2000s Archive

Betting the Farm

continued (page 3 of 5)

It rained in the early spring, then slow and steady through July. It dried in September so the combines could get into the fields. “It was an excellent harvest—weather, price, everything,” Wayne Schmidt admits. After the October harvest, corn was piled in Day-Glo orange pyramids at every railroad elevator from Walworth to the Minnesota border. Local farmers made fortunes. At 100 bushels or more an acre and $4 a bushel, corn pulled other commodities behind it. Spring wheat went to $9 a bushel; soybeans and sunflowers also celebrated high yields and prices. The ’07 season was also a windfall for American taxpayers. Counter-cyclical and loan-deficiency payments for farmers in Walworth dropped to zero.

Like his neighbors, Matthew did just fine last year, but he did it without growing a single ear of corn, and that’s where his family’s story begins to diverge from that of the other farmers. “I’ve got a philosophical problem with growing corn. Most corn goes to livestock. I prefer to feed grain to people, and I prefer for cattle to eat grass.” He also has practical reasons. “I hate to cultivate. We’ve got rolling land. We’re always dealing with erosion problems. In Iowa, they have four feet of top­soil. We have four inches. Besides, I can’t use pesticides.”

In this bastion of industrial agriculture, where people are quick to tell you that heavy machinery, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, genetically modified seeds, and the federal safety net make farming possible, Matthew’s family has gone back to an old-fashioned, diversified, organic family farm. While Congress, President Bush, and lobbyists are trapped in a vitriolic debate about capping subsidy payments to the nation’s richest farmers, the Stiegelmeiers are asking a totally different question: How do we use the land?

Matthew sits at the head of the supper table next to his wife, Danelle, and his baby girl, Katya. His brother and four sisters squeeze along the sides of the table, which is used for meals, school lessons, and prayer. Emily, the matriarch, sits with her back to the kitchen.

The meal comes entirely from the farm: hamburger from a steer, a salad of organic peppers, tomatoes, and basil. Steamed kale. Cheese and butter from Rachel’s dairy cow. Homemade bread.

Emily, originally from Pennsylvania, didn’t have much interest in organic farming in college. Back in the ’70s, Cornell was preaching the industrial model, and she came slowly to the idea of sustainable agriculture. After college, she joined the Peace Corps and met Jim Stiegel­meier, her future husband and a fellow volunteer, in the Philippines. They came back to Walworth County to farm.

Grandpa Milton gave land to his son and his new bride, and they tried industrial agriculture. But Jim hated the farm program, thought it made farmers dependent on the government. “Grandpa Mil­ton thinks Roosevelt walked on wa­ter,” Matthew offers. “Daddy thought he was a Communist.” Most of all, Jim hated pesticides. Several times in the late ’60s and early ’70s he got sick from them.

“One night at dinner, my sister-in-law told him, ‘I don’t see how you can be a Christian and put poison on food.’ That was the clincher,” Emily remembers. It was the early ’80s. Jim and Emily converted the farm to organic. They home-schooled the children and put them to work. “I’d rather sit on a tractor than in front of a computer,” Ben insists.

Jim and Emily turned the logic of the farm program upside down. Instead of planting one or two commodity crops and accepting whatever price the elevator offered, they went looking for organic processors who, ideally, would lock in a premium before they planted. Matthew shrugs. “Why put a crop in the ground that no one wants to pay for?”

The Stiegelmeiers diversified into organic spring and winter wheat, flax, rye, barley, and buckwheat and relied on age-old ways to fight weeds and fertilize the soil. They certified their pastures as organic and grew alfalfa to feed a herd of registered British White beef cattle. Dan­elle started a small herd of sheep.

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