AN "OLD ORDER" FARMER
ADOPTS NEW FARM TECHNOLOGY
In one shed near the barn stands a spanking new Sunday-go-to-meeting two-seater "spring wagon" colored traditional black with bright blue velvet upholstery, and so trim and light that two strong men can lift it. In another shed is a four-seater. In a third are a pair of Standard Breds to power them, one of which was once in the money at a trotting track.
Aaron is a short, smiling, powerfully-built man who is usually seen in a straw hat. His wife Ruth is mother to nine children ranging in age from 9 months to 19 years. They are one unit in a 48-family "Old Order" Mennonite colony, about 10% of the Cove's farming community.
About two dozen apple trees are bursting with lush, flawless applies; Red Romes, Yellow and Red Delicious, Smokehouse, and others.
Loaded with fruit
"You'd never guess it, Aaron begins, "but some of these trees you see loaded with fruit never flowered to produce an apple during the 11 years we've had them planted. Not until this year."
There is a reason for the miracle; this past spring, Aaron treated his trees with "Sonic Bloom," the amazing combination of nutrient spray and sound pulsed from a small transmitter box developed by Dan Carlson in Blaine, Minnesota (see Acres U.S.A., November 1984 and June 1985).
Aaron ran into Carlson in 1984 at the so-called "Ag Progress Day" held each summer at Pennsylvania State University in the town of State College. He stopped briefly at Carlson's demonstration booth, heard his sound-box chirping away, then walked on. But an hour later, he noticed that Carlson was surrounded by a crowd of farmers, so he edged up to hear what he was saying.
"Dan really woke me up," Aaron said. "Most of the other stuff they had there all but put me to sleep. There were people with a lot of theories to expound, but not many results to back them up. It would be great if some of those theories could be proved with results, but most of their proponents didn't have anything solid to show."
He grinned. "As you can see, Carlson's stuff has caused my trees to burst out with thick clusters of apples all over them. There were so many, I had to thin them out, lest the branches break. Had all the apples grown to maturity, the trees would have been flat on the ground."
"What about your vegetables?" I asked, pointing to the garden next to the orchard.
"Well, affirmed Aaron triumphantly, "I can say our peas were just beautiful and our lima beans produced the best crop we've ever had, thanks to Dan." He led me along a row of odd-looking plants growing close to the ground, teeming with buff-colored pods. "These are what we call ground cherries," he explained, breaking open one of the pods to reveal a yellowish green berry about the size of a small marble which I popped into my mouth to savor its unfamiliarly sweet taste. "We've always had trouble raising them, but after using the Sonic Bloom on them this year, it looks as if we'll be able to give a lot of them away. They're delicious in pies. I'd hate to put a figure on how many we've already harvested, but it would be phenomenal. I've never seen anything like it before, and I've been raising them all my life."
We strolled over to a row of raspberry bushes. "On these," Aaron all but gloated, "we definitely got more than double our normal production. Generally there is one big berry and five or six smaller ones in each group, but this year all the berries were uniformly large and we also have had less disease problems than usual. The plants are healthier than I've ever seen them. What's even more amazing is that they began to put out a second crop about three weeks ago with new shoots springing out of the ground and flowering and fruiting."
Aaron also waxed enthusiastically about his "Carlsonized" beets and carrots which he says have never been so sweet, and his celery which "just keeps on growing and growing."
In the front of the house near the road were unirrigated beds of radiant marigolds and snapdragons. Most remarkable was a circular plot of pansies, flowers that thrive in cool spring weather, but fare badly in summer heat. Despite the drought, the flowers, aided by Carlson's treatment, were blooming as if they had been constantly watered. "Other years," says Aaron, "most of these flowers had died off, but you can see for yourself how many new buds they're still putting out."
A small roadside stand offered half-bushel and smaller baskets of huge red tomatoes. Aaron explained that local people came from as far away as Johnstown -- famous for its food -- to buy them. One bit into one of the juicy fruits tells why. Ruth Zimmerman provides another clue: "When you buy ordinary tomatoes, they'll weigh out at 2 pounds for a small box, but the same box with treated tomatoes weighs 3 pounds."
"I think it's the mineral content that improves both the taste and poundage," Aaron added.
Curiously, not all of his garden plants responded to Sonic Bloom. "The cherries weren't so hot, Aaron admitted, "I don't exactly know why. Maybe I didn't spray them early enough. But just like the raspberries, they blossomed twice. People were dumbfounded by that. They asked, How can you be picking cherries on trees that are flowering at the same time?
Aaron's grape arbor didn't fruit at all though the leaf growth was extraordinarily luxurious, "so much so that I can hardly believe it," as he put it. "I think maybe the extreme cold weather we had around New Years' froze a lot of the buds on the grapes and cherries. But I'm going to look for a good crop next year if we don't get the same harsh freeze this coming winter as we did last."
