The Drought Fighter
Could a small, controversial farmer in California have found the most effective way to grow food in a warming world? With only minimal irrigation, and gross profits of more than $100,000 an acre, he certainly thinks so.
By TODD OPPENHEIMER
Editor’s Note: This story, which led our inaugural issue in January, 2015, has been our most popular article thus far. Since its publication—as weather extremes have accelerated, bringing an unusually wet winter in California—Paul Kaiser and his wife, Elizabeth Johnson, have been testing the controversial aspects of their farming method under more demanding conditions. This story has been updated accordingly.
One Spring afternoon in 2014, on a small vegetable farm that Paul Kaiser runs in a particularly chilly valley in Sebastopol, California, a group of agriculture specialists gathered around a four-foot steel pole. The experts had come to test the depth and quality of Kaiser’s top-soil, and one of them, a veteran farmer from the Central Valley named Tom Willey, leaned on the pole to push it into the dirt as far as he could. On a typical farm, the pole comes to a stop against infertile hard-pan in less than a foot. But in Kaiser’s field, the pole’s entire length slid into the ground, and Willey almost fell over. “Wow, that’s incredible,” he said, wondering if he’d hit a gopher hole. The whole group burst out laughing. “Do it again! Do it again!” said Jeff Mitchell, a longtime professor of agriculture at the University of California at Davis.
One might call Paul Kaiser’s system of farming Organic Farming 2.0, because the standard practices of organic farming have fallen so far short of their environmental ideals. “On some of the big organic farms, the soils are incredibly destroyed,” says Ray Archuleta, an agronomist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The group successfully repeated the exercise, over and over—for fun, for photo ops, and to be sure that Kaiser really had accomplished the various feats he talks about, which he does almost incessantly these days. It’s not the easiest sell. Kaiser, an ebullient former woodworker who was only 40 when I first visited, farms a mere eight acres, and harvests fewer than three of them. Nonetheless, his methods are at the forefront of a farming movement that is so new (at least in the U.S.), and so built for a climate-changed world of diminishing rains, that it opens up gargantuan possibilities. One might call this methodology sustainability on steroids, because it can generate substantial profits. Last year, Kaiser’s Sonoma County farm grossed more than $100,000 an acre, which is 10 times the average per-acre income of comparable California farms. This includes Sonoma’s legendary vineyards, which have been overtaking farmland for decades, largely because wine grapes have become much more lucrative these days than food, at least the way most farmers grow it.
Kaiser and his wife, Elizabeth, manage all of this without plowing an inch of their ground, without doing any weeding, and without using any sprays—either chemical or organic. And while most farmers, even on model organic farms, constantly tinker with various fertilizer cocktails, Kaiser concentrates on just one: a pile of rotten food and plants, commonly known as compost, and lots of it. Kaiser then adds this compost to a rare blend of farming practices, both old and new, all aimed at returning dirt to the richest, most fertile seedbed possible. “It’s unique,” Mitchell told me after his visit. “I’ve never seen anything approaching that kind of thing.”
Kaiser’s farm may be minuscule in comparison with the mega-farms that feed most Americans today. But each of Kaiser’s methods is being used, to some degree, by much larger operations—both in and outside the U.S.—with growing success. By combining all of these practices in one place, and taking a few to the extreme, Kaiser has turned his farm into an unusual, and increasingly controversial, field experiment. Judging by his progress on this experiment so far, Kaiser may not yet have solved all of the equations he thinks he has. What matters, though, is the ambition of his efforts—and his proximity to the answers. Perhaps the best name for all of those efforts, and their ultimate answers, is Organic Farming 2.0, because the standard practices of organic farming have fallen so far short of their environmental ideals.
“On some of the big organic farms, the soils are incredibly destroyed,” Ray Archuleta, an agronomist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, recently told me. The reason Archuleta gave me is almost counterintuitive: While they do avoid chemicals, most organic farmers still resort to what are essentially artificial methods of cultivation, based largely on tearing up the ground with discs and spaders, the same way conventional farmers do, then abandoning it until the next season. They also use too much water. As an illustration of Archuleta’s point, in the five years since Kaiser stopped plowing his fields, his irrigation levels have dropped by more than half, to as little as an hour a week, with production steadily increasing. He now irrigates almost exclusively with a drip system, through thin plastic tubes; meanwhile, some of his organic neighbors still run sprinklers, which require massive amounts of water, much of which is lost almost immediately through evaporation.
This is a big deal. At the time of Willey’s visit, California had been going through an historic drought. 2014 was its hottest year on record, and panic across the state got to the point where farmers went on a frenzy of costly well-drilling. As a consequence, water levels in California aquifers got low enough that in some areas the farmland started caving in. In one Central Valley community the ground subsided so dramatically that a local dam dropped three feet in five years.
As climate data was tabulated on the following years, each one set another new record of heat and devastation. The latest report, on 2016, was released just this week from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, reflecting the findings of 450 scientists from 60 different nations. Across the Midwest, conditions have not been much better. A replay of the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression has been threatening in some of the very same places that it struck the last time: eastern Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska, Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma. In the summer of 2017, a new phenomenon called “flash drought” struck Montana and the Dakotas.
Drought is the most obvious reason for these troubles. But the sparse rainfalls simply highlight, and aggravate, a problem that has been accumulating for decades: the steady thinning out of America’s top-soil. “I never thought I would see the dust bowl again,” Archuleta says. “We’ve spent trillions of dollars and we’re still in the same place. What’s going on?”
Archuleta’s question is quickly becoming paramount, as illustrated by weather patterns throughout the American West. Across most of California in 2014, fall rains did not materialize until December. When the first wave finally arrived, they were torrential, in some areas up to eight times what’s normal for the month. Yet temperatures were so warm that the mountains were left with very little snowfall—and snow is the key to keeping California farmland irrigated during the long summer dry spell.
