Fred Kirschenmann Interview Part 2

Uploaded by AFSICVideos on 20.06.2012

MS. GATES: When you went back to the farm, did you walk in and overnight just turn it
MS. GATES: Tell us about how you did it. I knew you didn't do that.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: Well, David advised us to go slow, and he said don't do more than a
third of your acreage the first year, so you sort of figure out what works and what doesn't.
MS. GATES: So it was in corn and soybeans?
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: No, we are primarily cereal grains.
MS. GATES: Oh, of course. Yeah.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: My father had sort of evolved, as most conventional operations, pretty much
of a monocropping system, primarily wheat, some oats, and then a practice which has been
very common in North Dakota, fallow, which you don't take the crop off.
MS. GATES: Yes. Let it rest.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: Right. So we had to sort of try to figure out. I mean, David said,
"You know, crop rotation is going to be really important, but I can't help you with North
Dakota because I am a Corn Belt farmer in Nebraska."
MS. GATES: Site specific.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: So that was one of the things that really, you know, we had to sort of learn
by doing this, as was mentioned.
So we originally said, okay, you know, we will take this slow, we will take a third
of our acreage. David tried to encourage us to do control strips within each field, so
that we would have a fairly good measure on what was actually happening, but we are dealing
with 3,100 acres up there, and I just didn't have the time to build in control strips.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: So he said, "Well, then, do companion fields," and so we did. We would
have a field of wheat on one side of the fence and another field of wheat on the other side
of the fence, and one we would manage organically and the other one conventionally.
And that first year, it was wonderful. I mean, there were no problems, and wheat yields were
every bit as good in the organic fields as the conventional fields, and so we said, "Hey,
this is a piece of cake, no problems."
MS. GATES: Instant success.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: Do the whole thing.
MS. GATES: So did you?
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: So next year, we did the whole thing, and it was a disaster.
MS. GATES: The weather was wrong.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: Well, yeah, exactly. Looking back on it, now it is very clear what happened.
The first year was an ideal growing season. The weather was warm, the spring was warm,
the nitrogen was available, and everything worked, and the following year it was just
the opposite. It was a cold spring, nitrogen was tied up, weeds started to grow, and the
wheat didn't compete, and it was really a disaster.
But we really at that point felt, well, you know, we really don't want to go back, so
let's tough it out. So we had a second year that was not quite as much of a disaster but
still a very tough year. Then we finally started to begin to get pieces of the rotation in
place that started to work, and we gradually began to work our way out of that.
Of course, a very important lesson for us in that was that you do need to move slowly.
One of the key things in this is that when you are making this transition, you are really
moving from one system to another kind of system. It is not a matter of changing technologies.
I think that is one of the key lessons that is very hard to learn.
MS. GATES: Okay.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: Because we tend I think in American agriculture to think primarily
in terms of technologies that work rather than understanding how systems work.
MS. GATES: Mm hmm.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: And what we learned was that the basic transition which needs to take
place is to move from a system that relies primarily on inputs, which is what I like
to say, a factory kind of model that deals with inputs and outputs, and you decide what
kind of outputs you want and what kind of inputs you need in order to achieve that.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: And then you hope it is economically viable.
Well, the organic system is a nutrient recycling system, and that is an entirely different
way of approaching the management of an operation, and you begin to look at where your nutrients
are, how do you bring them back into the system, and in that nutrient recycling system, how
do you deal with the pest problems, the weeds and the insects, and introduce mechanisms
by which the pest cycles can be broken.
Once you get that, the new system working, then you can begin to pull the inputs away.
If you try to pull the inputs away before the new system is working, then you are headed
for disaster. So that is the key thing I think to making the transition work.
MS. GATES: That would be your main piece of advice for people contemplating this kind
of a switch
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: That's right.
MS. GATES: is to think of it as a system switch.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: That's right. And, unfortunately, there is now you know, there are a number
of commercial ventures out there. I don't mean to be downing commercial ventures. I
mean, farming is a commercial venture.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: But there are some commercial ventures out there that I think are trying
to suggest that there are some shortcuts to this, you know, that if you buy the right
product, then you can make this transition in a year, and that is just not true. It can't
be done.
Soil is an organism. It's a biological organism. It simply takes time for it to go through
that transition, and so there is no substitute for time.
MS. GATES: You are not recommending two years, which is what you ended up doing, to disastrous
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: That's right.
MS. GATES: What kind of a time frame are you recommending?
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: Yeah. It depends on how the land was managed when you start, but,
generally, we figure three to five years is what it takes to make a successful transition.
MS. GATES: I know one of the things I read was that you were currently raising a multiple
number of crops.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: And you are raising sunflowers?
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: Yeah. We actually are growing eight different crops now in three different
MS. GATES: What are they?
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: The crops that we are raising now is wheat, rye, sunflowers, buckwheat,
millet, soybeans, oats, and flax.
MS. GATES: Do you find a market for them, or do you create that
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: We have connected up with a company that markets all of our grains for
us, and most of that is export market.
MS. GATES: Out of the country?
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: Yes, right. I would venture to say probably at least 95 percent of our
crop gets exported. There is simply a stronger market for grains that qualifies organic in
Europe and Scandinavian countries than there are in the United States, although the United
States' market is growing.
But the markets, of course, for some crops are much stronger than others, and they change
from year to year. Last year, for example, flax was very hot. You know, if you had any
flax at all, why, you didn't have any trouble moving it. Then, of course, like most farmers,
everybody said, "Wait, this is great, and we are all going to raise some more flax."
MS. GATES: Too much flax.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: Yeah. And since it's a small market, you can very easily oversupply. So,
you know, the best strategy I think is to try to maintain a good balance of crops and
stay with that, so that as you know, as markets go up and down we often keep a crop in storage
over a year if the market is bad and wait for it to get good again, and that seems to
work out for us.
MS. GATES: Do you feel that looking at the market aspect would be the second critical
thing for a farmer to be doing?
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: Certainly, certainly. Especially when you are building the crop rotation. I
mean, it doesn't do any good to have some crops in the rotation that are perfect agronomically
and you can't sell them.
MS. GATES: You have to eat them all.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: That's right. So, you know, one needs to look at in building the rotation,
one needs to look, first of all, at the agronomic needs and what kind of soil structure and,
you know, what kind of climate, what kinds of crops are going to do well, what are suited
well for that particular ecosystem, and then you need to look at equipment needs and storage
facilities and to see whether or not that's going to mean a major capital investment or
a minor one. And then you need to look at the market and whether or not there is a market
for those crops and also, you know, some other things like, you know, on farm needs, if you
have livestock, you need to provide for those.
MS. GATES: And you do, don't you?
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: Yes. Yes, we do.
MS. GATES: You have both cattle and sheep?
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: No. We had sheep for a time. It was a short term investment, but, basically,
we are in a cow/calf operation.