Midwestern Farm Network Is Leading the Way to Chemical-Free, Sustainable Farming

Ben Hagenbuck calls himself a full-time banker and a part-time farmer. But working with his father and uncle on the family’s 1,100-acre corn and soybean farm in north-central Illinois has become much more than a hobby: Hagenbuch is part of a network of American farmers hoping to save the world. This is a grandiose goal to be sure, but it has its roots in science. Growing evidence points to chemically driven industrialized food production as a key culprit behind a broad range of both environmental and human health problems. To reverse the damage requires a focus on enriching soil health and perfecting farming practices that are free from synthetic chemicals. It’s not an easy undertaking, these farmers are finding. But it is urgent.

Fifty-year-old warnings by scientist and author Rachel Carson about how indiscriminate use of chemicals could decimate the natural world are playing out now in undeniable ways. Numerous scientific studies show that routine use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is contaminating waterways, decimating soil health, and killing off pollinators. At the same time, cancers and other diseases are on the rise. Doctors attribute many cancers — including leukemia, lymphoma, and brain and breast cancer — to exposures to pesticides, and federal government research finds farmers have a higher risk of developing prostate and other cancers.

Hagenbuch’s journey from banker to would-be organic farmer started a decade ago when his father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer and the family was advised that a diet of raw milk and healthier foods could be helpful in dealing with the disease. Soon after, Hagenbuch and his wife had their first child, which only deepened their desire to provide their family with a healthy diet. They found an organic farmer not far from their home and began to visit his farm regularly to buy raw milk. The fact that the farmer doesn’t use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers in the grain he feeds his dairy cows gives the couple a sense of security in the nutrition they provide for a family that has grown to include four young boys, ages 1 to 9. Hagenbuch attributes his evolving friendship with this farmer to his interests in chemical-free agriculture.

As he embarks down his own regenerative farming path, the 43-year-old Hagenbuch is driven by multiple goals: He wants to preserve and protect the family farm and one day operate it with his boys; to protect his family’s health and the health of the rich soil that has provided a way for five generations of his family to make a living; to grow crops in a manner that protects waterways from the chemical contaminants that have become almost inescapable in some parts of US farm country; and to use his land in ways that capture carbon and help mitigate climate change.

Transitioning the land to regenerative practices, and eventually growing food that can be certified as organic, would go a long way towards accomplishing all this. But achieving this will require a major shift away from the type of farming perfected by his father and uncle, who still run the family farm.

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Though research points to an increase in organic farming in the United States in recent years, only about 1 percent of total American cropland is currently certified organic. Which means that in 2011 and 2012, the most recent years for which the Environmental Protection Agency published data, US farmers applied more than 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides to their crops.

The companies that sell farm chemicals, and other advocates for chemical-dependent farming, say we need these pesticides. They say that while organic agriculture may fit a certain niche consumer demand, it is simply less productive than conventional methods, that there’s no way to produce enough food without the use of synthetic insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers to kill pests, and weeds, and fungi, and to supplement soil nutrients. They say that consumers are being fooled into thinking that organic foods are more nutritious than conventionally grown ones, and are paying more for food that is essentially indistinguishable from lower-priced options grown with chemicals. The trace amounts of pesticides that often remain on conventionally grown foods after harvesting and washing are nothing to fear, they argue.

They also point to other perceived downsides of organic agriculture, including the fact that many farmers growing organic crops at least lightly till their soil to combat weeds, something farmers applying herbicides are less likely to do. This practice disturbs the soil in ways that can release stored carbon into the atmosphere and allow evaporation of needed moisture, and also contributes to erosion.

The American Council on Science and Health, a group funded by Monsanto and other companies that sell seeds and chemicals to farmers, argues that if all farms were converted to organic there would be far less food available for a worldwide population expected to hit 9 billion by 2050. Or, they say, if everyone were to go chemical-free, we would need to plough under large swaths of forests and meadows to meet demand.

But increasingly, new scientific research is showing just the opposite — that sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices, including but not limited to organic, can keep people fed and also keep them healthy. Hagenbuch and other like-minded farmers are providing real-life examples of how to make the transition to regenerative practices — one field at a time.

“I like the idea of farming without chemicals,” says Hagenbuch, who views his work to transition acreage to organic as a “grand experiment” that he hopes will have impacts far into the future. “We can grow healthier food and feed our families healthier food and save the planet at the same time. Those are my reasons for doing this.”

Hagenbuch is part of a group of more than 400 farmers participating in a novel partnership called the IDEA Farm Network, an undertaking that started in Illinois but whose work is expanding through the US Midwest, a region known for its production of billions of bushels of chemically aided corn, soy, and wheat. IDEA members in multiple states are using their farm fields as test plots for unofficial experiments in how to match conventional yields in soybeans, corn, and other crops with different mixtures of time-honored farming practices.