California has long served as the nation’s primary supermarket, providing more than 50 percent of virtually every fruit and vegetable you eat. When looked at from this perspective, the fields on Kaiser’s farm are crawling with implications.
To make matters worse, after December’s early outburst of rain, the skies in California essentially dried up again. If you listen to climatologists, this pattern is likely to become the new norm, only worsening as the years go by. As a warning, even after 2017’s heavy rains, summer temperatures in California hit another record high, drying much of what was grown in the soggy winter to a fragile crisp. The state’s devastating fires that fall, repeated the following year on an even larger scale, were a direct byproduct of the new weather patterns.
These conditions are not just a West Coast issue. California has long served as the nation’s primary supermarket, providing more than 90 percent of its artichokes, celery, garlic, plums, kiwis, and walnuts; and more than 50 percent of virtually every other fruit and vegetable you eat. When looked at from this perspective, the fields on Paul Kaiser’s little farm are crawling with implications.
I first met Kaiser in the fall of 2014, at a Napa farming conservation conference, where he delivered his presentation in his signature Australian leather cowboy hat, which is so worn out that the wire rim hangs over his eyes like a broken lampshade. On this particular day, Kaiser was given 10 minutes during a small side-panel to present his standard, two-hour spiel. The constraint didn’t seem to matter, though. Kaiser is a lover of data, which spews from his brain faster than his tongue can keep up with it. Engaging with him is therefore an exercise in speed listening, like playing a taped lecture on fast-forward. The lectures sometimes contain the kinds of sweeping claims one might hear from a 1960s-era dreamer. And some can be a little wobbly. But most, upon scrutiny, prove to have a surprising amount of solid science behind them.
Before Kaiser was done with his Napa presentation, for example, he had battered the room’s small audience with slides illustrating the evils of organic sprays, stark contrasts between the fertility of his fields and his neighbors’, and piles of stunning governmental and academic statistics. (According to one journal that he displayed, farming accounts for a third of our contribution to greenhouse gases; another said 89 percent of that could be eliminated with better methods of soil management. Yet another finds that agriculture could cut its greenhouse gas contributions far more cheaply than other industries can.) When one woman, seeking guidance, asked how thoroughly he removes old crops during harvests, Kaiser promptly delivered a lengthy, rat-a-tat explanation of why he leaves their roots in place. (Short version: to feed the worms, which feed the soil.) Kaiser concluded the presentation with an ambitious definition of agricultural sustainability—as a circle with three pieces. “Sustainable farming methods are just one corner,” he said. “Economic sustainability is another, and social sustainability is the third.”
Much of the loss in the nation’s soil fertility has been caused by one simple machine that has become ubiquitous: the moldboard plow, which was designed by Thomas Jefferson.
Kaiser envisions a world where every city—even in the driest areas of the globe—is surrounded by small, healthy farms like his. In his estimation, the higher income these farms can generate will allow their owners to hire more laborers; and the workers will come because these jobs are skilled, full-time, and well-paid. Right now, Kaiser argues, what people throughout the world need most are good jobs. As it happens, that very argument was made in a joint 2014 report from none other than the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the United Nations. Kaiser so deeply believes in this future, and his model for it, that he evangelizes about his vision every opportunity he gets—at conferences and community events; in his newsletters; and to visitors who come to his farm tours.
Evangelism, of course, rarely goes unnoticed. More than a few farmers, both in Sonoma and elsewhere, have not appreciated the frequency of Kaiser’s boastful comparisons. Some describe him as a “know-it-all.” Some believe his system is ecologically dangerous. Others just think there is nothing special, or practical, in what he’s peddling. “It sounds like a big garden,” Ed Thompson, American Farmland Trust’s longtime California director told me. “How many two-acre farms do we need to feed ourselves? Could the economic system support that? Would there be enough willing farm laborers?” To Warren Weber, one of the state’s first big organic farmers and the well-known founder of Star Route Farms, in Bolinas, Kaiser is simply naïve. “There is no one perfect way,” Weber told me. “He will go through all kinds of changes as he keeps farming.”
Plenty of others think Kaiser is onto something. People repeatedly return to his farm tours, seeking guidance as they strive to replicate his system, and quite a number already have increased their income by doing so. He has worked on various state initiatives, a healthy soil task force with California Gov. Jerry Brown, and even been commended by the U.S. Congress. During one Sunday farmers’ market, representatives of three different agricultural organizations approached Kaiser, each asking him to advise or help with their efforts. Whenever he’s booked for talks, Kaiser often packs the house. In January of 2015, for example, he spoke to a full house at the EcoFarm Conference in Pacific Grove, Calif. Held every year since 1981, this five-day think-fest has become the American West’s largest gathering dedicated to sustainable farming. While Kaiser had spoken here before on specialty topics, this was his first time making a pitch for his entire system. At each highlight–his astronomical profits, for instance, or his equally astronomical measures of soil fertility–audible gasps could be heard throughout the audience.
It’s enough to make a person wonder: Is Paul Kaiser an evangelist worth listening to?
Scientists have counted more organisms in a teaspoon of soil than there are human beings on the planet. Under a microscope, the dirt in that teaspoon looks like a cross between an Amazon jungle and some exotic, tropical coral reef teeming with seaweed, plankton and monstrous creatures from a Jules Verne novel.
