The Crestone Eagle, September 2005:

Conventional farmer sees a future in organics

story & photos by Nick Chambers

Rod 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 without cost.

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!”