didn’t just teach kids; they also acted as a liaison between the indigenous community and the outside world. They were tasked to bring in seeds and fertilizers, and they worked together with everybody. That got me interested in rural development, and I turned away from education, which was where I was heading. I found a volunteer position with the Mexican Friends Service Committee, and my partner and I went to a village in Tlaxcala in central Mexico. Tlaxcala is the smallest state in Mexico. It’s also the most eroded, one of the poorest and the most densely populated state. It has the longest history of colonization and exploitation. We were supposed to teach the farmers sustainable agriculture, but not very long after I got there, I realized that was an absurd proposition. These people have been farming for 6,000 years. Much of their agriculture was for subsistence. They were depending on it to survive so they couldn’t take chances on experimenting with new things. The problem was that they had entered into the Green Revolution and were getting credit to buy fertilizers, pesticides and hybrid seed. They had done quite well with that for five or six years. But then, as the soil became degraded, they had to apply more and more fertilizer. They were forced into a monoculture of corn in order to get credit. With everybody growing corn, the price of corn went down and they were having trouble paying off their loans. The price of beans, which they used to grow with the corn, went up since no one was growing beans, so their very basic diet was costing them more. And they had stopped growing squash, which had helped to shade the soil and provided large pumpkins for their animals. They had to buy feed for the animals, and the soil was drying out so the crops were less resilient to drought. The corn didn’t keep very long so they had to sell it right away, when everybody else was selling it.

ACRES U.S.A. They had gotten on the pesticide and fertilizer treadmill and were now looking for a way out.

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. The organic agriculture I was practicing on my own experimental plot was doing quite well, but they weren’t adopting any of those techniques. I was very frustrated. Then, at almost the end of our two-year stint, some peasant farmers from Guatemala came to the village and gave a workshop. They belonged to a very large co-op and had gone into temporary exile because it was safer for them to be out of the country during elections. Only one man in the village attended their workshop. They showed a lot of the things that I had been doing. It was their style of communication, and the fact that they were farmers, that convinced the farmers in the village where I lived of the benefits of rebuilding the soil, diversifying crops, implementing conservation techniques and whatnot. They had a fantastic course. That one person who took the course implemented those things on his own land where other people could see them. Since it worked for him, other people became interested. With a group from the village we took a trip down to Guatemala to visit the Guatemalans, and they became even more convinced of these sustainable practices, which we now call agroecology. I extended my stay another year as we implemented those practices, and the farmers began to give workshops. They used demonstrations and little models that they built in the dirt and poems and songs for sharing the agroecological knowledge that they had learned from the Guatemalans. Very little was written down. It was very accessible, and they were able to learn basic concepts in agroecology and how to do efficient experimentation that allowed them to quantify their results. They could run five or six small-scale experiments on their plot without risking the harvest. With a group of about 10 men, if they each had five experiments, that’s 50 experiments.

ACRES U.S.A. That is so exciting!

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. It changed my life. I could have come home like any Peace Corps veteran and gone into business or to grad school. But with this experience, I became convinced that it wasn’t my role to teach farmers to farm. What I could do was help bring farmers to meet with other farmers, so they could figure out the best ways to farm. That was the beginning of the Campesino a Campesino, or the farmer to farmer, movement.

ACRES U.S.A. Tell me more about the highly eroded state you worked in.

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. Tlaxcala was one of the first areas to be colonized by the Spanish. They deforested it, put sheep on the land and degraded the soils. Much of Tlaxcala looks like a moonscape, and this is where poor farmers have been shoved to farm. Pushing the peasants onto the most fragile lands and then expecting them to produce is quite typical in most parts of the world. And actually, they do produce. But accepting the inputs from Green Revolution technologies is a doubled-edge sword. At first, yields increase. Then very quickly their whole system degrades and collapses, and they’re ruined. This has repeated itself over and over the last half-century. These farmers were able to get off that treadmill.