According to his mother, Kaiser has been obsessed with dirt since he was a child. One might wonder if he came by his obsession genetically. Although his family still farms pumpkins in Illinois, for Libby’s, Kaiser himself grew up as a suburban kid in Northern California. By the time he was in his 20s, Kaiser was a tall, beefy bundle of energy and curiosity searching for the secret to healthy plant life. He seeded his quest with a series of peripatetic studies, which led to advanced degrees in International Relations, Natural Resources Management and Sustainable Development. One of his first horticultural explorations occurred in West Africa, in 1998, during a stint for the Peace Corps. Kaiser had been assigned to The Gambia, a tiny sliver of a country near the Sahara Desert that was once a major contributor to the slave trade. His job was to revive the area’s parched landscape, which he pursued through an approach called “agro-forestry.”
Although rarely practiced today in the West, agro-forestry is centuries old and based on a remarkably obvious principle: If you begin with a selection of trees based on what each can or cannot do—to create windbreaks and mulch, for instance, or to hold water, nutrients or top-soil—fertility will follow. Kaiser began by collecting local tree seeds and planting them everywhere. He also started a small, experimental garden, with vegetables that villagers had rarely if ever seen before—cabbage, peppers, some lettuce.
The Gambia suffers from the twin tortures of searing heat and minimal rainfall, and the only viable source of water in Kaiser’s community was a well 110 feet deep. So Kaiser did whatever he could to follow a basic but much-ignored rule of plant growth: keep your dirt protected. “I grabbed every single stick and leaf and twig I could find in the forests, which were pretty destroyed,” Kaiser says, “and threw it on the garden beds. From there, life will take care of the rest.” (As romantic as that claim sounds, it works for simple biological reasons: soil that is kept covered stays both wetter and cooler; that allows plant roots, and their friendly microbes, to grow closer to the surface where nutrients are more prevalent.) Before long, Kaiser noticed that he was using a lot less well water than village farmers were. “They’re having to pull up 100 buckets a day,” Kaiser recalls, “and I’d be pulling up 20 buckets every other day.”
“What creates life?” Kaiser asked me. “Sun, rain and soil. We can only impact one of these—soil. It’s the only thing on the planet that takes death and converts it back to life. And all we’ve done is destroy it.”
While developing the village’s fields, Kaiser fell for a neighboring Peace Corps volunteer named Elizabeth Johnson, who also fell for him, and his mission. Johnson’s family is from Holcomb, Kansas—a desolate slice of the Midwest famous for two things: the murders that inspired Truman Capote’s masterpiece, In Cold Blood, and some of the parched land that led to the Dust Bowl. (As a sign of the Dust Bowl’s lingering impact on Midwesterners, until recently canned food could still be found behind the walls of the Johnson family garage.) During her time in The Gambia, Johnson, who has advanced degrees in Public Health and The Science of Nursing, was struck by the villagers’ struggles just to grow a few subsistence crops. “If they planted a mango tree, they had to work so hard to maintain it!” she told me. “Then a goat would get through their fence and destroy it, because the goat was starving.” As Kaiser’s garden prospered, Johnson watched the locals’ curiosity gradually increase. Eventually the villagers realized that maybe they too could grow something besides the millet and peanuts that had been their staples for generations.
Doomsayers have been warning about soil abuse since the dawn of agriculture, at least 5000 years before Christ. We have also known how its fertility gets rebuilt ever since 1882, when Charles Darwin published one of his more obscure discoveries: topsoil is created by none other than the lowly earthworm, at a rate of 10 to 20 tons per acre each year. (Worms manage this feat because, alone among earth’s creatures, they dine on rocks, mixing their minerals with roots, leaves and biology’s other leftovers for a nice, square meal. When it’s time to poop, out comes fertile soil.) But if that soil is beaten into the dusty powder that has become increasingly common across the globe, there is nothing in it anymore for the worms—or, by extension, for the rest of the earth’s ecosystem.
During the last few decades, soil scientists have found that this ecosystem is far more extensive than anything yet seen on land or in the sea. Some have counted more organisms in a teaspoon of soil than there are human beings on the planet. Others, such as Noah Fierer, a professor specializing in microbial ecology at the University of Colorado, have found the biodiversity of soil to be so vast that it defies tabulation through today’s DNA tests. When examined under a microscope, the dirt in that teaspoon looks like a cross between an Amazon jungle and some exotic, tropical coral reef teeming with seaweed, plankton, and monstrous creatures from a Jules Verne novel. As all these invisible creatures collaborate, they strengthen the soil to hold water; withstand erosion; store and feed the plants nutrients; help build their immune systems; and, preliminary research suggests, stimulate symbiotic microbes in the human gut as we eat these plants, which strengthens our immune systems, too. Considering all this activity, Kaiser, like a growing number of his peers, cannot understand the way we’ve treated the world beneath our feet. “What creates life?” Kaiser asks. “Sun, rain and soil. We can only impact one of these—soil. It’s the only thing on the planet that takes death and converts it back to life. And all we’ve done is destroy it.” Apparently, the United Nations agrees. The year 2015, according to a recent U.N. declaration, is “The Year of Soil.”
Several years after leaving The Gambia, Kaiser was in Costa Rica pursuing his graduate studies when a colleague, who was studying two citrus orchards, noticed something unusual. The first orchard, planted on the edge of a forest that was dense with trees, bushes and wild vines, had more than 90 percent fewer pests than the second orchard, which was in an open plain almost a mile away. Kaiser was stunned. “You can’t get 90 percent reduction with chemical sprays,” he says. “And sprays kill everything—the pests and the beneficials.” (Beneficials are insects that don’t eat crops but instead help them grow. Bees, for example, help pollinate; others, such as ladybugs and praying mantises, eat the insects that eat the crops.) Every farmer wants beneficials; after spraying, however, the pests always come back faster and stronger than beneficials do. (Biologists explain that this is because the pests breed faster and more prolifically, and have been toughened by centuries of adversity). More sprays follow, and the death spiral widens. Paradoxically, this process of destruction occurs whether the sprays are synthetic or organic.
