This organic elder and research compass might be retired, but his guidance continues to inform the agricultural community.
Dr. Richard Harwood charted the course for Rodale Institute research in the early days. Working side-by-side with Bob Rodale, Harwood pioneered the organic principles of the Institute and was instrumental in the conception and development of the Farming Systems Trial project. We’re honoring Dr. Harwood as an Organic Pioneer on September 16th, but chatted with him about his work at the Institute and what he sees on the horizon for agricultural research.
How did you end up working in organic and sustainable agriculture?
My career had been (up until 1976) in farming systems research in tropical areas. I had been in the humid tropics for 10 years and just back from overseas when Bob Rodale came out to California to recruit me for developing the research center in Kutztown.
My first answer was, “no.” But before Bob returned home, he left four airplane tickets for me and my family to visit my dad in Massachusetts and asked if I’d stop at the research center in Emmaus on my way through. No obligations—just a one-day stop. I agreed and then I started doing my homework. I knew little about organic agriculture other than that it was held in great disrepute by the scientific community. Bob hadn’t published widely at that point, but J.I. Rodale had been really ridiculed for what were considered his “freakish” opinions.
What I quickly realized was there were many different organic movements around the world that had sprung from different schools of thought. There was Steiner’s biodynamic following, a whole range of European movements, some in Asia, and three or four in the U.S. They would find all sorts of things to fight over when they got together, even after agreeing on several basic principles. The organic movement(s) had grown from the bottom up—from the practitioners, often led by a person of keen insight and ability to articulate concepts. Regardless of the environment and despite their disagreements, all these practitioners around the world were using similar basic practices. They had different weeds, rainfall climate, etc., but they all had the same philosophies: “Feed the soil, not the plant.” “Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides act as poisons to the system.” “Naturally-grown foods are more nutritious.”
In my experience with indigenous cultures I had learned that when you find practices based on observations that span diverse cultures, it means they aren’t just culturally-driven. There is something biological underlying those practices. Secondly, those biological processes and factors usually cross gradients of geographical scale. That right there convinced me organic agriculture had a significant biologically-based foundation and was worth not only looking at, but investing a significant part of my career in.
So when I came to the research center, I came with a seriousness and a real curiosity about what makes it all work. In the end, it was Bob Rodale who really made it happen. I spent the day and interviewed all the staff. Bob wanted to know what he needed to do to turn the farm into a research institution and I gave my opinion. At the end of they day he asked what it would take to get me to come here and do this and I told him I wasn’t interested. I had a teaching job and a contract. I very much liked the folks I was working for and with. He replied, “That wasn’t what I asked you. I asked, ‘What would it take?’” I told him I’d let him know in the morning after I had a chance to visit with my family back at the hotel.
When we got back to the office the next morning on the way to the airport, Bob guaranteed he wouldn’t argue with whatever I said I needed to come out and work for him. When I asked for a salary that was quite a bit lower than what I was getting overseas for my work with the Rockefeller organization (plus a company car and credit card), Bob immediately said that wasn’t enough and doubled the figure.
Bob’s insistence and the immediate trust we sensed in each other based on our so-called (reverse) negotiations over salary is what really brought me to the Rodale Institute and into the organic and sustainable community. People told me “I was ruining my career”. But by coming to the Institute, I really made my career. It enhanced my career and broadened my knowledge. Bob Rodale “force-fed” me for years with hundreds of books, documents, personal letters and contacts with his wide circle of acquaintances in the most rapid and intensive learning period of my life. We enlisted many of the staff to help read and digest the stuff! (Many of those materials were catalogued and eventually became the base for the organic collection at the national Agriculture Library in Beltsville, Maryland). He opened for me a whole different world of practitioner knowledge, while I was bringing to him some of the strengths and weaknesses of science.
What lead up to the establishment of the FST?
The research center was pretty well established as an experimental station by the late 1970s. Fields had been laid out, the irrigation system was in place, we had well-trained staff to do research, Jeff Moyer had come in as farm manager and had good people working for him, the lab was set up for doing chemical analysis, and the office facilities in the main house and barn were ready. We had the basic infrastructure and an adequate budget ($1.2 million a year back then). We had short-term trials running, but there was one nagging question.
One of the commonly-held beliefs was that it takes five years to go through the conversion to where the organic system is working really well. And during those five years, there is a lot of grief a farmer would have to deal with. There were a lot of ideas as to how best to convert. My feeling was it had to be soil-related. Even if you move onto a farm that is surrounded by organically-managed land, you would still have to go through the conversion. The hypothesis was that most of the conversion would take five years, but that some change factors could take 10 years or more.
We wanted to speak to mainstream scientists and commercial farmers, and we set it up so the design wasn’t fixed. We could change the farming practices (as we got better varieties, better practices, etc.) but we kept the same philosophy of each of those systems.
We spent a lot of time (almost two years) thinking and arguing about philosophy and design! And we had feedback from the scientific community. I was writing a “research corner” column for The New Farm magazine and published our ideas about the project. The response was incredible. Scientists from all over the country actually made suggestions. More than 300 mostly scientists (and some farmers) gave us a lot of input on our ideas before we launched it.
So what happened in those first few years of the FST/Conversion Project?
Well, we determined the best way to research it would be to look at some side-by-side comparisons, but it had to be more than a garden trial. We had to speak to the agricultural public which meant large plots using reasonable sized farm tractors. We knew we could easily research the biological processes related to gardening, but it would be harder to extrapolate upwards to farms.
But, we couldn’t do it on a fully farm-scale, because you can’t replicate farms. “Research farms” cannot be compared. Resource factors, management factors, soil and weather patterns are all different across farms. We needed a single location where we could manage the chemical plots using best practices for modern conventional agriculture and use the best organic practices in side-by-side, replicated comparison.
