Agricultural economist Charlie Walters explains why the adoption of natural farming is necessary for our nation's future health and prosperity.
Mention the name Charlie Walters to anyone involved in natural farming, and you'll immediately hear words of praise. Respected as a giant in the organic agriculture movement, Charlie has stood firm in his fight to educate and enlighten the public on the inherent evils of "toxic rescue chemistry" — his term for the manmade molecules of poison used by many farmers to rescue crops from insect, fungal, and bacterial plant destroyers.
Founder, publisher, and editor of the eco-agriculture monthly Acres, U.S.A., Charlie is also a frequent lecturer and advisor, as well as coordinator of the annual Acres, U.S.A. convention, which brings together hundreds of practicing advocates of natural farming to learn from one another.
In addition, Mr. Walters is an author. His published works on agriculture include Holding Action (1968), Angry Testament (1969), Unforgiven (1971), The Case for Eco-Agriculture (1975), and Parity, The Key to Prosperity Unlimited (1982). He edited The Albrecht Papers in 1975, and with C.J. Fenzau wrote An Acres, U.S.A. Primer (1979).
KENT: How and when did Acres, U.S.A. come into being?
WALTERS: I started Acres in 1970, but my interest in the subject was sparked long before I ever decided to launch my own publication. I guess I've dealt with and worked with agriculture in one way or another ever since I finished school with a graduate degree in economics from the University of Denver.
KENT : Is economics your first love?
WALTERS : Not really. Actually, I'd always wanted to run a newspaper, but I ended up working for bonding houses and auditing concerns in various parts of the country before settling back in the Midwest. I then went to work as a publisher's assistant for a magazine in Kansas City called Veterinary Medicine that's now known as VM-SAC.
From there I went to work as an economist for a national farmers' organization for close to seven years. And I wrote some books while on that job. But I became somewhat disenchanted with the organization and left it about 1970. About that time I was writing the book Unforgiven, and in the last chapters I included some statistical work on food production technology. During the course of my research, I discovered that we, as a nation, were increasing the inputs of hard chemistry — particularly salt fertilizers — geometrically, while the food production was only coming up slowly, arithmetically. It looked like we were poised on the top of a curve and that soon we were going to start down. And I thought, holy mackerel, if this is true, then when we end the warm-wet cycle in the weather pattern, the United States is really going to get into some trouble!
KENT: So that's when you formed Acres, U.S.A.?
KENT: You bill Acres U.S.A. as "the voice for eco-agriculture," right?
WALTERS: That's correct. And actually the prefix "eco-" has two meanings: When we write about eco-agriculture, we mean farming that's both economically sound and ecologically sound. It's our contention that sloppy NPK fertilization is nothing more than toxic rescue chemistry — which has no place in the environment whatsoever. It has no safe level and no tolerance level. We fail to acknowledge this because we ride along on what Rachel Carson called the "Stone Age mentality" of what constitutes toxicity.
KENT: How do the "experts" define toxicity?
WALTERS: Well, they use a principle called the LD 50 or LC 50 factor. LD 50 means that a suspected poison is tested on the basis of how many units of toxin it takes per unit of body weight to kill 50% of the test animals. LC 50 stands for lethal concentration and is, for example, applied in the case of aquatic life. But this blunt measure of toxicity is seriously flawed. Let me give you an example. Captan is a mild fungicide that's used on apple trees. According to the LD 50 scale, it's not as toxic as common table salt. Captan will never directly kill you, whereas table salt can, if ingested in a large enough dose. But that doesn't reflect the whole story. It doesn't tell you what happens to the gene pool. Captan happens to be a member of the phthalimide family and is structurally similar to thalidomide. It's teratogenic—which means that it deforms fetuses. It causes what I call "scrambled kids." Records show that in 1950, when we had just begun edging into the real chemical era, there were only 20,000 deformed children born in the U.S. By 1970 that statistic jumped to 550,000. What's sad is that everything in society today seems to be tested for safety in terms of, did you make it to the door? In other words, if it doesn't kill you outright, it doesn't hurt you.
KENT: That sounds pretty ominous.
WALTERS: What's even more frightening is this: There's a scientist by the name of Dr. Rich Penney who served at the South Pole. He performed biopsies on penguins down there and found DDT in every bird he examined. There's no escaping the damage that has been done. The contamination of the environment and the ecosystem has become ubiquitous.
KENT: How do you answer charges that organic farming is an old-fashioned or "backward" practice?
WALTERS: I reply that the advocates of chemical additives are the ones who are backward in their thinking! In my opinion, the state of the art of organic farming has bypassed the philosophies that are still being touted by these people. We aren't advocating going back to the organic agriculture of the 1930's. We're moving to an upland of new agriculture, using technology but hanging onto and implementing those older sound principles.
Of course, a lot of folks on the chemical bandwagon really believe that we're a bunch of fools who are going to starve people to death. But we can demonstrate that under the best of systems we have to offer, we can produce more bins and bushels of food with a better nutritional load than anything that they're going to come up with in the chemical camp. Furthermore, we aren't wasting away the earth's resources in doing so.