In Costa Rica, Kaiser and his colleagues realized that the pest-free orchard escaped this fate for a simple reason: the beneficials were hanging out in the foliage bordering the orchard, which gave these insects an easy commute to manage the crops. At one point during his studies, Kaiser visited a banana plantation that had doubled its productivity simply by using the super tree moringa oleifera to provide both shade and nitrogen, which is the most important nutrient to a plant. Kaiser was so struck by the myriad powers of this tree that he later wrote a small book about it. In Kaiser’s mind, a pattern was emerging. “If you take care of Mother Nature first,” he now says, “the food production is easy.” In other trials in various parts of Latin America, Miguel Altieri, a professor of Agroecology at UC Berkeley, has reached much the same conclusion: in case after case, peasant farmers who used the natural resources on their own land to build up fertility earned higher profits, and often larger yields, than conventional farmers who used chemicals and other supplements of conventional agriculture. The newfound fertility through returning to old ways has been particularly dramatic in Cuba. (See “Cuba’s Harvest of Surprises,” by Christopher Cook.)
“Tilling [or plowing] the soil is the equivalent of an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, and forest fire occurring simultaneously to the world of soil organisms.” – the United States Department of Agriculture, 2010
In 2005, Kaiser and Johnson finally returned to the U.S. to marry, raise a family, and test what they had learned on their home turf. After nosing around for a few months they finally found their target: Singing Frogs Farm, an eight-acre spread just outside downtown Sebastopol. It was not the most obvious choice. The property had been neglected for years; it was cold and wet, on a slope that turned the farm into a neighborhood drainage sink, with no flat expanses for easy row-cropping. In other words, Kaiser’s ideal piece of land. “I was looking for a place I could heal,” Kaiser says. “I knew I wanted to grow things but I didn’t have any concept of what that meant.” There was a good omen, however: across town was the farm and former home of the great plant-breeder Luther Burbank.
In 2007, Kaiser began farming the property using whatever tools they had inherited, plowing the ground like every other farmer does. Since the farm had gone uncultivated for years, simple weed growth had already banked the land with some pent-up fertility. So the farm quickly blossomed. But so did the labor. “The weeds were immense,” Kaiser says. “We were out there at night, with head lamps, weeding for hours!” Then one spring morning, he saw a mother killdeer (a local bird) screeching at his tractor. After a few more passes up and down the field, he realized she was protecting her eggs, which were nesting invisibly in the ground. When Kaiser stopped to inspect, he noticed all kinds of damage in the wake of his plow—cut up worms and snakes, damaged bee hives, valuable roots and bug colonies exposed to the hot sun. Some months later, after getting his thumb mangled in his tractor’s engine, he had an epiphany: “I am not doing this any more!” he recalls thinking. “There has got to be a better way.”
After renewing his studies, Kaiser noticed a prodigious amount of literature extolling the virtues of “no-till” agriculture—in other words, farming without using machines such as a plow or spader to turn over the ground. The practice follows the second often-ignored rule of cultivation: disturb your soil as little as possible. Yet no-till farming had a surprisingly mixed record.
On the positive side, leaving old crops behind feeds the soil with a variety of crucial nutrients, as the plants decompose into rich compost; the roughage also minimizes water evaporation, erosion, and the array of hidden damage that both cause. The federal government has been plenty blunt about this. In a 2010 report, the USDA said, “Tilling the soil is the equivalent of an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, and forest fire occurring simultaneously to the world of soil organisms.” Don Tyler, a USDA conservation specialist, has argued that one year of tillage can undo 25 years of an untilled farm’s soil improvement. But no-till has its negative side, too: If fields aren’t managed with special care, no-till farming can lower productivity. It also tends to involve more pesticides and herbicides than tillage does, because the vegetation left behind has to be dealt with in some way. Ironically, this is especially true when no-till farmers try, during the off-season, to create more fertility by planting “cover crops.” (These comprise a variety of plants, such as beans and certain grasses, which keep the soil covered and fed with nutrients instead of draining it.) Winters find many of these farmers out in the fields still spraying, while neighbors with conventional farms are enjoying vacations from nice, empty fields that are lying fallow.
But spraying wasn’t an issue on Kaiser’s farm. To mimic what he’d learned overseas, Kaiser laced his farm with hedgerows of trees and shrubs favored by those “beneficial” insects. He also built his own greenhouses, so he could jumpstart new plantings with seedlings that he let achieve some extra maturity. His transplants allowed for constant harvests, even in winter.
To most farmers, a routine like this involves too much muddy trouble, and demands too much from their soil. Actually, they’ve got it backwards. The more that crops remain in the ground, the happier the dirt is—because all those Jules Verne creatures depend on plant roots for their food. This casts a new light on the myriad fields across the country that are disked and left fallow every winter. They aren’t resting; they’re dying. As Jerry Hatfield, a crop physiologist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, explained it to me recently, when a farmer lets a plowed field lie fallow, “You’re basically starving out your biological system. I always ask them, ‘How would you feel if I only fed you once a year?’” To Kaiser, this principle boils down to yet another simple lesson: “Keep roots in the ground at all times.”
Then Kaiser tried another experiment: Instead of following the standard procedure of mixing a little fertilizer into his fields, he laid a thick layer of compost right on top.
The choice had its risks. Compost is essentially nature’s version of a reduction sauce: dense, rich, a potent blend of vegetation’s essences. It starts out as a bucket of discards—from our kitchens, from yard and tree trimmings, and sometimes from nearby farmers’ manure piles. To become usable, all these leavings have to thoroughly decompose; and once they do, they turn into something akin to concentrated dirt. (For a vivid taste of what this decomposition involves, see our companion story, “The Bug Whisperer,” by Kristin Ohlson.) Despite its liveliness, this material can be too much for young crops, burning their tender shoots with its undiluted chemicals. With a little more reading, Kaiser discovered that he could neutralize his compost with calcium (from crushed oyster shells) and trace minerals (from rock powder). So he layered on the entire mess, and planted straight through it.
