When a bewildered-looking 3-year old looks up at you and asks, “Daddy, why did you spray poison on our food?” it makes you think. When you are trudging along a pond dam with a tank of toxic herbicide sloshing around on your back, spraying invasive thistle weeds, and fish “accidentally” die off, it makes you think. When you have a surplus of garden tomatoes at work but are not sure you want to take them home for your family to consume, it makes you think.
As the guy Kentucky State University hired to convert an overworked cattle and tobacco farm into a research facility for small-scale farmers in the mid-80s, I had a big job ahead of me. KSU is renowned for its world-class aquaculture program to this day. Being a young whipper snapper who’s gonna do everything by the book, I headed out one day to kill thistles. All the how-to-be-a-good-farmer guidebooks—most developed and disseminated by colleges of agriculture across the country—had a chart of herbicides to spray for weeds. The chosen chemical was broad-spectrum, broadleaf weed killer that caused no harm to grasses, like the fescue and bluegrass I was rescuing. The next morning, I was delighted to see wilting thistles but horrified to see hundreds of bluegill and catfish, plus a few bass, belly up in the pond. My larger-than-life boss, Doc Benson, very quietly informed me, “You can’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg and keep your job.” That made me think, how can I do this another way?
About this same time, I was tending the garden behind the farmhouse overlooking said pond, growing veggies for my family. It had obviously been the garden patch for others who had lived there, overworked like the rest of the farm. I was having trouble with insects damaging the crops, so I strapped on a different backpack sprayer and took care of those pesky critters; problem solved. I was feeling pretty proud of myself, as I had saved our green beans from insect devastation. Later that day, I walked my young daughter out to the edge of the garden and told her we could not go into the garden for two days because I had sprayed bug poison. When I had no comeback for her question about the poison on the food, I thought there had to be a better way to grow food.
Simultaneously, the mission to develop scale-appropriate systems to fit small-scale, often under-capitalized, farmers led to full-blown research projects. In the official by-the-book replicated tomato-research trials, the team was evaluating the pros and cons of using various colors of plastic mulch. Of course, these plants were “properly” maintained with regimented insecticide and fungicide spray schedules. After harvest and evaluation, the tomatoes were donated to local soup kitchens and shared by the crew. When Doc asked us why we were not taking any of the surplus tomatoes home, he cocked an eyebrow at me when I informed him we had plenty of other tomatoes to take home that had not been sprayed, ever.
That set the wheels in motion for KSU to be the first land-grant university in the South and Midwest to certify some of its land into organic production. Doc gave me and the rest of the farm crew the freedom to design systems to be shared with small-scale farmers so they could avoid the use of toxic chemicals on their farms. Our weekly evaluation walks were the genesis of KSU’s monthly Third Thursday Program, a free educational event that still goes on today (currently virtually). Some 25-plus years and a formal recognition from the USDA Secretary of Agriculture later, thousands of farmers, scientists and industry representatives have been led to think about how food can be grown without toxic chemicals at KSU. Now those early impacts on me have made a lot of people think.
My conviction to organics originated with personal experience and real-life examples. The opportunity to work with the bee people and the fish folks let me gain insight into sensitivities to toxins and really opened my eyes. Applying advice from a previous boss, the path to success was to “have eyes that see, a mind that works, and an action attitude.” That’s how I changed life for the better, and I got to keep my job. That’s also how we go to work for our CSA members, our online customers, and our retail and restaurant partners, so you don’t have to explain to your children why there are poisons on your food, why the fish died in the pond, or why you don’t want to eat the tomatoes.