ACRES U.S.A. How did the Guatemalan farmers start using agroecological practices?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. The Guatemalan farmers are indigenous Mayan farmers who worked under supremely oppressive conditions for 500 years. They had been shoved up onto the steep hillsides growing corn, beans and squash. They, too, were offered fertilizers. Their situation was much worse than the Mexicans, who have land tenure through the ejido system. The Guatemalans didn’t have that. For six months out of the year they had to go down to coastal areas and work on banana plantations. They would come back sick and exhausted. The large landowners would loan them money to buy the inputs, which they would sell to them. When they couldn’t pay back the loan after the harvest, the landowners would load them onto big cattle trucks and send them on a 20-hour ride down to the coast where they were being worked to death. What happened was that a Guatemalan soil specialist, who had been educated in part in the United States and worked all his life in soil conservation in Guatemala, retired to a small indigenous village that his wife was from. He was bored so he bought a little piece of steep, highly eroded land. He put in small terraces and added organic matter to conserve soil and water, the factors that limited production in most peasant agriculture, and he got tremendous yields. It was rain-fed agriculture. Some indigenous farmers asked him what special seed or fertilizer he was using. He was using the local heirloom seeds — they’re called landraces. The indigenous farmers were amazed by his yields and asked him to teach them. He agreed. He didn’t speak the indigenous language, so there was a lot of pantomime and teaching by example. Nothing was shared by the written word. In the Mayan culture, if somebody advances, everybody advances so they wanted to share these techniques within the rest of their villages. They asked him to go out with them. He said no because he didn’t speak Kaqchikel, the Mayan language. He would teach them to teach the others, but first they had to show results on their own land. And this worked.

ACRES U.S.A. When was this?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. In the early 1970s, during a time of extreme repression in Guatemala for indigenous people. This was incredibly important to them. As the knowledge spread in their villages, they began to produce enough to live on and to sell, so they formed a cooperative. They weren’t completely organic; they did use a little fertilizer along with a lot of organic material that they added to their soil. When the cooperative began making money, they started other activities in the co-op like sewing, and the women were involved. They had worked on coffee farms so they began to produce coffee. Then, they pooled their money to buy eroded coffee farms at very low prices and restore their fertility with agroecological practices. They were so wildly successful that they stopped working for the large landowners and stopped using them as middlemen to sell their corn and beans. Actually, they started outcompeting the large landowners in the coffee market. On top of that, through the co-op — which was called Kato-ki, which means welcome, they were doing their own land reform, buying land and distributing it among themselves. I got to know them when they were at their zenith. They were recovering a lot of old indigenous practices that we call traditional and also innovating as well. They received some help from Oxfam and World Neighbors. They had developed a very sophisticated methodology for teaching and sharing agroecological knowledge, and they would put on workshops all around the Guatemalan Highlands. They would have fairs and give demonstrations. It was a tremendous effervescence of agriculture within Mayan culture.

ACRES U.S.A. How did the landowners react to their success?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. The landowners saw them as a threat, denounced them as communists and called in the army to burn them out. Some were killed, others fled. Some joined the guerillas. Others went into exile, taking with them the knowledge that they had gained.

ACRES U.S.A. How did this movement evolve?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. The Campesino a Campesino movement continued in Honduras, Salvador, Mexico and Nicaragua. When Campesino a Campesino hit Nicaragua, where there was a revolution and massive land reform, it spread across the country through the National Farmers and Ranchers Union and became wildly successful. The peasants were on the land, armed and empowered, but it was very difficult for the government to give them anything else. They were importing Soviet tractors for another Green Revolution, though it failed because of inept central planning and poor logistics. It wasn’t a well-greased machine. Campesino a Campesino provides tremendous levels of autonomy for the peasantry, ensures their food security and links them in very dense cultural networks across the country. During the revolutionary period a lot of farmers’ organizations and NGOs from around the world were descending on Nicaragua to learn about what was happening and provide support. Many people came in contact with the Campesino a Campesino movement. The Nicaraguans and the Mexicans went back and forth visiting each other. It was more difficult for the Guatemalans, though they visited with the Hondurans and others. The movement exploded. Within 20 years, about a quarter of a million families were participating. And then, Campesino a Campesino was taken over to Cuba during “the special period.” In five years, a quarter of a million farmers became involved. With the end to the huge subsidy for fertilizers, pesticides and other input from the Soviet Union, the Cuban government had the political will to advance sustainable agriculture and agroecology. This showed us that if there is political will these practices will spread very quickly because of their success. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch hit Central America and 10,000 people died. They estimated losses at about 13 percent of the region’s gross national product. It was called the Hurricane of the Poor because of the deaths of so many peasants living in precarious conditions. Almost all of the crops were lost except those of the farmers in the Campesino a Campesino movement. We thought isn’t this interesting? Everybody was talking about reconstruction, but it didn’t make sense to reconstruct with conventional Green Revolution farming practices because they make the land too vulnerable. That’s why the losses were so high. We said we should reconstruct agroecologically to give more resilience. That would give us protections against hurricanes and droughts at the same time.

