Leading the way to sustainable ag
SARE announces winners of the Patrick Madden award for sustainablility

Posted November 9, 2004: Three very different farm-life stories, two common threads – environmental stewardship and a determination to survive as farmers in 2004 America. Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) announced the winners of its Patrick Madden Award for Sustainable Agriculture at a luncheon on the final day of the national conference, held this year October 19 through the 21 in Burlington Vermont.

The award, which is named in honor of SARE’s first director honors producers who are not only profitable, but also value the environment and their communities. For more information, visit www.sare.org.

Jean-Paul Courtens, Kinderhook, New York

More than a decade ago, two civic groups approached New York farmer Jean-Paul Courtens and asked if they could partner with him in a community-supported agriculture (CSA) arrangement. CSA was being tested on farms in the Northeast after debuting in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and its tenets of shared responsibility - nearby residents buy "shares" and "join" a farm in exchange for weekly deliveries of fresh produce - were catching on.

Jean-Paul Courtens
For Courtens, who was raising organic vegetables on Roxbury Farm near Albany and sold them wholesale or to local restaurants and institutions, the CSA concept made sense. "I was developing complex ways of doing retail and restaurants wholesale," he recalled. "I didn't want to become a retailer, I wanted to farm."

He felt fortunate to connect with like-minded people who approved of his organic/biodynamic methods and his commitment to creating a cycle of interlocking activities - such as carefully crafted rotations that build, rather than deplete, the soil.

With farming partner Jody Bolluyt, who joined him in 2001, by 2004 Courtens had become a large, efficient CSA farmer, supplying 800 shareholders with produce for 25 weeks each season. Courtens grows some 50 different types of vegetables; in a typical mid-summer week, a shareholder receives red cabbage, cantaloupe, zucchini, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, corn, greens, onions, beets, carrots and herbs. Over the years, he has found winning varieties that perform consistently, such as Bloomsdale spinach and Early Cascade tomatoes. Other crops he dropped off the list: celery requires too much nitrogen and head lettuce proved a deer delicacy.

He raises his produce using exemplary farming practices - Courtens is known throughout the Northeast as a fertility management expert - on a farm protected as a perpetual agricultural operation thanks to a groundbreaking agreement he signed with a land trust that now owns the property.

The lease agreement allows Courtens to rent the land from the trust for 99 years or more. While the land trust owns the land, thanks in part to donations from Courtens' CSA membership, it will only lease to a bona fide farmer. Meanwhile, the land is designated to be a farm in perpetuity, and its real estate value stabilizes in a region of rapidly escalating prices.

"It's a very creative way in which we don't only preserve open space, we preserve the land as a farm," Courtens said.

Courtens takes his land seriously. Years ago, he trained in biodynamic farming in his native Netherlands. Today, he applies compost (a mix of cow manure, horse bedding and cranberry pulp) as his main soil amendment and rotates his fields between vegetables and soil-improving cover crops. He balances 35 acres of vegetable production with 35 acres in cover crops like red clover, sweet blossom clover, rye, oats and peas. Certain cover crops grow in the off-season, while others disrupt disease, insects and weeds in between rows of cash crops.

"The additional land is justified by the labor savings and increased yield and quality in the cash crops," he says.

Key to Courtens' economic success is his solid relationship with his CSA membership, said Frank Scheib, who nominated him for the 2004 Madden Award and was one of the original civic group members who forged the CSA partnership. "Through this direct connection, he and his partner, Jody, are able to charge an affordable price for their produce that provides a fair return on their inputs," Scheib said. "The shareholders know who grows their food and how it is grown. Everyone benefits from this relationship."

The active Roxbury Farm CSA membership organizes distribution at sites dispersed from Harlem to Albany. Their fluid communication, through a weekly newsletter, monthly farm days, website and direct contact, has brought improvements. Rather than boxing up the bushel of produce each member receives each week, for example, Courtens now delivers in bulk to the drop-off sites, where coordinators organize a pick-up process. It's less labor for Courtens.