Thanks to the nutrient balance in his new dirt, Kaiser’s seedlings, which were already robust, got an extra head start. “Our crops out-compete the weeds from the get-go,” Kaiser says. “So we just got rid of the weeding.” As one of Kaiser’s employees, John Cheatwood, puts it, “The compost is our equivalent of roto-tillers and spaders.” This high-intensity cycle—compost, transplant, harvest, repeat—has allowed Kaiser to produce up to seven crops of vegetables per acre every year. This is three to five times what most farms produce. What’s not to love about that?
Eighty percent of the cost of what farmers put into their fields involves fossil energy. “120 years ago that was essentially zero,” says Dwayne Beck, a professor of agriculture at South Dakota State University. “120 years from now it will have to be zero again.”
One morning in July, two visitors arrived at Singing Frogs Farm from the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at UC Santa Cruz. One was Jim Leap, who for decades managed the center’s farm and garden program, famously started in the 1960s by Alan Chadwick, the legendary, mercurial godfather of California’s organic farming movement. Over the years, the UC garden, which created fertility on a rocky slope, became as legendary as its founder; so did numerous efforts, largely in vain, to expand Chadwick’s model to the larger industry of agriculture. Having suffered through many of these romantic efforts, Leap had pretty much seen it all—until that morning.
As Leap and his colleague, Darryl Wong, strolled past Kaiser’s overflowing beds of vegetables, they seemed tickled by one innovation after another. Most farmers grow only a few different varieties of vegetables. And some, even those claiming to follow “organic” or “sustainable” principles, concentrate on just one (lettuce being a common mainstay). This practice, called “mono-cropping,” is widely scorned. It exhausts the soil, and it narrows the variety of wildlife that would otherwise colonize a farm, creating a vacuum that stimulates certain breeds of pests. In contrast, Kaiser aims for variety, in extremis. On a mere eight acres, he grows hundreds of native trees and shrubs. On the 2-1/2 acres of this that he cultivates, he grows an equivalent number of vegetable varieties. These include broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, peppers, cucumbers, winter squash, lettuce, and mustard greens–in about a half dozen varieties apiece–plus 30 to 35 different kinds of tomatoes. “There’s nobody else doing this,” Leap said, with a look of amazement.
One newly cultivated field was covered with a thick, felt-like blanket—Kaiser’s version of the miles of black plastic sheets you see during winter drives through Big Ag farmland. Those long sheets are called “plastic mulch” and they are extremely effective—at suppressing weeds, holding in moisture, and nurturing soil microbes. Every year, however, all that plastic gets trashed in landfills. Pointing to his blankets, Kaiser said, “These last me 10 years. When we roll them up in the spring, the soil underneath”—and Kaiser suddenly broke into high-pitched song—“is gloooooorious!” Could Big Ag’s mega-machinery handle blankets like these? “Sure,” Leap said. “If they can pick it up to landfill, they could pick it up to reuse.” Inside one of Kaiser’s greenhouses, everyone gasped at the size and health of his eggplants. “I’ve never seen eggplants like these on the coast,” Leap said. “Eggplant is a magnet for every known disease and pest.” Even the uncultivated pathways between the crop beds impressed Leap and Wong. On a typical farm, these are bare and hard; Kaiser’s were soft and green. “It’s so fun to see this working on a small scale,” Leap said, “because this is what everyone’s hoping to do.”
The farm’s abundance eventually led Leap to pester Kaiser with the issue that everyone raises: “I’m not sure if this is scale-uppable,” he said. Kaiser loves this question because it’s crucial, but hates the way it’s always posed. “I used to think the best way to do this would be to have one large farm with a bunch of fields like this around a central hub,” Kaiser answered. “But my neighbor plants 44 acres, produces less than I do, sells at fewer farmers markets, and has fewer CSA members [subscription buyers]. So we don’t need to scale up. We need to have more small farms like this in urban cores, and fewer 100-acre farms 100 miles away from the people who eat the food.”
If Kaiser’s goal strikes you as another round of back-to-the land idealism, some of agriculture’s big guns might beg to differ. Miles Reiter, CEO of Driscoll’s, a company based in Watsonville that is the world’s largest berry producer, has publicly warned that someday he won’t be able ship berries anymore—simply because of the growing cost and scarcity of fuel. In the closing presentation at last year’s World Congress on Conservation Agriculture, Dwayne Beck, a professor of agriculture at South Dakota State University, pointed out that 80 percent of the cost of what farmers put into their fields (water, sprays, and fertilizers, the works) involves fossil energy. “120 years ago that was essentially zero,” Beck said. “120 years from now it will have to be zero again.” When Leap surveyed Kaiser’s fields, which lie just uphill from Sebastopol’s urban core, he too couldn’t help envisioning a different future. “Once the price of oil really rises,” he said, “this will just kick in.” Wong nodded gravely. “It will have to,” he said.
Whenever that day comes, exactly what kicks in could change farming practices across the globe. If that change ever takes hold, its architects will borrow, knowingly or not, from many of Kaiser’s practices. Some of those are now being used, with surprising success in Midwestern grain fields–with innovations that could transform our entire commodity trading system. (See “A Brand New Idea for Commodity Exports.”). That said, pursuing healthier practices like no-till farming is relatively simple for commodity crops such as corn and wheat; doing the same thing for the vegetable fields that fill the nation’s grocery aisles is quite another matter. Nonetheless, a few people have been pursuing some promising solutions. (See “Your Salad’s Difficulty with Sustainable Farming.”)
