Jack Erisman, now in his 61st year of farming, has a lifetime of experience working in agriculture. He got his start in the 1960s with conventional monoculture corn and soybeans. Originally going to school for agricultural engineering, Jack’s dad got sick and set him on the path of farming a bit earlier than he expected. It was something he always wanted to do and embraced the opportunity despite the unfortunate circumstance.
When Jack first started farming, he was an enthusiastic user of the technologies of the green revolution—fertilizers and pesticides. It seemed like a straightforward matter of chemistry to him. However, while it seemed easy at first, after several years of conventional farming, Jack started questioning the system. The first fractures in his commitment to conventional agriculture came about when he realized that at a certain point, the chemicals didn’t produce the return on investment that he thought they would. Furthermore, for Jack, it wasn’t just about economics. He also started questioning what the system was doing to the soil, to animals, and to human health. As Jack put it, “I started to take a little longer and broader view of the whole system.”
Consequently, in the 1970s, Jack began to phase out industrial chemicals from his operation. During the 1970s and 1980s, Jack shifted toward what we would call “sustainable,” which included rotating fields and pasturing animals. In 1990, Jack decided that he wanted to go organic. Not looking back, Jack stopped using all chemical sprays and began the three-year process to certify his 2,000 acres as organic. In 1993, Jack’s operation became certified organic and has remained that way since.
The Culture of Agriculture
When I asked Jack and his assistant Dale Bliss, who has been with Jack since 1996, what they think needs to change about agriculture, they pointed to the “culture of agriculture.” Jack stated,
“I think [the problem is] a mindset. I think the influence of Big AG makes a farmer think that if you don’t have the fungicide, if you don’t have the insecticide, if you don’t have the herbicide, and if you don’t have the treated seed, there’s no way you can make it. So, I think we have to have a fundamental change in the culture of agriculture.”
From Jack and Dale’s perspectives, they see a lot of farmers thinking that “they can’t live without” the chemicals and don’t believe alternatives are viable. To Jack and Dale, for a new culture to arise, famers need to start believing that alternatives are not a waste of time and money.
But changing the culture of agriculture cannot just be put on the farmers. Jack clarified that consumer demand is going to be necessary as is consumer education. I asked Jack what can be done to change, for example, the consumption habits of individuals who will always buy the cheapest option? For these consumers, their meat will end being from a concentrated feed lot and their produce likely full of chemicals and shipped in from California or Mexico.
Jack admitted that this question is tougher, even a bit intractable. He contextualized this perspective with the growing gap between those who have a lot and those who don’t. It’s hard to ask someone to spend a little more when they don’t have more to spend. Ultimately, Jack thinks perhaps when people understand the health risks they might be motivated despite the price.
The Business of Organic
At a point in our conversation, we started discussing the realities of the business of organic. Himself certified, Jack believes the principle and the mission of organic are good. At the same time, the government’s management of organic is inadequate. The cheating of the system, from big corporations to grain brokers who buy one load of organic just to get the certificate, leaves much to be desired.
For producers of grain and soybeans like Jack, they also have to compete with more products coming from other countries. Consequently, the price of organic grain and soybeans have been down this year. In the case of soy, by nearly 50% from last year.
The system, as Jack pointed out, seems more geared toward supporting the big guys. From the USDA’s management of crop insurance to the regulation of organic which allows the big players to play fast and loose with the integrity of organic, there is a lot working against independent organic farmers like Jack.
I asked Jack if he thought the government had any role to play when it comes to regulating malfeasance and breaking up the power of corporate monopolies. He seemed skeptical. “We’ve had [anti-monopoly laws], but we don’t have the will to use it.”
Jack Erisman’s Land Ethic
Jack is a natural experimenter. From the numerous cover crops he uses to trying every heritage corn variety you can imagine, Jack’s career in agriculture is a case study in adaptability, innovation, and determination. Underneath Jack’s willingness to venture out on his own path, regardless of whether his neighbors gossip about him in town, resides a curiosity to understand what is going on at his land. When Jack goes out on the farm, he is seeking to answer, “How should we be using our resources? What don’t we understand about nature?” His core mission being looking for a way to live in harmony with nature.
At the same time, Jack is not an isolated hermit. Rather, Jack is an embedded constituent in his community. He describes himself having “good neighbors and good friends” in town. He goes to church and serves as a drainage district commissioner. The respect, as he sees it and Dale concurs, derives from their success. In thirty-three years of operation, the farm has been an economic success. In this aspect, their success has a certain charisma to it; when his neighbors are looking at their chemical bills, they start to wonder about maybe trying what he is doing.
“We don’t know what we think we know,” Jack told me. When he walks out into his field, he still feels a sense of wonder and mystery. The land humbles him as do the seasons. The complexity of the soil and the interconnection of ecology and chemistry checks his pride.
In brief, Jack’s land ethic combines a commitment to being a steward of the natural environment and part of his community. Rather than preaching, he chooses to instead lead by example.
To five deep into the life and philosophy of Jack, click here for the full interview.
In case you missed the previous the previous parts of Farmers at Large: