Ralph and Rita Engelken: On Organic Farming

A Plowboy Interview with Ralph and Rita Engelken who promote organic farming methods as the only way to farm sustainably.

| November/December 1983

  • Ralph and Rita Engelken
    Ralph and Rita Engelken unlock America's true wealth with organic farming methods.
    Photo by Jack Green
  • Ears of Corn
    The two ears of corn were both grown in 1981. The corn on the left came from Ralph's and Rita's organic fields, while the ear on the right was picked from a nearby chemicalized cornfield. The difference in the keeping value ā€” two seasons later ā€” is obvious.
    Photo provided by Jack Green
  • Rita Engelken
    The Engelken's don't just grow corn on their farm; they also have a variety of crops to help them be 96 percent food self-efficient.
    Photo provided by Jack Green
  • Organic Topsoil
    The Engelken's have five million earthworms per acre to generate 96 pounds of topsoil to keep the organic farm growing strong.
    Photo provided by Jack Green

  • Ralph and Rita Engelken
  • Ears of Corn
  • Rita Engelken
  • Organic Topsoil

When you stop to consider that everyone has to make do with the same 24 hours each day, it's difficult to imagine just how Ralph and Rita Engelken manage to accomplish as much as they do. This energetic (and highly personable) couple are parents to 11, grandparents to 11, authors of one meticulously researched book, sought-after speakers, dedicated churchgoers, and concerned citizens who are intensely committed to the activities of their Greeley, Iowa farm community . . . and to helping solve the agricultural problems facing the United States and the world. Oh yes, and in their spare time, they run a 500-acre organic arm . . . raising beef cattle, horses, chickens, guineas, dogs, and cats. hey butcher their own meat, make their own dairy products (from the milky milk cow), and are "96 percent food self-sufficient"! 

And as if all that weren't enough, the Engelkens also spend consider time demonstrating to visitors — such as MOTHER EARTH NEWS' Associate it or Carrie Kent and Photographer Jack Green — just how and why it natural farm program operates as successfully as it does. 

On a sunny day early in July — with the air carrying the first hint of summer heat wave that was to follow — Ralph and Rita spoke candidly at their home, Barrington Hall Farm, about farming, health, soil, chemicals, the future, and the struggle between agripolitics and the epical American farmer. In the course of the five-hour conversation, Ralph accurately predicted the midwestern crop failures of 1983 . . . , the dismal repercussions of the government's payment-in-kind (PIK) program, both of which were just beginning to make headlines at the time this interview went to press. We hope you'll be interested in hat else these agricultural visionaries have to say..

Ralph and Rita, how in the world did you two happen become so involved in organic farming way back in 1958 . . . well before the concept became popularized, or even understood?

RALPH: Well, we were really reacting to the health problems that were then afflicting both our family and our livestock. You see, for ten years prior to our buying this farm — which we did in 1958 — I'd not only been spraying my cornfields with the herbicide 2,4-D . . . I was hiring myself out to treat other people's land, as well. I probably sprayed an average of 1,000 to 2,000 acres each year . . . handling the chemicals every day for four or five months at a time. I inhaled the sprays as I applied them, of course, and the fumes permeated my clothing and skin and eventually entered my bloodstream.

I can understand how all that exposure could adversely affect you . . . but why did the rest of your family also suffer ill effects?


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