Farmer Campaigns for Nutrient Dense Food Production
Beginning in the 1950s, America’s farmers were told to get big, or get out. It wasn’t just a slogan, it was USDA policy, a mantra recited by several secretaries of agriculture. That mindset, combined with a post-WWII explosion in chemical fertilizer use, made our farms larger and more productive than ever — but at a high price, with many small farmers vanishing and the introduction of new kinds of environmental challenges.
Today, growing numbers of Americans believe there is another casualty: The quality of food produced by modern farming methods. Perhaps the most dissatisfied are farmers who got neither big, nor out, and who turned to traditional methods of producing crops.
Among the more vocal critics of conventional (modern) agriculture is Dan Kittredge, an organic farmer and director of the Real Food Campaign (RFC).
“Conventional agricultural practices don’t build our soil, they use it up,” Kittredge says. “We’re denuding our planet of what we need to produce food.”
Consequently, “The nutritive value of crops and their ability to handle pests and diseases is diminished.” The bottom line, Kittredge says, is, “across the board, our foodstuffs are less nutritious than they were. It’s well documented. Between 1940 and 2009, in a basic salad, USDA records show a 55-70 percent decrease in mineral levels.”
Kittredge leads training seminars at sustainable farming seminars put on by groups like the Northeast Organic Farmers Association (NOFA). But he was in Pennsylvania recently, in the audience at a seminar conducted by Midwestern Bio-Ag at an Amish farm in Gap. Midwest is a leading consultant which Kittredge said is “looking to increase its presence east of Illinois.”
Real Food is a project of Remineralize the Earth (RTE), an international non-profit based in Northampton, Mass. RFC’s mission is to “make nutrient dense food available in the marketplace and create a new standard for food quality.” RTE’s goal is more lofty: “Regenerate soils and forests and stabilize the climate.” In his early 30s, Kittredge is also RTE’s former executive director. But his credentials are lifelong.
Kittredge’s parents were early organic adopters. He grew up on an organic farm. “I’ve been doing it all my life,” he says. He now farms 15 acres in North Brookfield, Mass., raising vegetables, livestock and bees with his wife and two young children.
Like Kittredge, many farmers and consumers have concluded that organic isn’t enough. “Organic crops are not necessarily more nutritious,” Kittredge said. “(Organic) is a very negative-defined standard, a ‘Thou shalt not use’ standard. It’s been redefined to serve political forces. It’s about what’s not in there, not what is. The upshot is, there’s no guarantee of greater nutritional value in certified organic food, and there’s a lot of skepticism among consumers.”
RTE and RFC are small entities compared to entrenched agribusiness giants. “The agribusiness industry has a stranglehold on ag in this country,” Kittredge said. “That doesn’t mean strategically organized movements can’t make waves.”
But making waves alone is also not enough. “Part of our strategy is to develop standards of nutrient density and quality. One of the mistakes (in the early organic movement) was not having a standard. We have to be absolutely solid in our science.”
So far, Kittredge said, “”We’re keeping a low profile. At this point, we’re only seeking out our natural allies and getting them on board.” Natural allies include organic farm cooperatives, community-supported agriculture (CSA) businesses, alternative health practitioners, progressive retailers and concerned consumers. “I want to get farmers on protocols,” he said. “I want to get the word out to the grassroots. I want farmers to be successful in producing high-quality crops.”
Farmers and consumers alike “want quality in their food,” Kittredge said. “We say, ‘We can help you get there. Our goal is to incentivize the relevant constituencies to bring nutritionally-dense crops to the marketplace. We want to show how it’s in the farmers’ interest to grow nutrient-dense food, and how it’s in the stores’ interest to sell nutrient-dense food.
“An aware consumer who knows they can buy higher-quality food for their children, will,” Kittredge believes. And ultimately, “The farmers who are doing a good job can be rewarded.”
Do farmers need to unlearn everything and start from scratch? No. Kittredge advised, “Find a local consultant — someone who can look at your farm and see where the limiting factors are, and how to address them. It might be little tweaks that don’t cost much. We want to keep costs low for farmers, and make them profitable.”
For starters, he said, “The essence is to make intelligent decisions to empower the biological system, not use basic, empty-head fertilizers.” That means breaking free of “NPK mentality,” the belief that supplying just three minerals (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) ensures good crops. “Full nutrition means 84 different minerals,” Kittredge said. “If the goal of agriculture is to provide good nutrition, we need to get those minerals into our soils and into our crops.”
“You can really turn things around in a short time,” he concluded. “As a farmer, I can tell you I’ve had amazing things happen with very little effort just by applying good principles.”
This article is reprinted with permission from Lancaster Farming.