We settled on a grain-based plan and split the organic half of the trial in two. In one system we would use the very best organic practices with legumes and manure applications. In the other system, we would practice intensive rotation with the intent to deplete (mine) the soil as much as we possibly could. But we would use the best management we could, so as not to just “abandon” the intensive grain treatments (which was how a number of earlier “comparison trials” established and managed their organic system with the obvious conclusion being “organic” can’t compete with conventional agriculture). The idea was we would just run out of nutrients in those fields and the plants would starve. As it turned out, years later, the “starvation” fields were the most economical. That grain system actually made the most money! Translation: The biological and bio-geo-chemical services provide by the organic management were far greater than we ever imagined possible!
One of our biggest challenges was when we first took the herbicides off, we had horrible weed pressure. There was a huge weed-seed bank there. And we didn’t have the space for a tillage variable. The design was split already with many replications.
In the end, and despite the challenges with weeds early-on, organic agriculture far outperformed the expectations. There was enough promise in the FST that it awakened the scientific community to the idea that organic agriculture was based on biological principles.
FST was one of the things that lead to a coalescing in the scientific community on an ecological approach to farming. In those first ten years, into the early 90s, entomologists (who were already doing an integrated approach with IPM [integrated pest management]), horticulturalists, agronomists and microbiologists started looking at an ecosystems approach. Many soil scientists were actually the most recalcitrant of the bunch! The industry began to see the value of the ecosystem services that crops can provide to themselves and to each other, both in rotation and across landscapes, and that those ecosystem services can be enhanced—that is exactly what organic management does.
What do you see as the next research revolution?
First, we need to continue much of the ongoing biological research under controlled management conditions. Many of the trials such as FST should continue. We have yet to learn much of how integrated systems really function.
There is one piece of research that really needs to be enhanced and documented in order to more rapidly make transformative change in US agriculture. We now have farms of all sizes by the tens of thousands across the country doing incredible organic and “integrated sustainable systems” farming based on enhancement of ecosystem services. There are 12-14,000 acres of organic apples, for instance, in Washington State alone. Thousands of farmers raising hogs with minimal confinement and with mostly organic principles (with the exception of parasite control) in the Midwest. Organic grain farms, mixed livestock farms, intensive rotational grazing operations. Many don’t market as organic, but they are competitive and efficient and they rarely take federal crop production subsidies.
These are not under researcher control; they are operating farms. And they are making it work in the real world. We need to be researching the biology, economics and the sociology of these farms and their impact on communities and landscapes. How the systems approach to farming impacts the very fabric of these communities—the resiliency of the system beyond the soil, beyond the farm and into other aspects of our lives. Organic farms are a microcosm and they operate on a landscape scale. The benefits of their ecosystem services occur not only at the farm level, but at that landscape scale and at the community level. Different labor patterns, different inputs and outputs, changes in landscape-level diversity like bird and pest populations, soil quality, and water purity. We have to do research on a holistic scale. There are bits and pieces of really astounding data on some of these farms. If we could just widely document their enormous impact, the public (and eventually the US government), would respond.
The proof is in the pudding. If you want to stop the hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, convert the five biggest largest nitrogen-contributing counties in Iowa to organic. It will make huge impact! The University of Michigan has already done the modeling using conventional ag. They simply changed corn-on-corn rotation to an integrated livestock approach. The results are incredible.
The data also shows you have to get rid of the corn subsidies and disincentives to rotation and level the playing field. But we have to prove it. We have a golden opportunity to highlight and document the incredible job these farms are doing without subsidies.
The interesting thing is that organic research has gone in the opposite direction. From the system down to the plot, down to the growth chamber and down to the micro or the molecular level. The reality is that the farmers are so far ahead of modern science when it comes to systems integration. We have to drag science kicking and screaming to what these farmers are doing!
What do you think is the most important thing for consumers to understand about where their food comes from?
I’m torn between saying “healthy food,” which is a big part of it, and “social infrastructure.” The two are interrelated. My wife and I have shifted over to a mostly local fruit and vegetable diet with some poultry and some fish—minimal processed foods. It has done wonders for our health. With antibiotics in our meat and the growth hormones—it is just insidious. The whole business of young women reaching puberty at 8-9 years old and children five years ahead in terms of physiological development—I’m convinced it is linked to the growth hormones. And that is just one example.
I’m just sold on the health benefits of a fresh-food diet, with lower-processed whole grains. I’m not a purist on organic, but that is always our first choice. And local food is key. It is where most people can see food interacting with the economic and the social realms. Buying local makes a huge difference in the local economies. We had data in Michigan that showed if you buy a locally-grown Christmas tree, the dollars are cycled seven times in the local economy.
We’ve really undervalued our local communities and lost that connection to food. The organic community became especially torn over this when it started competing in the global marketplace. We are global citizens, but our roots are local. Even the “global citizens of the world” still have our kids in the local school and on the local little league team, etc. We need to feel good about people from everywhere and communicate globally, but our roots, our cultures and our economies have to be securely based on a sustainable local foundation.
More Americans need to think about the social impacts of their food choices. And we need to start supporting those choices nationwide so the underprivileged can make them, too. There are a whole bunch of policies and governmental work that are required to allow us to start building that social infrastructure again.
What tool couldn’t you live without?
For the intellectual work I do, the computer, with its connectivity to global knowledge is probably my most important “tool”. But your question should have been asked differently: I cannot envision living without the trees, flowers, garden and landscape around our living space, and then the family, friends and wide range of acquaintances who provide the rich fabric of our lives, and our God who gives it all meaning!
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