ACRES U.S.A. How did you advance your concerns about reconstruction?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. We carried out a three-country study in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua with 2,000 farmers that compared conventional to agroecological methods. The agroecological methods won hands-down. The farmers did all this research. I was there, finishing up my Ph.D., and I helped them design the field methods for the study. They already were experts at observing and measuring, having carried out small-scale experiments on their farms, and they knew what indicators to use to compare resiliency. We worked with over 100 teams in the three countries. Our massive database allowed us to make comparisons and reach conclusions with a high degree of certainty and precision. When we published in scientific journals, I think it was the first time 2,000 farmers, semi-literate and illiterate farmers, have ever published in a scientific journal. The farmers held huge events in the national capitals and presented their findings to the Ministries of Agriculture, the Ministries of Foreign Cooperation and everybody who was involved in the negotiations for the reconstruction of Central America. They were wildly applauded, which was quite a turnaround. For 30 years, the scientists and technicians from the Green Revolution and the Ministries of Agriculture had made fun of them. They’d told them, you say you’re sustainable. Now prove it. Well, they proved it. Then the ministries went off to Spain to negotiate the terms of reconstruction. When they came back several months later, we found out that they had decided to simply abandon agriculture, conventional and sustainable. They wanted the peasantry to leave the countryside and move to the urban centers to work in a vast network of sweatshops that were going to ground the economic reconstruction of Central America. We learned a terrible lesson: It’s not enough to be right. They didn’t care. Capitalism had another idea. I don’t know which idiot in the World Bank or the Inter-American Development Bank thought that Central America could ever compete with China and their sweatshops. Of course, the plan failed miserably. On the heels of that came the free trade agreements, which devalued all of the crops the farmers grew. That’s when you begin to see farmers going out of business, bankrupt, and the beginning of the farmer exodus from Mexico and Central America to the United States, looking for work. The basis of the migration crisis really started over 30 years ago, and the fate of these farmers was sealed when capitalism refused to rebuild after natural disasters.

ACRES U.S.A. What should we know about the ejido system in Mexico?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. The ejido system consists of state-owned lands, which were distributed to farmers. The ejido was given to the peasantry in return for their having been the cannon fodder during the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s. And with all of the problems that the ejido had — and there were plenty — it maintained the peasantry for 70 years. Every ejido in Mexico would have a certain amount of land, anywhere from 300 to 1,000 hectares, which would be distributed to between 50 and 200 families. In each village the ejido assembly managed the ejido. They gave out different parcels, set aside land for conservation and reforested. Most often land was worked individually. Farmers could pass down their plots to their progeny, but they couldn’t sell them. But then, in anticipation of the free-trade agreements, the Mexican government constitutionally abolished the ejido land with Article 27, so it could be bought and sold. Everybody likes to blame the United States for this, but the Mexican elites were quite complicit. The intention was to move the peasants out of the countryside. There’s always a war on the peasantry. But the peasants kept their ejido land. When the women learned that in order to sell, the wife had to sign along with the husband, they refused to sign. Very often, the husband wanted to sign to get the money, go to the United States or buy a pickup truck. But the wives were not convinced, in part because if your husband goes to the United States with all the money, he may never come back. He may find another woman and start another family. Very little ejido land was sold until the free trade agreements ground the rural economy to a halt. The U.S. dumping of grains into Mexico undercut production. With no market for their goods, farmers were going bankrupt. Then came sales of ejido land. This also affected the farmers in the Campesino a Campesino movement. I visited a lot of the original farmers. Many of their sons and daughters are in the United States. They are probably only producing at 15 to 25 percent of capacity because there’s no market for their farm products. Mexico could be farming ecologically and be self-sufficient in grains, but political decisions favoring international capital have driven the country in another direction.