KENT: In a past issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we reported on the problems organic farmers such as Rita and Ralph Engelken were having. [See Ralph Engelken Is Gone and the Engelkens interview, Ralph and Rita Engelken: On Organic Farming] Can you give me your view of their situation?
WALTERS: I met the Englekens about 12 years ago. Since then, Ralph has become a sort of guru to the whole organic farming movement. He's traveled throughout the country, giving speeches, and has developed a following through his exposure on television, radio, and magazines such as yours. Their financial problem started because he and his family accumulated a goodly amount of medical bills from their exposure to chemicals in their early farming days. Then several years ago a neighbor used chemical sprays on some fields just prior to a heavy rainstorm. The six-inch rainfall washed a lot of the toxins down from that grower's fields into Ralph's water supply. The Englekens lost half of their herd by death rather promptly. The other half, aborted their calves and then wouldn't settle back ... in other words, breed. Well, the upshot of all of this is that, with the tremendous cattle loss and the medical debts and probably some other things I don't know about, they ended up going to the Land Bank, which granted them a "work out" loan with a five-year repayment schedule.
KENT: And then they couldn't meet the schedule?
WALTERS: Nobody in American agriculture could dig out of that kind of hole! In fact, every farmer in this country is in a liquidity crisis. The irony of the situation is that on paper farmers often show a better balance sheet than practically any business around. But the balance sheet is really kind of a never-never-land statement. It shows a net worth which presumes that, if you have to, you can sell everything you own at a moment's notice for raw cash. Of course, this has very little to do with the farmer's ability to survive. But that good-looking balance sheet is constantly being shoved down the farmer's throat. The worth of his land is up there where it has no right to be, having been parlayed higher and higher by the banks and by public policy in order to allow farmers to borrow more and dig in deeper to keep agriculture producing.
KENT: What do you think will happen to the Englekens and people like them?
WALTERS: As for the Engelkens, there are several things happening already. For instance, we are in the process of setting up the "Friends of Eco-Agriculture Trust." We'd like to build up a fund that can provide help in many situations like this one because, unfortunately, the Engelkens aren't alone. In fact, I firmly believe that, overall, government instrumentalities are moving in and slowly plucking out farmers by the numbers. They've been doing it that way since about 1950. They're wanting to get our agricultural systems into big industrial enclaves the way they've done in every Third World country. And you know what the consequences of that have been: nothing short of starvation, revolution, and war.
KENT: Can you offer any hope for farmers?
WALTERS: Oh, sure. The people who are farming with biologically sound systems, people who haven't gotten lured into debt that's too deep for them to handle, are making money, even under current conditions. For instance, in 1983 there was a tremendous amount of drought in the Corn Belt, but those who practice what we've been preaching didn't suffer from it at all. Damage from drought and cold snaps isn't a consequence of the weather so much as it is the manner in which the crops are being produced. If we can help American farmers to organically get their land's calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, nitrogen, and phosphates in balance, then we'll start improving the soil's tilth and getting a recycling of the organic matter. We'll finally start living in harmony with nature and benefiting from all the biotic livestock that's in the soil.
The force that makes our present economy work is the earth's raw materials. Raw materials are free revenue from the sun. The sun puts coal on deposit, oil in the ground, and returns 800 corn seeds where one was planted. That's free! That's where the economy makes it! Economists, of course, will maintain that labor is first and foremost, but labor does not come first. You have to feed labor for 16 years before it can work. No, I believe that today's system runs on exploiting raw materials, and production should be priced to reflect this fact.
KENT: But how do you go about changing the economists' collective mind?
WALTERS: The only solution, in my opinion, is to start at the grass roots level — right down to the children in elementary schools. I have a little daughter to whom I've already explained some of these things, and she understands. We're also educating readers through publications such as Acres, U.S.A. and MOTHER EARTH NEWS, and I speak to groups a lot. Not long ago I met with members of the Northeast Kansas Bee keeper's Association. And although a few of them were familiar with Acres, U.S.A., 1 told them that we really, needed to become better acquainted. They need to hear what we're saying, and we need to know more about them, because we have the same problem. Some 40% of the beehives in the U.S. are poisoned every year. Forty percent! And those are USDA figures.
KENT: Where do you see all of this leading?
WALTERS: We think eventually the Acres, U.S.A. concept will take over. Whether that will happen in my lifetime, I don't know. I do know that we're growing. We've probably doubled our circulation in the past year, and 87% of our subscribers are actually involved in operational agriculture. And I think the most important contribution that we make through Acres, U.S.A. is that we've developed a rationale that's meaningful for agriculture as it's structured today. We can work within the system. What's more, the principles that we're talking about are as good for the window box as they are for the 1,000-acre field.I know that toxic rescue chemistry has no place in agriculture. Without it — and given proper time, instruction, and help — farmers could produce much more than they are doing today, plus develop a population that has a great deal more mental acuity than it does now. What's more, it needn't hurt a single agricultural company, because they could certainly busy themselves producing biological aids and systems that are sound. As it is, they are devising new ways of putting molecules together, and the Creator never designed offsetting entities to counteract them. And that's just plain insanity! It's ultimately going to destroy our civilization, if we do nothing to turn this thing around.