As to strawberries, Aaron confessed they were nothing to shout about, though the few spots that did well did fantastically well. It was not the fault of the Carlson method, he believes, because in retrospect, he realized that the patch was very old and he should have torn it out last year and replanted. "The new patch we put in this spring is looking excellent," he added. "I'm looking forward to a great crop next year."
The Zimmermans moved to Morrison's Cove from Pennsylvania's Lancaster County about 15 years ago because that region was becoming increasingly urbanized. "This farm was in really sad shape when we bought it," he confessed. "The first two years I did what everyone else in the valley was and is doing: drenching the acreage with costly chemical fertilizers, insecticides, and weed-killers. Then, to my dismay, I saw things weren't working out too good, so I knew Id' have to change. I began with crop rotation, plowed under some rye and introduced natural fertilizer products to heal my ailing soil such as organic mix based on rock phosphate made in Bainbridge, Pennsylvania. I also used Colonel Taylor's Clodbuster, a humate mixed in New Mexico. I used Basic H, a California concentrated soil conditioner made of bio-degradable fruits and vegetables.
"I got into them because my soil was getting worse, wouldn't absorb rain so well, and the cost of chemicals was threatening to close me down. I was spending $150 to $160 per acre on them, and now I'm way down below $100. It was a big step for me. The advertising people who run their stuff in the farm magazines and the fertilizer salesmen really know their jobs. They tell everybody around here if you don't use certain products, all you're going to get is a crop of weeds! That scares them to death. As a result, 99% of this valley's crop land is under chemicals."
Aaron also complained that the heavy concentration of nitrates and chlorines applied to the land in spring discolors the water in his water well and makes it smell bad. "They claim these pollutants are at still acceptable levels for humans and cattle," he said dully, "but I sometimes wonder."
There is good cause to wonder. A little over a decade ago, the Cove was served by a pair of veterinarians who could easily handle the ills of its livestock, but now four animal doctors work around the clock. One problem, among many, is that of downer cows -- animals which suddenly collapse and can't get up again due to toxicity in their systems, 90% of which Aaron ascribes to high energy, or chemically-affected feed. "This summer," he intoned sadly, "cows were dropping from heat exhaustion all over the place. The vets could hardly keep up with the business of treating them."
A large part of the problem, in Aaron's view, is that the dairy magazines urge their readers to push their cattle to maximum milk production with feed additives, hormone stimulators, and other accelerants of physiological activity. "My cows may not be producing maximum pounds of milk," he says, "but I have no health problems in my herd and not a single vet bill."
Aaron feels that many of the farm magazines not only oversell unneeded and potentially harmful products, but distort truth to achieve that aim. "I read an article some time back," he says by way of example, "about a man in New York State who was touted as a model dairyman with top milk output. When I met him at a meeting, I asked him about the secret of his success. I like to pump guys who seem to be doing well and find out things."
The man's reply almost put Aaron in shock. "If you want the true facts, " he said, "I've got to tell you that when I read that article, I could hardly believe it was about me! What the writer never once mentioned was all the problems I'm having with sickness in my milking herd."
At this point Aaron paused to stare fixedly at me, then impishly asked: "Do all you writers get carried away like that?" As if to apologize, he added: "You know, you can hardly blame that writer. When you look through the journal where his article appeared and study the advertising and understand who owns the magazine, you can see how the poor guy just couldn't get into the real difficulties that farmer was having. If he did, he'd have been flying in the face of everything that makes that publication profitable. I still subscribe to it, but it hasn't been a whole lot of value to me as far as picking up any useful pointers is concerned."
It is a sad fact these days that the main stress of farm journal advertising is on quantity with no mention of quality. Aaron provides an impressive example. A potato farmer he knows about 60 miles away on the Allegheny Plateau is scared to make the switch from chemical to natural farming. At the same time, his produce is rejected by potato chip manufacturers that pay top prices. This is because potatoes sold for chipping have to pass a gravity test whereby they are put in a salt solution. If they sink to the bottom of the solution, they will make good potato chips. But Aaron's friend's potatoes can't pass the test, and he doesn't know why.
Answers in the soil
When he asked Aaron about this, the Mennonite replied, "You've got to seek the answer in your soil. Your potatoes are not getting what they need from your soil which is in very poor shape." The crestfallen man tried to protest that he was doing everything the agricultural college experts recommended, then agonized: "But those same e
When he asked Aaron about this, the Mennonite replied, "You've got to seek the answer in your soil. Your potatoes are not getting what they need from your soil which is in very poor shape." The crestfallen man tried to protest that he was doing everything the agricultural college experts recommended, then agonized: "But those same experts giving me advice have test plots with soil so hard from chemicals that they themselves have trouble digging the potatoes out of it, even with extra-powerful over-sized potato diggers. When they do get them out and they go into the bin, they're mixed in with clods as hard as rocks. Then they have to hire extra help to sort the lumps from the potatoes. They tell my fellow producers how to grow potatoes when that's the way they grow theirs. Some of those producers have cement-hard ground, like mine, and potatoes that can't pass the chipping test. When I ask them what they do with them, they reply that they try to sell them to the table market. But that market is often flooded, so they end up having to dump them."