ACRES U.S.A. To what extent are peasant farmers around the world using agroecological practices and farming systems? Do we have any idea?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. It’s impossible to know. People have tried again and again to quantify it, and have asked me to, but I couldn’t even quantify things when I was in the middle of it. It’s so horizontal. We called it reticular because it’s thoroughly embedded within peasant culture and peasant extended family networks — it moves like water finding different pathways. We would have a gathering and expect maybe 100 people to come, and suddenly there were 500 or 600 people there. Where did they come from? And then we would plan for 500 and 800 would show up. Around the world, agroecology is pushing back against conventional agriculture and, I would say, becoming the bastion of peasant production. Agroecology is a science, a practice and a movement. The science of agroecology is now being taken much more seriously, and it’s converging with researchers and scientists from other disciplines who have been studying it for quite some time.

ACRES U.S.A. Since we don’t use that term very much here, could you give a quick definition of agroecology?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. Agroecology involves managing the ecological function and processes on a farm in order to create an agricultural surplus. A lot of ecology and biology and atmospheric science come into it. There’s agroforestry and animal husbandry and relay cropping, and very complex combinations of diverse cropping systems and timing. While it’s certainly grounded in what we call traditional practices, traditional is an inaccurate term because it confers the sense of being static. Traditional agriculture wasn’t and isn’t ever static; it’s always changing. Agroecology as a science came out of biologists and ecologists observing traditional farming systems to find out what farmers were actually doing. They found that these farmers were managing the ecosystem functions of their farms. Some of their systems are ancient, millennial systems. Others are reworked, like the movement that I was associated with. And agroecology is really anathema to capitalist agriculture because it encourages farmers to spend less on inputs. That helps to explain why farmers who practice these techniques were ridiculed for as long as they were. But it worked so well and was so resilient in the face of natural disasters, worsening droughts and storms, that it couldn’t be ignored anymore. Now agencies like the UN and even the World Bank are trying to co-op the term and selectively incorporate different agroecological techniques into the existing structures of industrial capitalist agriculture. This is really a big split because industrial agriculture dispossesses peasant agriculture over time, and the political content of agroecology is to defend peasant agriculture. Agroecology is not just about the techniques; it’s about the whole system.

ACRES U.S.A. This sounds very different than organic farming, where the assumption has often been that scale doesn’t matter and that it doesn’t matter who owns the land; it’s just about production systems.

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. Well, they’re sorry about that now, aren’t they, because smaller organic farmers have prepared the market for big industrial agriculture to come in and take over. And now they’re changing the rules to favor large industrial agriculture and driving the small farmers out of production. So, at your own peril, you ignore the agrarian politics of agroecology, organic agriculture and permaculture.

ACRES U.S.A. Why must we pay attention to the role of race in the food and agriculture system?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. Our food and farming system has been racialized from the very beginning and continues to be so even today. Capitalist agriculture, particularly in the United States, is founded on slavery, the dispossession of indigenous people and the exploitation of Asian and Latin American farmers. If we weren’t exploiting undocumented immigrant labor from the Global South, primarily from the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America, the fruit and vegetable sector would crash tomorrow. We have to pay attention to race in our food system because it is founded on racism, and to ignore it is absurd. Racism allows this type of exploitation to take place by invisibilizing workers of color, or criminalizing them, as we do today. That’s on the production side. On the consumption side, all you have to do is look at health statistics in this country to see that the highest indices of diet-related disease and food insecurity are amongst people of color. Most of the food sector runs on the labor of people of color, and those are the people who suffer the most from our current food system.

ACRES U.S.A. You argue that we need to overcome racism, sexism and other forms of oppression and exploitation within the food movement, saying, “This is the work, not the after work.” How we can accomplish this?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. None of these things are going to change without powerful social movements that create the political will to change the rules, the regulations and the institutions that hold this exploitive system in place. Within the food movement the people with the most at stake for these transformations are the ones that are most exploited. And they happen to be people of color. The rest of the people identified with the food movement need to recognize that leadership because that’s the leadership that will see us through. For many people, this is difficult because they’ve been conditioned to dismiss that type of leadership. And some people are afraid of that type of leadership. These attitudes are just forms of racism. So that’s what I mean when I say we have to dismantle racism. Most of the voices that one hears speaking for the food movement are white males. Next come white females. There’s another movement for food justice and food sovereignty led by people of color. They are the ones we really have to be listening to. The structural racism that conditions our participation in anything in this society has to be recognized and then dismantled, if we are going to build a movement that reflects the type of world we want to live in.

