"A Flight From Reason"

Is it possible for a farmer who bids fair to win a state championship on his tons-per-acre of alfalfa grown on his fields to be threatened with foreclosure of his mortgage because he is using what some authorities (subservient to the manufacturers of chemical fertilizers) call "unproven methods in agriculture?"

FmHA Threat

That is what is happening to Harold Aungst, a hard-working eco-farmer who milks a 100 head herd of Holsteins in McVeytown, Pennsylvania. In July of this year, Aungst received a letter (see inset) from the USDA’s Farmers Home Administration (FmHA), an "equal opportunity lender," recommending that he seek "additional management assistance" to help turn his operation around since he was in "jeopardy of losing his farm." Aungst’s lack of repayment ability on his total debt to FmHA was, the letter stated, "due to his low milk production and unproven farm management practices."

In his response to this naked threat, Aungst wrote to the FmHA administrator in Washington, D.C., that the best proof that he was a good farm manager was the fact that, though he had been consistently denied additional operating capital over the last three years, he had been able to get along without it – so well, in fact, that competing in the Five Acre Club Contest run in Pennsylvania to see who can raise the best crop of alfalfa as measured in tons per acre, he had just harvested a first cutting of 3.3 tons to the acre. "I would like to make you aware," he added, "that the state average is 3.4 tons to the acre for the whole year and we about have that on the first cutting along with three more to go!"

Aungst added, "Indeed we have already won the contest as far as cost of fertilizer goes because we have hardly any cost! We only applied manure in 1983 and nothing to speak of in 1984, and now we have that kind of tonnage to demonstrate."

In closing, Aungst said he was alarmed that his formal application for loan restructuring under terms of the Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act was not even mentioned in the FmHA’s letter. Even more alarming was the fact that all records of his discussion of the request at a hearing with FmHA officials, his banker, and an Extension agent were stricken from the transcript of the proceedings.


In his office, a windowless recess in the cellar of his farmhouse, Aungst, affable, mid-fortyish, his eyes flashing, told me that it was Dan Carlson’s "Sonic Bloom" method of crop stimulation which had created his outsized alfalfa yield and which, together with other "alternate" eco-agricultural methods, had been considered "unproven" by authorities who hold farmers’ futures in their hands.

Aungst ran into Carlson at an "Ag Progress Days’ meeting. When he tried the "Sonic Bloom" method on a plot of alfalfa, the crop was tested at Pennsylvania State University (PSU) to reveal a level of 79.8 TDNs, a figure well surpassing 76.0 TDNs considered extremely high.

This figure was also matched by a seemingly unbelievable rise above normal protein content, though Aungst had to resort to what almost amounted to subterfuge to document it. When PSU officials made the measurement for protein which revealed a count of a fantastic 29% – as against 16 to 18% for average alfalfa – they were openly dubious. "They told me," related Aungst, "that so high a protein content just couldn’t be. Well, I replied, you measured it with your own equipment. Isn’t the equipment working right?

"They said no, there was something wrong with the computer printout part of the equipment which was malfunctioning and that was why they couldn't give me a computer readout to attest to the 29%. They just wrote the figure down on a scrap of paper and handed it to me. I was disappointed . . . suspicious.!

So suspicious was Aungst that he and his fellow farmer-workers decided to wait around for an hour or so, until they could send one of their party into the room housing the computer to re-check whether the computer was actually working or not. When the sample was re-run through the device, its operator's mouth dropped open. He had not realized that the second sample came from the same batch and that had earlier revealed the 29% figure. When he did realize this, he broke down to confess that he had been told by PSU officials not to computerize the Aungst alfalfa so that no record of its protein content would be available.

"The kid was up against the wall," remember Aungst half amusedly, half wryly, "and when he re-ran it, this time the printout unequivocally showed 29%!"

"Why on earth would the officials be afraid of running your sample," I asked.

Aungst grinned a bit sourly. "Why would they do something like that? My best guess is that they didn't want to be showed up and forced to admit that someone had a method of beating their own fertilizer programs all hollow. That's all I can figure."

"But that's preposterous," I commented. "You'd think that as custodians of agricultural science they'd be racing out to your farm to see what you're doing to get the kind of tonnage and protein-yield.

"Yes, you would think so," agreed Aungst, "if things were done fairly, that is. After all, when someone gets a much better result with a new method, that's supposed to demonstrate progress, isn't it?"

Dumbfounded, I could only ask: "Well, who or what is putting pressure on the PSU officials to deny such success?"

Aungst sighed reflectively, "Well," he began, "you have to know that PSU is a land grant college like dozens across the nation and, as such, receives research grants from companies making chemical products to apply to the land. I guess it's a question of you don't bite the hand that feeds you. The professor-experts have their tails in a doorjamb because to continue the new programs of their own, they count on grant money to finance them. With what they're doing, every step they take seems to carry them backward at a high rate of speed. That's because the carbon layer in the soil that helps the bacteria life in it flourish is being burned out with all those NPK fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, throwing everything into imbalance."

"But aren't some of the younger researchers getting wise to this?"

By his expression I sensed my question was mine.

"What they're taught, "replied Aungst, "is that their seniors know the answers and they aren't about to buck the system. They're like our Extension agent about 12 miles up the road from here who told me to my face that all farmers are dumb. I didn't say a thing in reply. I just took it. But a few weeks later, I had to set with this same man together with my bankers and the FmHA officials in the same room. I was supposed to sit there and accept a lot of his advice as to what I should be doing on my land to improve my financial situation. What that meant was that I would have to do exactly as he and the university folks said I had to do. The FmHA and the banks treat these academic experts as gods of knowledge that be!

"Anyway, continued Aungst, "when I talked to Dan Carlson early this year, he said to me: Harold, before you take off your first cutting, why not try my sound-and-spray method on it and go for big tonnage? Well, big tonnage is what we got and though the official results aren't yet in on the second cutting my eyeballs told me at harvest time that we'd be up to about 6 tons of hay per acre for the first two cuttings alone, with two more to go."

Aungst rose from his chair and crossed the room to fetch two large bunches of dried alfalfa from a table top. He stood their stalks on the floor and the tops of the plants came up to his chest. "These are the kind of plants we raised," he said, "they're about 4-1/2 feet tall." He grasped one of the bunches by the stalks and flailed my legs with its leafy top ends. "You'll note," he smiled, "that none of the leaves, dry as they are, fall off the plants even when they're whacked hard against your body. That's a prime indication of a healthy plant. Any time you see alfalfa hay losing its leaves when dry -- it's called dusting -- you know that the quality is low. Old time farmers would rub samples of dry alfalfa between their hands and if it duster, they'd say: Don't buy it.

The methods his advisers wanted Aungst to adopt were exactly those he determined to do away with about three years ago when he came under the severe financial stress that brought his mortgage situation to the attention of the FmHA in the first place. Realizing that unless he made some radical changes he would lose his farm, he decided to go the biological farming route. The change-over was risky and tough, but Aungst knows his decision was the right one.

-- Acres, November 1985

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