Aaron laughed somewhat bitterly, "That's some kind of crazy situation, isn't it? Those farmers would be better off sleeping than raising potatoes just to dump them. But they're terrified to make a change. Most of them don't even realize the soil is the root of their problem. They think soil is just a place in which to put seed and over which to drive a tractor. They're going to have to change . . .or else! Else means going out of business, that's all I see! There's no way they can rely on the government to keep them in business with those methods."
It is unfortunate that when it comes to evaluating wheat, corn, and other grains, the United States prides itself in producing so abundantly, that quality is not tested the way it is for chipping potatoes. Aaron estimates that the average protein content of wheat should optimally be around 16 to 20% as it used to be, whereas now it actually is around 12 to 14%. The equivalent figures for corn, he says, are 14 to 16% optimal and around 7% actual. It is also a fact that protein-rich grains -- like Aaron's tomatoes -- weigh considerably more per bushel, than those that are lacking in protein. Were the national crops measured in terms of weight rather than bushels, present-day figures would not stack up as well as they seem to when compared with figures in then past. To achieve that, the Queen of Quality must dethrone the King of Quantity.
Another farm product putting quantity ahead of quality is beef, says Aaron, "I won't eat the regular stuff. If you knew what was really in it, you wouldn't either. When I need meat, I cull out a milk cow and put her up. I just slaughtered a two-year-old heifer that wouldn't settle and put her in the freezer. The butcher told me she dressed out so good he wouldn't be ashamed to hang that animal next to the best meat that ever went through his shop. The heifer never ate any high power feeds with additives in them. You should taste the meat she produced."
How harmful cattle-feeding practices are these days can be seen, if anyone wants to look, by examining their livers, Aaron continued. "People keep telling me how liver is such a healthy food to eat, but I tell them that when you put a lot of the store-bought liver in a frying pan, it turns tan or yellowish color, and looks dry. When that happens, you'd better throw it out."
"They generally reply: Why? What's the matter with it? Doesn't all liver do that? Well, the answer is, No. When you put the heat to good liver, it takes on a pink look and is juicy. The difference is that the yellow stuff is a sure sign of puss in the system of the animal, and that's what comes to the surface when it's cooked. With what I've been saying to folks, I think I've made it kind of rough on some of the butchers in our area because they're having trouble getting rid of their liver.
"We had the same problem with our chicken livers a few years back. When we cleaned out the innards, their livers came out spotted. But now, for five, six, or seven years, we haven't had any spotted livers. It's due to the healthy food they've been getting. It's funny, when I was a kid, the old folks, if they dressed out a chicken with a bad liver . . . they'd throw the whole chicken away. Nowadays, they throw out the bad-looking liver and keep the sick chicken."
As Aaron talked, he pulled up a dozen tall plants known as lambsquarters and pigweed. "They call them weeds," he commented, "and to everything they can to eradicate them with weed killers. What they don’t realize is that both weeds are full of vitamins and minerals. They taste wonderful in salads."
All at once, Aaron hurled the weeds over the wire fence into the pen full of laying hens under constant court by a few big roosters. In what amounted to a feathered rugby melee, the chickens swarmed over the plants to devour their leaves. Others pellmelled out of the chicken house to get in on the feast. Within minutes all the weeds were reduced to stalks.
"We feed a lot of those weeds to our layers," said Aaron. "They eat them just as readily as corn or any other grain. That’s what makes our eggs taste so good. You should eat some of the homemade noodles we make from them. Few people know what good eggs really are today. Millions and millions of them come out of egg factories where the hens are packed into houses with no windows and exposed to artificial lighting. They are good for only one or two years, whereas a properly cared for hen will last up to ten years. A lot those factory chickens are crippled and sickly."
That, too, is all part of the quantity game: mass production, with the so-called advantage of turning out eggs cheaper than Aaron can. Eggs of what quality, those so-called bargains?
It’s no different with milk. "We drink raw milk on this farm," Aaron beams, "right out of the cow, just as everyone did a century back." He winks. "If you’ve got a cat or a dog at home, I can sell you a gallon. My grandfather lived to be 97 on raw milk. Now all the milk farmers around are afraid to drink it. They think it’ll make them sick! Most of those same farmers don’t even bother to plant a vegetable garden. They have up to 200 acres of tillable land and won’t even grow their own tomatoes, potatoes, sweet corn or anything else. They say it’s too much trouble. But I find it relaxing to work in my vegetable garden. Everybody else is buying exercise bicycles, or trampolines, or jogging.