ACRES U.S.A. Is it worthwhile for people to vote with their fork, by changing what they buy as consumers? Is that a good first step to changing the food system?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. Voting with your fork is really a baby step. Those people who can afford to vote in accordance with their values should do so, but it’s not enough. We are not going to change these structures on the basis of the market because the market is what these structures are built to reinforce. In a market economy whoever has the most market power gets to do what they want. You’re not going to change the monopoly structure simply by buying fair trade or organic. People have to act as citizens as well as consumers.

ACRES U.S.A. Do we need land reform in the United States, and if so, what should be its goal and what might it look like?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. We definitely need land reform. The only land reform this country has ever known has been genocide and dispossession. The concentration of land in our country is worse than in most countries in the Third World. Land today is so expensive that it’s a barrier to entry for all of the young people who want to start farming. But just splitting up land and giving it away condemns the new farmers to farming within a structure that favors large industrial plantations. We also need a thorough agrarian reform where we value farmers and crops and communities much differently, based on parity and sustainability. With its hollowed out towns and the opioid, crack and meth crisis across the heartland, the U.S. countryside is a disaster. We need to reinvest in the countryside and to repopulate it in a way that is both equitable and sustainable.

ACRES U.S.A. Can working on the farm bill lead to substantial reform?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. The farm bill is the institution that sets the rules for production, and right now it encourages overproduction. But it’s very difficult to change the farm bill. The U.S. has the farm bill for the world, and no one gets to vote on it. It’s a pillar of late capitalism, and they’ve got it insulated by layers of committees so that citizens can’t touch it. In other words, they’ve made it exempt from democracy so corporations can control it. As we organize and advance alternatives to reach the point where we will be able to actually transform or eliminate the farm bill, there’s a lot of exciting work being done on the ground. Since it’s so difficult to change the farm bill — the institution that governs the country and a lot of the world, too — people are starting local food policy councils and doing many other things to establish different economies, alternative food chains and food sheds with their own rules and institutions. While the movement is very diverse and a bit fragmented, it is gaining steam. Now the challenge is to converge in the diversity of these experiences and bring a strong political direction to what we’ve been doing.

ACRES U.S.A. What can the family farm and food justice movements learn from the experience of the Global South? Demographically the situations are really different, so how do you translate the lessons that you’ve seen to this country?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. Even though less than 2 percent of our population is on the land — we have more people in prison than we have on the land — we are still an agrarian country. From agrarian societies in the Global South, we can learn how important it is to carry out agrarian reform. Such reform has to take into consideration the land loss of indigenous peoples and African-American farmers, and set it right with reparations. We have a tremendous amount to learn from the movements for food sovereignty in the Global South, which is basically about the democratization of the food system in favor of the poor. And we have a lot to learn from them in terms of scale and environmental sustainability, and other ways of knowing and organizing world society.

ACRES U.S.A. What keeps you going in your life’s work?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. The people that I work with. When I used to work in the field, it was very energizing to be working alongside the men and women who were transforming their own system of agriculture. Any time I would get discouraged, they would snap me out of it because they didn’t have the luxury of losing hope. Today, when I mostly do research, analysis, writing, about the terrible statistics on world hunger, I maintain hope by aligning myself with those for whom giving up hope is not an option.

Dealing With Herbicide Drift

By John Peragine

Nature can be unforgiving to farmers. Honest people trying in earnest to make a living growing crops regularly face storms, drought, hail and many other types of natural disasters. Today, unfortunately, these people’s neighbors sometimes add to the problem by introducing one more difficulty: herbicide drift.

All farmers face pressure from weeds. These pesky plants can consume resources — sunlight, water and nutrients — necessary for optimum plant growth. There are three primary ways to deal with the dilemma: pull, cut or use some other physical mechanism to kill the weeds; ignore them and take a loss of production; or use a substance to kill them.

Hand weeding is not typically cost-effective beyond a small acreage farm, forcing larger farms to either accept a decrease in yield or use a chemical to kill the plants. Some herbicides have little negative impact on the environment or the plants they are sprayed on. Unfortunately, though, most large-scale crops are sprayed with volatile chemicals.