They’re digging deep, so to speak, experimenting with mixes of cover crops, varying sizes of row spacings, and assorted crop rotations — all aimed at perfecting no-till organic, regenerative food-production practices that can rival conventional production in both quantity as well as quality.

The IDEA network — which includes both organic and conventional farmers looking to make their practices more environmentally sound — is part support group and part research organization. Members mentor each other, sharing strategies that work well and also warning each other of failed tactics. They trade videos and photos, participate in a listserv, and hold “tailgate” meetings around the region to brainstorm about how to garner top yields and raise livestock while also meeting the network’s mission of creating nutritious food through financially viable methods that regenerate, according to IDEA’s mission statement, “precious soil, water, and wildlife.”

Over the past summer, the listserv was buzzing as farmers debated whether a weed problem in a member’s soybean field was due to a calcium imbalance in the soil, or potentially too little oxygen due to planting into wet soils. Another thread turned to soybean yields. One member wrote that mowing the tops off of soybean plants when they were less than six inches tall led to a 3- to 7-bushel-per-acre yield increase.

One popular topic is “roller crimping,” the practice of carefully mowing down a crop that a farmer has planted not to harvest but to add nutrients to the soil and to provide a thick mulch that will suffocate weeds. During the roller crimping process, seeds are dropped down into the mulched cover crop. Cereal rye is one-such popular cover crop for organic soybean farmers. Roller crimping helps farmers avoid tilling — the mechanical digging up or turning over of the soil — which contributes to runoff and erosion.

There are also questions about livestock, such as the benefits of feeding barley to hogs in the weeks prior to slaughter, and the potential for local pork marketing co-ops to maximize marketing opportunities.

The network has support from the University of Illinois as well as a number of organizations working on conservation and sustainable food issues, and has obtained financial support, including a small grant from the US Department of Agriculture, to document crop gains and losses associated with various practices. Academics from Ohio and Wisconsin also frequently weigh in to offer expert guidance, and the group is open to consumers and advocates as well.

As the network grows, the farmers are working together and with advisors to explore new markets for the pesticide-free products they are producing and are pushing for policies that support regenerative agriculture. Some members hold “field days” with school groups. Others speak out at farming conferences.

“Industrial agriculture is not feeding the world,” said ecologist and IDEA farmer member Kim Erndt-Pitcher. “We need to overhaul our agriculture system so that it supports not only humans but the planet.”

Early indications suggest the work is paying off. Will Glazik, an agronomist and crop consultant who helps lead the IDEA Farm Network, says that by tracking the work of IDEA members and looking at academic data, he sees organic grass crops such as corn, wheat, and oats currently yielding about 75 percent of those that are conventionally produced. Organic growers of legume crops, such as soybeans, peas, and alfalfa, can yield almost the same as conventional farmers, he says.

That is in line with the findings of a scientific meta-analyses published in 2015 that found “relatively small” differences in crop yields between organic and conventional agriculture of between 15.5 and 22.9 percent. The yield differences dropped to less than 10 percent when diversification techniques such as multi-cropping and crop rotation were used.

Numbers aside, Glazik says, there are much more important benefits of the collaborative effort to consider too.

“I’m in it for environmental reasons,” he says. “The way that we raise crops without synthetic inputs means we can increase the soil organic carbon. Plus we’re removing the chemicals from our fields, which in turn takes it out of the streams and the waterways. We’re providing habitat for pollinators and other biodiversity,” he adds, explaining that the use of flowering cover crops provides food for pollinating insects, while healthy buffer zones of land around fields offer a consistent habitat for insects and other living things.

Glazik and his family farm about a thousand acres near Paxton, Illinois. Like Hagenbuch, he represents the fifth generation of his family to grow food there. As they move more acres to organic, Glazik and his brothers have been working to develop value-added products, including starting a spirits business selling wheat vodka to local restaurants, bars, and grocery stores. The brothers have also found that a type of open-pollinated heirloom corn makes a “fantastic” bourbon, Glazik says. Meanwhile, he and a group of farmers are exploring the possibility of investing in a mill to turn their organic corn into corn flakes.

Glazik says growing the markets for organic grains such as oats, wheat, and canola, along with soybeans and corn, is perhaps more important than pushing for more organic vegetables because, in the US, grain production impacts broad swaths of land compared to the smaller plots generally used to grow vegetables.

“In America, if we want to have any meaningful impact on our environment, we need to focus on broad-acre crops. Also organic meats because organic animals eat organic grains,” he says. “If we want to get as many acres as possible off insecticides and herbicides we need to support organic grain growing.”

Taylor Stewart, a member of the IDEA Network and degreed agricultural economist, says that what is often lost in the discussion about “feeding the world” is the actual end-use of grain. Roughly 40 percent of the US corn crop goes to make ethanol, not to feed people, while 24 percent of the soybean crop goes to make biodiesel, he says. Organic corn and beans are not typically directed into fuel uses but into foods consumed by people and animals, meaning even smaller yields in organic fields are still contributing to food needs at levels comparable to crops grown with chemicals.