To help with on-farm labor while guiding future farmers, Courtens hires apprentices alongside his permanent local farm crew. In addition to paying them, Courtens establishes individual "contracts" with each apprentice that lays out his expectations and the newcomer's educational goals and provides them with a phonebook-thick manual on production practices. To provide a diverse educational experience for them, he formed a collaborative of New York and Connecticut farms that take turns hosting area apprentices at farm workshops.

"We hire the journeyman types who are serious about farming," he said. "When they leave, they have all the information they need to go out and grow vegetables."

Peter Kenagy, Albany, Oregon

As Peter Kenagy has analyzed his farming practices over two-and-a-half decades, he's drawn some sobering views about their impact on the environment. Today, those views guide his farming philosophy, although he knows they may trouble more than a few fellow producers.

Peter Kenagy
"Agriculture is a very invasive and destructive activity," said Kenagy. "We're disturbing soil and introducing species. So I tend to look at what can I do as a farmer and a land manager to minimize the destructive side effects of farming. My love for plants, animals and wild areas have made me look hard at what I can do to enhance natural and wild functions on my farm."

Enhance he has. In nominating Kenagy for the 2004 Madden Award, John Luna and Dan McGrath of Oregon State University outlined a host of practices the Albany, Ore., farmer has adopted - working with his wife, Tina, and their children, Rufus and Alana - on 325 tillable acres and 150 riparian acres along the Willamette River.

For example, where the farm meets the banks of the river, he's planted a mix of walnut, hazelnut, elderberry and cottonwood trees, cutting some for timber and retaining the rest in a 200-foot-wide buffer that sops up nutrients before they reach the river. He grows hedgerows and buffer strips to enhance resources for wildlife. He plants cover crops, some to scavenge nutrients, others to biologically fix nitrogen. And he adopts university-based scouting and Integrated Pest Management recommendations for controlling pests in snap beans and field corn.

Among his evolving practices, Kenagy ranks changes in tillage techniques as the most valuable. "We've gotten completely away from the moldboard plow and adopted no-till and other tillage methods," he said. "We haven't settled on any one thing - it's crop specific."

For example, within his three-year rotation of wheat, snap beans and sweet corn for processing, Kenagy pairs a sorghum-sudangrass cover crop with strip tillage. He plants green beans in late April or early May. In 60 to 70 days, he harvests the beans, then plants sorghum sudangrass. The grass, which reaches nearly 5 feet high in the fall, dies back at the first frost and, by spring, has decomposed on the soil. Into this rich residue, Kenagy strip-tills sweet corn.

"For a huge part of the growing season, the ground was bare," said Kenagy. "So we started planting the sudangrass to take advantage of photosynthesis and control erosion and weeds." What's more, the light-touch tillage has improved soil quality, minimized soil compaction and saved fuel.

To bolster returns from his three-crop rotation, Kenagy maintains a small pick-your-own strawberry operation and fosters a specialty seed business that produces vegetable and cover crop seed. He also grows seed for native plants endemic to the Willamette Valley for wetland mitigation, upland prairie restoration and revegetation on public lands. A number of the original seed collections came from his farm.

Kenagy collaborates with university researchers and other farmers. As a member of the stewardship committee for Norpac Foods, a cooperative of 240 Willamette Valley farm families, he works with The Food Alliance of Portland to develop stewardship guidelines for Norpac growers. He serves on the Oregon Processed Vegetable Commission. And he's a member of the Willamette Farm Improvement Association, a progressive farm group formed in 1998 to collaborate on innovation through on-farm research.

Carl Hendricks, a fellow member of the Willamette Farm Improvement Association, said Kenagy cultivates innovation. "Peter has always been a leader in trying new and different methods," said Hendricks. "Peter's whole farm is like a research farm where he tries different cover crops and studies their effect on insect populations as well as the tilth of his soil."

Indeed, Alex Stone, Oregon State University vegetable cropping systems specialist, called Kenagy one of the most committed sustainable farmers she has ever met, practicing "cutting edge and economically viable environmental agriculture."