Grape Vine damage caused by herbicide drift
Damage to grape vines caused by 2,4-D drift. Photos by Michael L. White, ISU Extension & Outreach Viticulture Specialist

Agricultural technology over the past century has allowed farmers to deal with weeds in a very direct and definitive manner with the use of chemical herbicides. A common herbicide is the phenoxy type (2,4-D and dicamba). This is sprayed over crops like corn around the periphery of fields and is quite effective in killing broad-leaf weeds; it is equally effective in killing similar plants such as grape vines, and dicamba is currently the topic of much discussion through-out the Midwest and beyond where it has been linked to non-target crop plant damage.

The Environmental Protection Agency defines drift as “The physical movement of pesticide droplets or particles through the air at the time of pesticide application or soon thereafter from the target site to any non- or off-target site. Spray drift shall not include movement of pesticides to non-or off-target sites caused by erosion, migration, volatility, or windblown soil particles that occurs after application or application of fumigants unless specifically addressed on the product label with respect to drift control requirements.”

There are two types of pesticide/ herbicide drift: particle and vapor. Particle drift occurs when small droplets of pesticides or herbicides travel via the wind from the field they were being applied to onto other crops.

Vapor drift occurs when temperatures in the upper 80s and 90s cause already-applied pesticides/herbicides to volatize into a vapor. These vapors then drift over great distances and destroy crops that are not immune to its destructive compounds.

The good news is that many states have laws to protect farmers from the damages caused by herbicide drift. In Iowa, laws were enacted around grape-producing regions in the western part of the state to stop the use of highly volatile herbicides in the late 1970s. The damage was done, though, and it took almost 30 years for the grape industry to bounce back. Spray drift causes a reduction in yield, poor fruit quality and even grapevine death. Problems can continue years after the drift exposure, reducing the life of a vineyard.

The degree to which crops are damaged from drift depends on the level of the susceptibility of the crop, its growth stage, environmental conditions, herbicide formulation, droplet size and the spray height above the target.

Emotions Run High

Because livelihoods are on the line, frustration and anger over herbicide drift often arises, and conflicts can ensue. Neighbors, farmers and companies will often apologize and promise they will not allow drift to occur again, but this is not always honored. Included on page 34 is a sample letter template that can be used to attempt to start a more positive conversation about drift.

If your neighbor does not respond in a positive way, you could seek assistance from your state department of agriculture.

Sample Letter

ABC Farm 123
Any Street
Anywhere, USA

XYZ Neighbor 124 Any Street Anywhere, USA

Re: Herbicide drift concerns
Dear Neighbor, I hope this finds you well and that you are having a good growing season.
I am writing to remind you that we have grape vines on two sides of the Old Grain Mill field in Hamlet township. We have registered on Driftwatch, which has a good map that shows where the vines are in case you have any questions. Here’s a link if you would like to see the online map:
I’ve also included a map that shows the location of the vineyards. Grape vines are especially sensitive to glyphosate, dicamba and 2,4-D.
We have appreciated the care you have taken over the years to avoid any problems. Unfortunately, we have had friends in the grape community who’ve had severe damage, so it seemed like a good idea to bring this up again.
Thanks for your attention to this. We’ve also spoken with your landlord about our concerns. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to call.
Yours truly,
Friendly Farmer

Organic Solutions

There are a number of organic herbicides on the market, but they should be given the same attention as their synthetic counterparts. Organic herbicides do not offer a residual effect, which means they break down quickly after their application. This is good in that it reduces toxicity, but it also means that they have to be used more often.

Organic herbicides are not selective and can kill basil as easily as a weed, so application should be done carefully. They should be applied directly onto weeds on warm, sunny, non-windy days. They often contain fatty acids, vinegar or acetic acid, or essential oils like citrus, eugenol or clove.

Corn gluten meal can be used on larger farms, as it is a natural pre-emergence weed control for broad-leaf and grass weeds.


Sometimes the damage due to drift is so severe that compensation is necessary to replace lost crops. Michael White, Iowa State University Extension & Outreach Viticulture Specialist, says that over 95 percent of drift damage cases are settled out of court.

White suggests waiting before accepting payments from an insurance company. Some damage does not become evident until after the winter. Even though insurance companies do not like to carry claims over into another year, it is best to try to delay and not settle too soon. Once damage is suspected, White recommends taking pictures of healthy plants and damaged plants every week or two to demonstrate the progression of the damage.


Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the March 2019 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.