“Organic and conventional fields are quite competitive in terms of actual quantity that reaches the consumer’s plate,” says Stewart, who now raises cattle in Virginia on chemical-free pastures for a wholesale grass-fed beef company. “We managed for thousands of years without silver bullet chemical solutions. We’ll manage again when they’re gone.”

Two United Nations experts have also challenged the industry narrative that chemical-intensive agriculture is necessary to meet global food demands, calling for a comprehensive global treaty that would phase out the use of dangerous pesticides in farming and support sustainable practices.

“Excessive use of pesticides [is] very dangerous to human health, to the environment and it is misleading to claim they are vital to ensuring food security,” the UN experts said in a 2017 statement. “It is time to overturn the myth that pesticides are necessary to feed the world and create a global process to transition toward safer and healthier food and agricultural production.”

Still, US farm policy solidly supports chemical-dependent agriculture. Farm programs in America provide billions of dollars in annual subsidies for farmers who grow staples such as corn, soy, and wheat, encouraging industrial-scale monocropping, and facilitating the use of synthetic fertilizers and insecticide-coated seeds, along with the use of weed killers sprayed directly over the tops of genetically altered crops that tolerate herbicide treatments. Government subsidies provide comparatively very little for farmers who are pursuing the more diverse and environmentally sustainable practices of crop rotation, cover cropping, and pesticide-free farming.

There are signs the government’s position is starting to change, however, as the science about the benefits of practices like cover-cropping has become undeniable.

“Farmers are learning that cover crops help increase the productivity of their soil, by improving organic matter, nutrient availability, infiltration, and protecting soil from erosion,” states the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NCRS). NCRS has started providing financial incentives for farmers to use cover crops.

The connection between sustainable farming practices and climate change is also increasingly being recognized as an issue before US lawmakers as backers of regenerative agriculture lobby for more supportive policies, such increased payments to farmers for use of soil-conserving strategies, increased federal funding for organic research, and the establishment of paid on-farm trials to encourage innovation around improving soil health.

In a May 2019 statement to members of Congress, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said this: “It is essential that any national climate policy recognize the role that agriculture can and must play in avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, increasing soil health and carbon sequestration, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

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As one of the newest members of the IDEA Network, Hagenbuch has been reaching out frequently to other members for guidance on his work transitioning 67.5 acres of the 1,100-acre spread run by his father and uncle. This fall marked the end of year one of Hagenbuch’s work to gain organic certification for this acreage, a process that will take until November 2021 if he is successful.

And even though he is starting slowly, he found the first year to be anything but easy. Heavy rainfall through the spring and summer soaked the soybean plants he had carefully seeded and spurred the sprouting of aggressive weeds throughout his field. Despite the use of a cultivator to turn up the soil and break up weeds, Hagenbuch was forced to address the problem by hand. He put together a crew of high school kids and spent days “bean-walking” the field with hoes to remove the weeds.

Because he works as a full-time banker out of his home in Mendota, Illinois, Hagenbuch has to carve out evenings and weekends and use vacation days to do his farming on the family land about 15 miles outside of town. But he has high hopes for what he can achieve, both for his family’s future and its finances.

Even though his soybeans are not eligible for organic certification and won’t be until 2021 due to a requirement that fields remain chemical-free for three years, non-GMO soybeans command a premium price over GMO beans of roughly $1.50 a bushel, Hagenbuch has calculated. The gains in price help offset the costs of the hand weeding and cultivating.

His plan for the long term is to follow his soybean harvests with the planting of winter wheat and then a cover crop such as red clover. He is intrigued by the success other IDEA farmers have had planting and crimping rye as a weed-blocking ground cover and thinks he might experiment with that in the future. He has decided he’ll use chicken litter or hog manure on the field to help fertilize and prepare the land for what he intends to be his first field of organic corn. Organic corn can bring roughly $9 a bushel compared to $4 a bushel for non-organic, which makes up for a slightly smaller yield and the headaches of weed management, he says.

In addition to participating in the IDEA network, Hagenbuch also has been taking part in a “farmer-to-farmer mentoring” program coordinated through the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service, affectionately dubbed MOSES by participants. He is paired with mentor Dave Campbell — who operates 156 acres of certified organic corn, soybeans, wheat, and other crops 50 miles west of Chicago — to learn the tricks of the business. Additionally, Hagenbuch is one of more than 700 farmers who attended MOSES field events in 2018 for instruction in business planning, food safety, organic certification, and other matters that are key to putting in place profitable organic operations.

So far, the senior members of the Hagenbuch family farm business seem content to keep farming the way they have for years. But once he can show them the benefits he knows are attainable, Hagenbuch hopes to convince his father and uncle to allow him to convert more of the family acreage to organic.

“I’m not a guy who says that organic is the end-all,” Hagenbuch says. “I just think it is a step in the right direction.”