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Crestone Eagle, September 2005:
Conventional farmer sees a future in organics
story & photos by Nick Chambers
Kehler has been farming Valley land that has been in his family
since his grandfather first tilled the soil in 1933. The six
quarters near Center have hosted the conventional rotation
of barley and potatoes every other year and have seen the
birth and life cycle of the agrochemical industry. Now, Rod
is watching his hand closely, playing his cards like a weathered
veteran who knows the deck has got some rotten suits. To save
his land and preserve the future of farming he is going back
to the soil, the micro flora, and the fungi.
“I’ve got a gut feeling this is right. I believe
in it,” he proclaims. Unfortunately, his muse wasn’t
In February of 2003 Rod’s son, Joshua, who had grown
up working on the farm, was working and going to school in
Hawaii. Seemingly out of nowhere he fell ill and was Flight
for Life airlifted to Denver where he underwent treatments
for five months. His diagnosis: Non-Hodgkin’s Burkitt’s
Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes frequently associated
with exposure to chemical pesticides such as 2, 4-D, and the
sixth leading cancer in the nation. He then returned to the
Valley and the Kehler Ranches of his youth where he went into
remission and recovered well.
This experience forced Rod to look the practices of conventional
agriculture squarely in the eye. “Was employing my son
in spraying my fields with chemical pesticides worth the debilitating
health he experienced? If this can happen to him years after
any exposure, what is happening, and going to happen, to the
soil and the food we are trying to raise?”
Then one of his fields got hit with the Pink Rot fungus,
a blight related to the one associated with the Irish potato
famine. That year Rod tried to sort as much as possible and
save what he could. Then, during routine tractor work, an
implement spread the fungus all over the field. This blight
wasn’t about to disperse under applications of the conventional
fungicide Ridomil. Not this time. It had seen, adapted, and
overcome it before. This blight was there to stay. “Disease
resistance scares the hell out of me,” he says.
This was not the first time Rod had seen the shortsighted
reality of agrochemicals. Back in 1987, the DuPont manufactured
pesticide “Oust” was being sprayed by the railroad
on their tracks near Center. They then cleaned their sprayer
out near an irrigation ditch, contaminated the water and those
that were downstream. Rod lost his entire potato crop. Seven
other parties filed suit in Del Norte against DuPont and won,
making the case the largest suit ever won for agriculture
at the time. Rod settled out of court the day the ruling was
made. They won and survived this one, “but [off-road]
diesel wasn’t $2.30 per gallon then,” Rod exclaims.
Now, with a son who contracted cancer from possible exposure
to the farmer’s standard of 2, 4-D, a field with Pink
Rot fungus resistant to the conventional fungicide, and rising
fuel costs making everything more costly, Rod was in need
of something powerful, enduring, and organic. Compost teas
and natural fungicides inspired by Dr. Elaine Ingam and the
company Soil Food Web were and are still his allies.
The recovery and continuing food producing vitality of Rod’s
soils is now dependent on the application of lots of compost
and compost teas (i.e. 2 tons/acre and 500 gallons per week,
respectively). These have and promote the necessary micro
floral communities to support normal soil “activities”,
largely denuded from decades of inorganic chemical applications.
To mitigate the Pink Rot fungus, he has also used the predatory
fungus Trichaderma and, for the early blights, the mushroom-derived
Quadris and Amistar.
This year his crop is looking as good as any of his conventional
neighbors. Where the Pink Rot stands will be revealed upon
harvest. One thing’s for certain though, the crop that
you can’t see, that of the diverse microorganisms of
the soil, are gaining an edge on Rod’s lands and providing
a stability, resiliency and purity like that of a farm able
to continue into the future. It’s a long and sometimes
costly road to an Organic certification, but if Rod can keep
the income up, that’s where he’ll go, he says.
“People are catching on,” he proudly declares.
“We’re talking about ladybugs, not insecticides!”
to the Eagle!