MADISON — Fred Kirschenmann is a long-time organic farmer who is passionate about agriculture as a way to make the earth better.
For more than four decades, he has been a champion of agricultural resilience and an advocate for soil health, sharing his experiences and thoughts through various work as a distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, a professor in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Iowa State University and his presidency on the Board of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in New York. He does all of this while continuing to manage his family’s 1,800 acre certified organic farm in south-central North Dakota.
Kirschenmann began his keynote speech at the OGRAIN conference held on UW-Madison campus two weeks ago by recognizing the importance of these events and the conversations that are sparked at them.
“These conversations are very revolutionary,” he said. “When farmers engage each other, that’s much more important than any kind of lecture. And it’s contrary to the type of corporatization that has dominated the food industry — you’re charting a new territory into the future.”
In a culture where there’s a focus on the notion that “matter alone matters,” Kirschenmann sees an extreme emphasis on yield as the only thing that can drive a farmer and it’s a symptom of a materialistic culture. This culture has also led to “extractive economics,” he argued, as the focus has shifted to “mine and now” rather than the idea of commonality and community.
“Hope and hopefulness doesn’t come from extracting everything,” he said. “It’s an important part as we think about our future.”
He spoke about a three-fold approach to serve as a new framework as we think about the future — the three aspects of this framework being ecological, spiritual and social.
The ecological aspect acknowledges ideas articulated by Aldo Leopold that we are not conquerors of the land community, but rather we are plain members and citizens. The challenge is figuring out how we fit into that community and add value to it, Kirschenmann said.
The spiritual aspect will be a bit tougher to consider because of the culture that has been created today, but Kirschenmann asked those in attendance to think about agriculture as a spiritual practice as well.
The social aspect moves to abandon this idea of the individual, born from our “matter alone matters” culture of today. He challenged those listening to “think of community rather than commodities.”
If farmers can be open to this new framework he proposed, they can also be open to anticipating changes and preparing for them in advance, something that builds resiliency. Kirschenmann sees two important changes on the horizon that farmers should anticipate and prepare for: climate change and an increase in expenses related to inputs.
On his farm in North Dakota, Kirschenmann has already seen changes in climate, including more rain during the growing season and snow appearing earlier in the year. Experts give us 10 years to deal with climate change, he said, so it’s important to anticipate and prepare.
Some health professionals have already begun exploring healthier food as medicine. The idea of healthier soil producing healthier food is also being explored, with Kirschenmann predicting these conversations will become increasingly important into the future.
Agriculture has been about the same for a century, he added, and we’re at a point in time where inputs are becoming increasingly more expensive, even in organic systems. Many of these inputs are non-renewable as well, which means they will likely only increase in price as their availability decreases.
“It’s an important lesson we need to include in our future — preparing for these changes,” he said. “There’s a major revolution here that will happen simply because there’s a need for it. The input system we’ve used for a century isn’t working.”
He’s hopeful for the next generation, some of which have showed interest in bettering the planet and finding solutions for some of the changes he’s anticipating. However, there isn’t just one solution for these changes; we need to do whatever we can to move forward with a renewable system.
Much of that starts with community — one of the aspects referenced in his new framework.
“We need to figure out how to send messages to those in our communities. It’s part of that social aspect,” he said. “We have to start thinking about not just what’s good for me but what is good for the community.”