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
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
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 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
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
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.
"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
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.
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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