Despite his successes, Kenagy remains vexed by a plague of invasive plants - mainly canary grass and blackberries - that virtually dominate the understory on his farm's wild areas. "I really struggle, not knowing how to deal with them," he said of these and other invaders that entered the Willamette Valley through the door of agricultural disturbance. He may not have the answers, but won't stop trying.

"We will never eliminate agriculture's impacts completely," he said. "But it's a continually evolving challenge to figure out better ways to operate and soften our impact on natural and wild places."

Ron Macher, Clark, Missouri

Many would call Ron Macher a veritable legend in sustainable agriculture. His 80-acre farm in Clark, Mo., has netted up to $1.32 a square foot on sales of Hair Sheep sausage, whole hog sausage, and vegetables grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Macher formulated a complete, high-protein feed for heirloom chickens and developed "Macher's Freedom" open-pollinated corn. In today's world of increasingly mass-produced feed and hybrid seeds, Macher's plant breeding and homemade rations are especially noteworthy.

Ron Macher
Farming is just one of Macher's many talents. He is the creator and publisher of Small Farm Today magazine, and the founding organizer of the National Small Farm Trade Show and Conference, the largest annual small farm show in the United States.

"There is no better farmer who embodies the ideals of sustainability and has worked so diligently to spread the sustainable agriculture word around the country," said Mary Hendrickson, associate director of the Community Food Systems and Sustainable Agriculture Program at the University of Missouri.

That's a lot of work for a "disgruntled former cattle farmer."

In 1964, Ron Macher was like a lot of other Missouri farmers. He had a job in town and a farm in the country. He raised cattle and later added pigs and sheep to gain a steadier income to support his family. Twenty years later, the bottom fell out in rural America.

"By 1984, the farm crisis was wiping out a lot of farmers, and I was totally disgruntled with the system," said Macher. "I didn't even see the point of keeping records if I couldn't control the prices."

Macher's conversion to sustainable agriculture was born with a practical idea - a strategy to use his empty farm ponds. He started raising catfish and took them to town, his first experience in direct marketing. "Nobody asked me about pond conditions," he recalled. "They just asked how much the catfish cost. I got $2.75 a pound, which was more than I got for anything else I grew. And they were happy to pay it."

His experience with the catfish opened his eyes to an obvious, but hardly universal, truth. The 75 percent of farms in America that are less than 180 acres have to do things differently. In time, Macher was experimenting with a variety of production methods - reduced chemical inputs, different crops and animals, home-grown seed, among many others - and began issuing a four-page newsletter with his activities and results. Response was so great the newsletter expanded to 12 pages, and kept adding readers.

By 1992, Macher changed the name to Small Farm Today, "The Original How-to Magazine of Alternative and Traditional Crops, Livestock, and Direct Marketing." The magazine now has a readership of 30,000. In November 1992, Macher and Small Farm Today created and hosted the first National Small Farm Trade Show & Conference in Columbia, Mo. Today, it attracts 300 exhibits, 60 workshops, and attendees from 42 states and five foreign countries.

When he's not farming, running a magazine, or producing a juggernaut conference, Macher speaks. He talks at conferences and fairs, over fence rails and at kitchen tables.

"Ron continually provides support for small farmers and their new businesses," said Joan Benjamin, program coordinator of the Sustainable Agriculture Program at the Missouri Department of Agriculture, who nominated him. "He lends his name and expertise as a speaker and exhibitor at numerous events, and his presence lends legitimacy."

A former member of SARE's North Central Region administrative council, Macher himself received a 2002 Research and Education grant to create and distribute a farm-planning computer program that could develop a farm plan in an hour or so.

"Sustainable agriculture is about the big picture - how one thing relates to another. That's what SARE does, too," said Macher. "It was eye-opening to see a program help people the way they need to be helped. It is important to a farmer who wants to try something new, something that might make the farm more profitable."

Macher feels a tremendous responsibility to lead sustainable ag into the broader farming community. "Ron continually tries new ideas and explores new marketing niches, demonstrating to other farmers how to increase profitability through ongoing innovation," Benjamin said. "Ron is amazingly innovative and resourceful - he takes my breath away with his energy, enthusiasm and dedication to sustainable agriculture.




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