I remember as a boy of nine years old walking behind the cultivator, pulling weeds the cultivator missed. My older brother drove the cultivator and I looked forward to the day when I would drive it too. It was such a nifty machine, that cultivator–you pulled a lever to lower the blades and turned pedals to guide the wheels, all the while guiding the two horses that pulled it through the fields. But I never did get to drive that cultivator because next year, in 1966, my dad began using herbicides on the farm. “Just a little don’t hurt,” he said. For the first few years he used just one-half pint of 2,4-D. We were excited. No more cultivating and no more pulling weeds.
My father bought the farm in 1947, 105 acres of rich, rolling Pennsylvania land, dotted with trees and partitioned by fence rows–zig zag fences overgrown with brush to make a wide hedge that divided the land into paddocks. He started with seven dairy cows, six beef cows, six hogs and 100 chickens and grew a rotation of corn, wheat and hay.
At that time, the universities were promoting a new, more “efficient” way of agriculture. They encouraged the removal of trees and hedgerows so that all the land could be farmed. Cows were put into barns and hay and grain brought to them. That way, both the land and the animals would work at peak production.
By 1951 my father had cleared a lot of the trees and some of the fence rows and added more cows. By 1961 he had all the hedgerows cleared and a total of 24 cows. Demand for fluid milk was really increasing. The milk was shipped in 10 gallon cans to the creamery down the road, and then on to Farmland Dairy in New Jersey.
One-half pint of 2,4-D worked for about three years. Then we needed one pint, then two. By this time the new weeds and grass came up more quickly. And the ground became harder, so that we could hardly plow with three horses. We started using Atrazine in combination with the 2,4-D in the corn fields.
By 1976, we were a true dairy farm with a total of 30 cows. The cornfields were clear of weeds but the farm had changed. The worms and good bugs disappeared. The soil got much tighter and we had to add another horse to the plow. When it rained, the water didn’t soak in but ran off the fields, carrying tons of rich Pennsylvania soil with it.
Then we had trouble with weeds again. The chemical company had a new herbicide to sell us. But every time they figured out how to kill one weed, a new weed would pop up.
In 1978 I got married and took over the farm–my three older brothers had left the farm and for many years it had been just myself and my dad doing all the work. Two years later it took six horses to pull the plow. We were using four different kinds of herbicides plus insecticides and chemical fertilizers. Every year the chemical company would have a meeting for the farmers. They would show slides comparing fields farmed with chemicals and fields farmed without. The chemical fields always looked a lot better in those slides.
I got sick in 1983–it was liver poisoning. My skin turned yellow, my urine turned brown and my stool turned white. When I was sick, I began to do a lot of thinking about the farm. We had dead earth, unable to support earthworms or good microscopic life. The soil did little decomposing and there was tremendous runoff when it rained. We had lots of bad bugs and no good ones. The stream that runs through the farm was 12 inches wide and 6 inches deep in 1947. It had grown to 10 feet wide and 4 feet deep from all of the erosion. So we lost a lot of the land we had gained by removing the hedgerows.
I recovered from my illness but was always sensitive to chemicals after that. In spite of my illness and all my observations, it still took another seven years before we made the decision to abandon chemicals. That was in 1990. My wife and I resolved to farm organically.
So in 1990 I got to use the cultivator. But after 32 years of no cultivating, the corn did not do well. The soil was dead and hard. We decided that the best way to heal the soil was to let the cattle graze. At first the cows did not thrive because they got so little nourishment from the grass. We worked on that soil for seven years, adding high-calcium lime, fish compost tea, seaweed and missing trace elements. I add these supplements to the soil every year even though it costs me a lot. I figure that it’s better to feed the pasture than to spend money on grain.
Today our cows do well on our pasture. The heifers grow well and gain weight. The milk cows give good milk–and beautiful yellow butter–without our feeding them any grain, although production goes way down in the summer when it is dry. We have 45 mixed breed cows, some beef cows, pigs, and chickens for eggs and meat, all of which we sell directly to consumers.
The earthworms have returned to our soil and today we also have dung beetles, wonderful creatures that live in cow patties and transform the manure into compost. Instead of lying for years as dry pats on the fields, as it did when we were farming chemically, the manure is now broken down and returned to the soil. The dung beetles actually bury little balls of dung in the earth. They are the first thing to disappear when herbicides are used and the last thing to return when the fields are healthy. In the morning their wings make a haze over the fields as they fly to new cow patties and begin their miraculous work.
Mycorrhiza are also miracle workers. These are symbiotic fungi that live within the roots of host plants. They are beneficial in three ways. First, they bring phosphorous and other minerals and water from the soil to the roots. Second they protect the roots from parasitic nematodes and root rot fungi. And, finally, they excrete substances that appear to stimulate plant growth. All this I was trying to do with man-made products. Soils treated with fungicides are often deficient in mycorrhiza. You can tell the mycorrhiza are abundant when your field stays green during a drought.
I have started to restore the hedgerows–what folly to pull them out, just so our farm could be more modern. Hedgerows provide a haven for beneficial insects, especially spiders, and for wild life. We now have cottontail rabbits on the farm. The thick hedges provide a diversity of plant life, some of which the cows browse on when they are sick, as a way of self-medication. Hedgerows also slow the wind–livestock can shelter themselves against the hedgerows in the winter and hardly ever need to go in the barn. They also provide a barrier for pesticides carried on the wind.
Most of my neighbors still farm with chemicals. And in this farming population that has been noted for large families, infertility is becoming a problem. Many neighbors have had to have hip and knee replacements. They suffer from heart disease and cancer and are told to avoid butter, cream and bacon–all the good old Pennsylvania Dutch foods. Some scientists say that the chemicals are causing heart disease–we know they cause cancer.
My people profess the simple life but they spend thousands of dollars on luxuries and skimp on food. They work hard on their chemical farms, putting in long days. They work so hard that they no longer have time to have gardens. They buy their food at the local store, where the shelves are stocked with expired junk food at bargain prices. You should go into one of these local stores–aisle after aisle of candy, pastries and chips. And you’ll see families in horse-drawn buggies pull up to the vending machines outside, and put their money in for soft drinks.
Sometimes I ask myself, why in this population of souls that has been so careful about embracing new technology, that farms with horses and lights their houses with oil lamps, why have they thrown caution to the wind when it comes to farm chemicals? The few of us who have returned to chemical-free farming are accused of being “cultists.”
But I know that I am on the right path when I look at my neighbor’s field and see the sharp points of stubble from the last two cuttings of alfalfa. Even though the new crop is a foot high, the stubble from the previous ones has not decomposed. Stubble can only decompose when the soil is rich in organic matter. When I started the soil amendment program, we had 1.5 percent organic matter in the dirt. Today it is about 6.7 percent. Now when I go to dig a fence post, the shovel goes in easily. I remember when we had to take a pick axe to get through the hard pan.
We know that happy soil means happy animals and that translates to happy people. The greatest benefit of our efforts is seeing the children grow up healthy. I would like to give thanks to Almighty God for creating the beauty, bounty and balance of nature. I would also like to thank the Weston A. Price Foundation for showing people the value of pasture-raised animal products and creating a customer base for our farm.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2002.