2000s Archive

Force of Nature

Originally Published February 2001
Don’t tell Fred Kirschenmann that North Dakota is no place to grow crops. Trish Hall finds that this organic farmer sows his own philosophy.

From the kitchen, where his wife is making dinner, you can hear Fred Kirschenmann coming into the house and taking off his dusty overalls and mud-caked boots. As farmers have for generations, he is getting ready to sit down to a meal of food grown almost entirely on his own land. An act that was once commonplace, it is now remarkable, because only 2 percent of the American population still farms, and just a fraction of those farmers grow their own food. It is even more remarkable in North Dakota, where limited rain and long winters make farming so tough that the first settlers here needed twice the acreage granted to pioneers in balmier places ... like Iowa. Still, it isn’t hard to understand why some people have decided that putting down roots here is worth the trouble. The land in North Dakota gets into your bones, becomes part of you. At night, the wind moves so powerfully through fields of sunflower and wheat that it sounds like the ocean surf. There are so few people, and the peace is so profound, that it’s possible to stand undisturbed in the middle of nearly any road at noontime, and, on a fine day, you can feel the sun on your face, the northerly light complex and constantly shifting.

Here, in Windsor, midway between Fargo and Bismarck, Kirschenmann’s father began farming in 1930, during the Depression and the Dust Bowl, and continued for 60 years, for much of that time eagerly adopting the technologies that came along, including pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. Now, neighboring farmers are turning to the latest offering from the agriculture companies: genetically altered seeds, which promise to reduce chemical usage by producing plants that have built-in resources for fending off pests and resisting weeds.

But Kirschenmann, who is 66 years old, not only rejects the promise of those seeds, he refuses to use any chemicals or pesticides at all. He farms organically, raising 110 brood cows and tilling 3,500 acres with seven or eight crops that he varies each year, selling his food to companies such as Eden Foods, which uses his durum wheat and rye in its pasta. That’s what his wife, Carolyn Raffensperger, is serving tonight, with caramelized onions, red kale, and bacon.

Raffensperger met Kirsch-enmann seven years ago, when she was working for the Sierra Club and they were both speaking at the same symposium. When she moved to the prairie to be with him, she began working from home as the executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, a think tank for the environmental movement. They have a shared passion for farming, but very different styles.

Raffensperger is fierce, a nonstop advocate for her point of view. But farming isn’t a part of her history; she grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, where her father was a doctor. Her husband is something else altogether, a near-mythic creature in that not only is he smart, a man who speaks out authoritatively on the policies that affect sustainable agriculture, he’s a working farmer who has known the land from birth, who repaired his first tractor when he was seven, who has the knowledge of agricultural cycles that only accumulates after decades in a place. These days, that makes him a rare breed.

When Raffensperger arrived in North Dakota, she thought it odd that Kirschenmann grew food for others yet drove 20 miles to the nearest store for groceries. Now, she raises nearly everything they eat in a large garden. Tonight, drinking organic wine and sharing the pasta, along with bread made from local wheat, she and her husband talk with me about the country’s shift toward using genetically altered seeds, and how it pushes farmers even deeper into a system the two consider uneconomical and unworkable.

They realize, of course, that much of the world might consider their own way of life uneconomical and unworkable, but they insist that it does work—and can work anywhere. “People say, ‘You can’t eat from North Dakota. What about oranges and bananas?’ ” says Raffensperger, who relies instead on carrots and apples, sweet, fresh-tasting foods that keep for months. She freezes bags of cantaloupes, watermelons, raspberries, rhubarb, rainbow chard, rosemary and cilantro, of green pepper and corn and zucchini and tomatoes. “With ingredients like that,” she says, “you don’t start thinking, Where’s the iceberg lettuce?

“We’ve lost the sense that you wait for food to develop,” she says. “We don’t have a cultural sense of when foods are ready, that that old cooked carrot has a lot of vitamin A.” As a child, she says, she ate the typical American diet, things like hamburgers and steak. Now she eats the whole animal, butchered from their farm, wasting nothing—the liver, the brains, and gallons of stock made from pieces that might otherwise be thrown away.

The same philosophy is applied to the workings of the farm itself. The manure from Kirschenmann’s cattle feeds the fields, and the waste from his crops that is edible but not salable feeds his cows.

During dinner, Kirschenmann says that he doesn’t consider the new technologies a radical break with the past. Unfortunately, he adds, they merely perpetuate a style of agriculture that has ruled for 50 years. Like the use of a pesticide or herbicide, the technology of transferring a gene from one plant to another, he says, is being considered in isolation from the environment in which it will be applied. Take the cow: “We’ve been effectively breeding cows to produce more milk for decades. But for every additional quart of milk produced, an additional 300 to 500 quarts of blood has to flow through the udder of the animal. The stress and high temperature in the udder increases the incidence of mastitis, requiring the use of antibiotics. If you do one thing with genetics, you have to do another thing. Some people just don’t see that far ahead.”

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