As Leap’s and Wong’s tour continued, more doubts started to pop up. “You have an affluent market here. Could you do this in Modesto or Fresno?” Leap asked, referring to that area’s poverty, and its hot conditions. “I was doing it in The Gambia,” Kaiser retorted, “on the edge of the Sahara desert! I would love the chance to do this in Modesto.”
Could it really be that easy? Labor costs in California are rather different than in Africa. And Kaiser’s are higher still—acre for acre, he uses four to five times the number of employees that similar farms do. But Kaiser is proud of this difference. While most farm labor is part-time and seasonal, the work at Singing Frogs is full-time year round. Kaiser also pays slightly higher wages than the local norm to match the higher level of skill that his system requires—to read soil conditions; adjust their practices from bed to bed, given the unusual plant variety in his fields; and work quickly. But he’s not paying for herbicides and pesticides, tons of fertilizer, heavy tractor use, constant fuel and machine maintenance, or daily irrigation. So, he says, he still ends up well ahead of the game. While this might work for Kaiser, does it work for his field hands?
Kaiser’s more senior farmhands are paid $15 an hour. While that is substantially above typical farmhand wages—which hover around California’s minimum wage of $9 an hour—it can make for a tight squeeze in a pricey community like Sebastopol. “If people want farm laborers to make decent wages,” Marty Renner, Kaiser’s most senior farmhand says, “they will have to pay a lot more for their food.” (If you want to know more about what life is like in Sonoma County on $15 an hour, read our sidebar, “Labor’s Realities“.)
At one point during Leap’s tour, we all dug our hands into Kaiser’s soil. The dirt was richly aromatic but surprisingly lightweight. “It’s almost like potting mix,” Leap said as he ran it through his fingers. This was partly because of the season (summer heat dries out dirt). But the main reason is that much of it was compost, which becomes somewhat fluffy as it dries. All this compost really scared Leap. “He’s using way beyond what’s common.”
The full portrait of Kaiser’s system of fertilization is a bit of a puzzle, and it’s worth taking a moment to assemble its multiple parts—if only to warn potential followers of what it takes to master an ambitious form of agriculture like the one Kaiser practices.
Compost, it turns out, is a complicated creature. On one hand, its rich ingredients stimulate crop growth so effectively that one can’t help wondering why more farmers don’t make greater use of it. “We just don’t have the carbon,” says Ray Archuleta of the USDA. Archuleta is mainly referring to the gap between current compost supplies and the 920 million acres currently planted with crops in this country; but he’s also calling compost “carbon” for provocative reasons. Carbon is bad, right? As it transforms into carbon dioxide, it’s the main cause of climate change. (The same goes for nitrogen as it becomes nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas nearly 300 times as potent as carbon dioxide.) Well, carbon and nitrogen also are the primary ingredients in compost; and, by extension, in the fertile elements of top-soil. So these chemicals are bad only if we put them in the wrong place—in our air, when they should be going back into the ground. As Kaiser puts it, “What do I need most as a farmer? Carbon for soil structure, and nitrogen for crop growth.”
On the other hand, compost has its ugly sides. Due to the world’s ceaseless pressure for more American crops, farmers everywhere have become addicted to nitrogen. And when fields contain too much nitrogen, it leaks into water supplies. At this point, Leap says, “Every single aquifer under every agricultural operation in the state is polluted with nitrate.” (As nitrate turns into nitrite, it replaces oxygen in the blood of its consumers. In the middle years of the last century, some groundwater wells got so polluted with nitrate that it led to “blue baby syndrome,” resulting in several dozen deaths. The problem has all but disappeared since then, but agronomists have not stopped worrying about it.) Most nitrate poisoning comes from stormwater run-off from livestock feedlots, and from factory farms, which use abundant amounts of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. Plenty comes from simple compost, however, which is typically loaded with nitrogen.
Strangely, organic farmers, who love compost, tend to be among the worst nitrate polluters. And Leap fears that Kaiser might be a particularly prominent offender. Over the last few years, Kaiser has applied more than 60 tons of particularly high-nitrogen compost on each acre of his crops every year—five to ten times what is customary. Before each planting, he also supplements with a little organic fertilizer that contains extra doses of nitrogen, as well as phosphorus—yet another problematic nutrient.
“That’s unheard of,” Leap says. “That is a huge, huge, huge over-application. If Paul wanted to be certified organic, that could really cause trouble.” Surprisingly, Kaiser’s farm is not certified organic—a stamp of approval that he resists, he says, because of its expense, its complications, and its standards, which he finds superficial. Equally strangely, his customers don’t seem to mind; when polled, virtually all of them approved of Kaiser’s unconventional farming methods. However, Robin Boyle, marketing director for California Certified Organic Farmers, says that if Kaiser were to pursue certification, his compost levels “would definitely trigger a red flag in our office.” But she also said that such mountainous doses can prove to be within bounds, depending on a farm’s individual circumstances.
Kaiser argues that his circumstances are clearly within bounds—for four reasons. First, he says the extra nitrogen is necessary because he’s farming so many more crops per acre than the average farm. Second, he says soil tests show that his nitrogen levels are “right where they should be for healthy crops.” Third, he says the crops are clearly eating it up: on some, the leaves occasionally turn yellow (usually a sign of nitrogen deficiency). And fourth, he says his ponds, which catch the farm’s run-off, are visibly clear and full of wildlife. And recent storm-water tests were also clean—even during 2017’s heavy rains. (If water is polluted with nitrogen, or phosphorus, it’s normally clogged with algae, which kills fish and other aquatic life by robbing them of oxygen. This problem did plague Kaiser the first year, after particularly heavy composting, but has pretty much ceased since then.) “All our fields and indicators show that our nitrogen levels are OK or not enough,” Kaiser says.