At this point Aaron suggested we take a look at one of his alfalfa fields, a second cutting on which he treated with Sonic Bloom. In past years a cutting on that field produced in the neighborhood of 30 to 35 bales per acre, but this year the treated cuttings produced 93 bales per acre, and the plants, normally 18 to 22 inches high, grew nearly 3 feet tall.
"There wasn’t a yellow leaf in the crop," Aaron exults, "and the plant stalks are remarkably thick and green all the way down to the ground. There’s been no depredation by insects, although we haven’t put on any bug killer. That can be attributable to my soil, too. But all over the valley the farmers are spraying insecticides twice, sometimes three times a season. Generally, it’s to kill the potato leaf hopper that blows up here from down south. If the alfalfa isn’t healthy, the leaf hopper will kill a stand of it in a year’s time.
"I’ve never lost a stand with my natural farming methods, so it’s my theory that we simply don’t need the insecticides at all. I decided to stop using them when I read some of the directions on the packages that told how you have to wear rubber gloves and use a face mask when working with the stuff. I recently read an article about how there was an all-time high in insecticide-related poisoning of farmers across the nation in 1984 – 313,000 cases reported by clinics and hospitals.
"Even a blind man could tell when the people across the road start spraying in the spring. When the spray drifts over here, it causes your nose to run all the time. A lot of farmers are affected each year with what seems like flu. They run a fever during spraying time, and feel weak. It’s a real wonder why they can’t put two and two together. If it were something else causing so many people to get sick, there’d be a crackdown on it right away. Suppose I produced milk that put people in the hospital? They’d nail my barn door shut!"
Aaron looked at the ground for a moment, lost in thought, "In a way it’s just crazy, isn’t it," he added, raising his eyes with an almost pleading expression. "How come we survived for hundreds of years without all these chemicals? Now . . . if you don’t use them, you’re supposed to be backward!" He looked at the ground again, and this time did not raise his head, as if talking to the earth itself. "What about that 5 foot tall prairie grass our pioneers found out west when they first entered that territory. It was growing in a natural soil. You try to raise prairie grass with the chemical methods used today, and I bet it wouldn’t get up to 3 feet."
I wondered what the farmers in Morrison’s Cove thought about Aaron Zimmerman’s new-old way of farming. When I asked him, he replied: "Why don’t you ask them? Maybe some of them out there are beginning to wonder about what I’m doing. It’s strange . . . your immediate neighbors seem to be the most loath to admit that someone else might be doing better than they are, or to find out why. But I’ve had visits from about 35 or 40 farmers who live out of the valley and who have come a long way to my farm to see what I’m doing."
Another thing which makes me feel I’m on the right track is that the Farmer’s Market in Martinsburg, our town three miles away, has been pressing us to supply it with our vegetables. We’ve been using, or putting up, or storing most of what we produce, but now I think we’d like to get into marketing some of our output and show people there’s a real difference between what we’re raising and what they’ve been used to buying."
Finding that it did not work, Aaron has ceased to proselytize his methods and his philosophy. "I used to try to persuade farmers to have a try at what I’m doing. I talked to them a lot. But I got nowhere. Now I keep a low profile and just do my thing. If some of them see what I’m doing and ask me about it, then I’ll be glad to share my thoughts with them. But I no longer offer information. I found it just aggravates people. I believe that more of them will be coming around to have a look at our operation before long. It’ll take a while and I have to content myself with being patient.
"I’ve been to a lot of farmers’ meetings over the last couple of years where I’ve detected a lot of what I’d call unrest, an underlying dissatisfaction with they system they’re using. Deep down, they’re uneasy about their practices, but they don’t know how to get out of the fix they’re in., what to change, or which way to head. They have nobody out there to lead or guide them. I can say right out that I’ve sold quite a few subscriptions of Acres U.S.A. for Charlie Walters around Pennsylvania and Maryland after talking to desperate folks who wanted to know where I got a lot of my information. When I’d open up an issue of his paper I was carrying with me and show them some of the material, they’d end up copying down the address."
Aaron gave me another piercing and reflective gaze. "Sometimes I myself wonder if it’s worth the struggle, but then I look around at my farm which produces 90% of everything our family of eleven eats, and I think, well, if I don’t keep taking my stand, what’s going to be out there for my children when they get to be my age? If I can get them raised up with the right ideas about how to treat the earth under them, well then maybe a whole lot more folks will begin to think a little.
"So much real knowledge, so much sound practice has been forgotten, to be replaced with really worthless substitutes. I guess that’s what some folks call progress."
-- Acres, U.S.A., January 1986
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