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“Healing the planet through agriculture”

Pacari Chocolate

Fred Kirschenmann

Pacari Chocolate

Fred Kirschenmann

Profiles in Farming

Frederick L. Kirschenmann

In our first profile, Demeter couldn’t be more honored to introduce you to Biodynamic farmer Fred Kirschenmann.  A world-renowned leader in sustainable agriculture, Fred shares his unique perspective as a Biodynamic farmer and Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Iowa State University.

Fred is the Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, created by the Iowa Legislature to develop sustainable agricultural practices that are both profitable and conserve natural resources.  He is also President of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York.

Fred converted his family’s farm, which he still manages, to a certified organic operation in 1976. He developed a diverse crop rotation that has enabled him to farm productively without synthetic inputs (fertilizers or pesticides) while simultaneously improving the health of the soil.  The farm has been featured in numerous publications including National Geographic, Business Week, Audubon, the LA Times and Gourmet magazine. In 1995 it was profiled in an award-winning video, My Father’s Garden by Miranda Smith Productions, and is still widely used as a teaching tool. Fred also has been advisor for several documentaries including American Meat and Symphony of the Soil. 

In April 2010 Fred published a book of essays, Cultivating an Ecological Conscience: Essays from a Farmer Philosopher, that trace the evolution of his ecological and farming philosophy over the past 30 years.  His writing has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Business Week, Audubon, the LA Times and Gourmet magazine.

Today, Fred is an internationally known advocate for land ethics and sustainable agriculture.  He travels extensively nationally and abroad discussing the importance of maintaining soil health, developing small- and medium-sized farms, and Biodynamic agriculture. 

See: www.leopold.iastate.edu/about/fred_writings for a comprehensive anthology of articles.

Questions:

How does your background as a Professor of Religion and Philosophy influence you as a farmer? 
My background in philosophy has taught me to always ask the questions behind the question, and as I learned that is very important for farming, especially biodynamic farming.   I learned it is not enough to address the question of crop rotations, but the questions behind that- what are the dynamics involved in various crop rotations?  How will they work out in specific eco-regions?   What is appropriate to place and time? My background in philosophy also taught me the importance of developing an ethical framework- or as Leopold put it, a “land ethic”- in other words an “ecological conscience.”  It is what sustains me spiritually in everything I do on the farm.

When did your farm achieve Biodynamic certification and why did you choose to get the farm certified? 
Our farm was first certified organic in 1979 and certified Biodynamic in 1982.   I was originally introduced to organic agriculture, and to Steiner’s agriculture lectures, by a student of mine during my tenure as a religion professor.   When I first read Steiner I was intrigued, but have to admit I did not understand him very well.   Later Michael Marcola, who was marketing our organic grains into Europe, urged me to read Steiner again and consider biodynamic farming.   After several years of organic farming I was able to understand Steiner’s propositions more fully and was sufficiently interested to invite Bob Steffan from Nebraska to come to my farm and help me understand the basics of biodynamic farming.   That began a long and fruitful relationship and Bob built our first stirring machine, taught me how to actually make good compost, etc.  As we say, the rest was history.

What do you think the biggest challenge is in farming today? 
Our biggest challenge is learning how to produce food without compromising the natural resources which are essential to good food production, and doing so without cheap energy, probably one-half the amount of fresh water we have been using during the past half century, and more unstable climates.   All of this will require that we finally take Steiner’s advice more seriously---namely to always pay attention to the “inner workings of nature” and learn how to adapt.

What is the biggest opportunity? 
The challenges we will face are also opportunities, opportunities to see the kinds of changes that many of us have wished for will now be inevitable---we will all learn to how to restore and maintain the biological health of our soil, the biodiversity of our seeds, plants and animals so they are well adapted to our own eco-regions, and in the process we will all be eating more nutritious, delicious food.

If you were to give one piece of advice to a young, aspiring farmer, what would it be? 
Acquaint yourself with the wisdom from the past---Sir Albert Howard, Liberty Hyde Baily, F.H King, Rudolph Steiner, and marry that wisdom with the best science available today (especially the science of ecology and evolutionary biology) and use those insights to design farming systems that are appropriate and adaptable to the “place” where you want to farm.

“As a Biodynamic farmer myself, I have been able to transition our 2,600 acre farm into a relatively resilient, energy efficient farm using the principles of farming embedded in the biodynamic literature going back to 1924.  Many people in our culture associate biodynamic farming entirely with the preparations, but as Rudolph Steiner himself observed, the preparations are largely useless unless the principles of managing a farm as an “organism” are observed.  It is the biodiversity of the farm, organized so that the waste of one part of the farm becomes the energy for another, resulting in an increase in the farm’s capacity for self-renewal, that ultimately makes the farm sustainable.  We find that these are the principles that make it possible for us to continue farming in the face of rising energy costs and more unstable climates.  And it is these principles that will be even more crucial to sustainability in the decades ahead.” 
- Fred Kirschenmann, PhD, Distinguished Fellow, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University

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