I got my first glimpse of sustainable agriculture from my father, a North Dakota farmer who had faced the ravages of the Dust Bowl and vowed never to let that happen to his land again. His livelihood depended on healthy soils, and with two kids to feed, taking care of the land meant taking care of his family.
Thanks to his teachings, I grew up knowing that it was essential to care for the land. But it was a former student of mine, David Vetter, who really opened my eyes to the benefits of organic farming. While I carried the professor's hat, David was the real teacher, showing me how the soil's biological health could be restored using sound organic management.
With my father's admonitions and David's revelations, I made the life-changing choice in 1976 to temporarily set aside the books and return to our 3500 acre family farm in North Dakota.
I dreamed of switching the farm over to organic, giving new life to the soil just as I had read was possible in countless organic farming books.
Easier said than done.
After fourteen years in higher education, learning to manage an actual farm organically was daunting, to say the least. And learning to properly care for the land - monitoring the soil, choosing appropriate agro-ecological practices, discovering what the plants needed - presented a laundry list of challenges. Luckily I wasn't working alone, and a group of young farmers in the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society helped me transition the farm to organic, as we learned from our failures as much as from our triumphs.
With today's agriculture sector dependent on chemicals, monoculture, and industrial methods, we can't expect farmers to make the switch to organic without some help.
We need thought leaders, organic pioneers who will help us to see that it is smart and profitable to farm naturally. I've been fortunate enough to connect with some of these great leaders as director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, where my incredible colleagues and growers throughout Iowa and across the country are working to shape the next generation of sustainable farmers.
And eight years ago I was given the privilege of becoming associated with the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York, where I now serve as President of the Board.
Every day, the incredible staff at Stone Barns helps people rediscover an enjoyment of community-based food production, from farm to classroom to table.
Stone Barns is an education and demonstration site where children, farmers, and urban and suburban citizens can experience all of the rich ecological and social benefits that come with the kind of land care that all of my early mentors instilled in me, and that the Stone Barns family accepts as an unwritten mandate. From the farmers who manage crop and livestock operations to the chefs at the Blue Hill Restaurant at Stone Barns who prepare and serve the food produced on the farm, Stone Barns is alive with a passion for food and environmental health that is refreshingly contagious.
Now I am being honored by the Natural Resources Defense Council with one of their prestigious 2010 Growing Green Awards. The award is deeply humbling since I can only conclude that it belongs to all of the farmers and colleagues who guided the evolution of my thinking, to the friends and colleagues I am privileged to work with, to David Vetter and my father who started me down this path; and, of course, to my family which continues to encourage me on this never ending journey.
Conventional thinking is changing. Farmers and families alike are recognizing that we need a new future for agriculture.
With this awareness comes a responsibility to spread the knowledge. I intend to continue to share all that I have learned, doing my best to help prepare future generations to meet the challenges, and take advantage of the opportunities, that lie ahead.
Watch the full 2010 Growing Green Awards documentary, premiering April 29!