In this case, Kaiser’s claim might over-reach. While the visible signs do suggest that his crops are consuming everything he feeds them, when it comes to his soil and water tests, there is considerably more here than meets the eye. The real portrait is a bit of a puzzle, but it’s worth taking a moment to at least consider its multiple parts—if only to warn potential followers of what it takes to master an ambitious form of agriculture like the one Kaiser practices.
First, Kaiser’s soil tests do show some moderately high levels of nitrate and even higher levels of phosphate. But his stormwater tests—which agronomists consider the gold standard for testing whether fertilizers are “leaking” from a farm—are almost crystal clear.
How can that be? If you listen to agronomists and soil scientists who are skeptical of Kaiser’s methods, it’s because these pollutants often hide out. There is some evidence that this might be true, and there is some evidence that it isn’t. If you’re curious about the numerical fine points of this puzzle — and the vigorous debate it provoked — please read our sidebar, “Soil chemistry’s invisible dance.”
If you listen to Kaiser, however, the lab technicians are missing the truth. The pollutants aren’t visible simply because all of the biological life that he has built up in his fields is eating them up. “The high organic matter buffers any inconsistency in those nutrients,” Kaiser says. “It sounds like all these criticisms are coming from people who don’t understand a truly biological system.” As audacious as that claim may sound, Kaiser has a few scientists on his side, too. “All that microbial life is just cycling through those nutrients,” says Jerry Hatfield of the USDA. Ray Ward, a leading soil testing expert, agrees. (Ward runs Ward Labs, of Kearny, Nebraska, which has developed some of the nation’s most complete methods of testing both nutrient levels and microbial life in soil. Kaiser’s most recent tests were run at Ward Labs.) Jeff Creque, chief scientist of the Marin Carbon Project, stands by Kaiser’s methods as well. Creque further argues that industrial agriculture’s departure from biological systems is what led to much of our troubles with carbon dioxide pollution in the first place. “Back in the day, the only way to increase nitrogen in the soil was in conjunction with carbon,” Creque says. “Today, we feed the chemistry of the soil. We don’t feed the biology of the soil. So we burn up the carbon.”
In the months since his visit Jim Leap debated these questions—with himself, with Kaiser, with many of his organic farming peers, and with me. Lengthy emails flew back and forth, each one full of endless questions and endless numbers.
The problem is that no matter how credentialed any of these observers are, to a large extent they are just guessing. Nitrogen and phosphorus are just two of the billions of ingredients, both elemental and alive, that create something called soil. And scientists have only recently begun to understand how this ecosystem affects fertility as its micro-inhabitants interact. Some of those interactions might excuse Kaiser’s excesses, others can make them worse. “We know less about the soil than we do about the moon, probably,” Morris says.
In the months since his visit, Jim Leap debated these questions—with himself, with Kaiser, with many of his organic farming peers, and with me. Lengthy emails flew back and forth, each one full of endless questions and endless numbers. Throughout all this, I put both men, and many others devoted to sustainable farming, through so many nitpicking interviews that at times I was afraid to call them yet again. The central question that animated these exchanges was both basic and intractable. If Kaiser’s methodology is indeed flawed, is it fixable?
Initially, Leap was quite pessimistic. “I’m just not sure he can produce at the level he’s doing now without these excesses,” Leap told me. “I’m afraid it’s inextricable from his system. It’s kind of like his vegetables are pumped up on compost.” When I asked Tim Hartz, a respected Plant Sciences professor at UC Davis, if he considered Kaiser’s system sustainable, his answer was succinct: “No.” All of this has begun to eat at Leap, considering Kaiser’s hyper-ecological claims. “The thing that bothers me,” Leap said, “is that Paul makes a big deal about that killdeer in his field, and that’s why he stopped tilling. But that’s what he sees. What he can’t see is the impact on the fish downstream from his farm.”
In fairness, Kaiser and his wife, Elizabeth, who now runs the farm’s daily operations, have been gradually reducing their compost levels. This has been partly in response to the torrent of outside worries; and, more recently, because they have found–much as Kaiser predicted–that their soil has stabilized, and thus doesn’t need as much feeding. This has made Leap more optimistic, but the couple still uses far more compost than virtually anyone most farmers have ever heard of. For that reason alone, this stuff called compost warrants closer examination. As it turns out, its consequences go well beyond simple nutrient pollution–with very mixed blessings.
To some people, what matters is the process of producing compost in commercial quantities, which burns tons of fossil fuels. In Kaiser’s case, his compost requirements have been so high that his own farm could only generate about a third of what he needs. The rest comes from his Sonoma County neighbors; when food scraps and yard waste arrive at the local dump, enormous, diesel-fueled machines put them through 15 different stages of separation, cleaning, grinding, and aeration in order to create new soil–which it pumps out at the rate of 150 tons a day. Even then, the final product is far from perfect. I noticed this one morning when I helped Kaiser’s team plant cucumbers. In almost every hole I dug, I came across one or two tiny shreds of plastic, tin foil or other items that don’t decompose. These are gifts from all those neighbors, who after nearly two decades of public awareness campaigns still cannot manage to separate their trash.
All of this leaves people like Leap doubly wary of a system that depends on so much compost. “When your soil microbes are doing their thing,” Leap told me, “there’s no need for additional nitrogen.” Others prefer Kaiser’s response: “Where should all our bio waste go?” he asks. “There are only two options—dump it in the ocean where it causes eutrophication [excessive plant growth, which robs sea creatures of oxygen], or send it to landfills.” In other words, maybe the planet’s ultimate trade-off is human evolution itself. All life is about using energy, in one form or another. And the waste from that energy has to go somewhere. There is no free organic lunch.
Americans generate so much compostable trash, and use so little of it, that 200 million tons of this nutritious material goes into landfills every year.
According to several recent tallies, Americans generate so much compostable trash, and use so little of it, that in California at least 15 million tons of this rich material (once dry), and more than 200 million tons nationwide, goes into landfills every year. The first thing that compost grows there is methane gas, a particularly potent global warmer.
On a field, however, compost grows lots of good stuff besides plants. Farmers call this material “soil organic matter,” or “SOM,” and it’s the heart of top-soil’s fertility. SOM is essentially the leftover tissues, alive or dead, of any living organism—plants, roots, worms, bugs, microorganisms, fungae, you name it. All this decay is wonderfully powerful. It helps the dirt hold water; more important, when water is scarce, all this decaying material feeds the plant’s roots, as well as the micro-organisms that surround them, so that plants can still grow. As Dwayne Beck describes it, “SOM is the living, the dead, and the very dead. If you’re farming on degraded soil, you’re using the very dead. If you’re farming well, you’re using the dead. The living—well, that’s what you want.” Living or dead, SOM is also nearly 60 percent carbon. And the more carbon there is in the ground, the less goes into the air to create carbon dioxide.
In 1920, before the dawn of industrial agriculture, the SOM across the country averaged between 6 and 8 percent of our topsoil. Over the years, as American farmers pursued a system that was more extractive than additive, SOM levels have dropped to an average of 2 percent, with some areas below one percent—less than half of the minimum for healthy soil. Much of this loss was caused by one simple machine that has become ubiquitous: the moldboard plow (designed, it turns out, by Thomas Jefferson). According to a 2002 report from the University of Minnesota, “The deeper and more aggressive the tillage, the more CO2 [carbon dioxide] is released to the atmosphere.” And the moldboard plow, the authors added, is “the most aggressive system used.”
When the Kaisers bought Singing Frogs Farm, its soil hadn’t been plowed or farmed for five years, so it was comparatively healthy: SOM levels tested at 2.4 percent (not bad for the sandy loam common to this region). After Kaiser started practicing his compost-oriented system, the farm’s SOM climbed as high as 10 percent. And its levels would measure even higher if he sampled from shallower depths. In tests in the fall of 2014, his soil showed uncommonly high microbial counts, both in quantity and diversity. All that hidden organic matter may be one reason Kaiser’s fields have been so bountiful, despite the drought. As he points out whenever he can, for each one percent gain in SOM levels, the top 12 inches on an acre of farmland can hold an additional 16,500 gallons of water.
Those 16,500 gallons are one of the statistics that Kaiser dropped on his audience at the Napa farming conference where I first met him last fall. As it happened, a central theme of this conference was farmland preservation, and a number of presenters outlined the various measures that a handful of California counties have begun taking to keep urban growth from eating up more farmland. Despite such advances, however, the overall trends remain dim. Since 1982, the U.S. has lost some 13 million acres of prime farmland to development.
These numbers are especially painful if one thinks about Kaiser’s long-term hope: a network of small farms threading through the world’s cities, arming us against the fuel and water deprivations of the future. If this vision has any chance at all, our patterns of urban sprawl will have to change very fast. “Most cities are smack in the middle of the best farmland,” Ed Thompson, of the American Farmland Trust, told the Napa audience, “because cities started out as agricultural market centers.”
On a frigid morning in January of 2014, I was sitting at a picnic table overlooking Singing Frogs’ fields while Kaiser and his wife, both huddling in fleece jackets, told me their story. The first signs of the year’s drought were already shaping up, and I asked if they were worried. “The crops will be fine,” Kaiser said with a shrug. “I’m worried about the trees.” Kaiser had faith in his crops’ fortitude, he said, because he doesn’t baby them with lots of sprays and fertilizers. This forces them to manufacture their own polyphenols—the core of a plant’s immune system. Plants, it seems, operate under the same axiom that humans do: Use it or lose it. “If you do all the defense for them,” Kaiser said, “they won’t defend themselves.” Suddenly, Elizabeth called Paul’s attention to a little geyser of water spewing behind the barn—signs of a broken pipe. Kaiser groaned in frustration and trudged over to close a nearby connection. “I am really sick of these freezes,” he said as he returned to the conversation.
“Fifty percent of the world’s population lives in cities,” Lal pointed out. “If places like London, New York, Calcutta, Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City could produce just 10 percent of their food the way Kaiser does, that’s a big breakthrough.”
For the last few weeks, the city of Sebastopol had endured temperature swings of over 50 degrees every day, inspiring the local paper to describe the weather as desert conditions. “Two of the last five years, our last rainfall was February 1st,” Kaiser said, “and it’s looking the same now.” The gaps left by low rainfall are filled each year by frosts—the first typically hits Kaiser’s property in late September, the last in late May. “We get temperatures below 20 degrees at least four weeks a year,” Kaiser said. The reason is that Singing Frogs sits at the bottom of a shallow valley, which turns the air ten degrees colder, on average, than it is for their neighbors, who live just a few hundred yards uphill. That morning, Kaiser’s crops looked more discouraged than he was—many were wilted or dead. Ravenous white flies were buzzing everywhere.
When I called Kaiser months later, in the middle of spring, he was re-energized. Despite the drought, his harvests were abundant and profits were already higher than the previous year. This was partly because his competition had lessened at farmers’ markets. Many neighboring farms had suffered badly in the harsh, dry winter. One was buying its vegetables from Singing Frogs Farm. But Kaiser’s customers remained well-fed. “At the farmer’s markets,” Kaiser said, “we’ve had people come up and say, ‘Is your cauliflower on crack?!’