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Beating the farm crunch with new tools, new methods, and a willingness to change

DAVE Seiple scrapes the mud off his boots as he leads the way into his office. He's as anxious as the next man to start plowing, he tells you, but he's inspected his fields, and he thinks he'd better wait a few days. Then he points to the new computer alongside his desk. ``When I get the hang of that thing it'll be about as useful to us as the plow,'' he says. ``It better be,'' he adds, ``because we can't afford anything that doesn't pay its way.''

The red-bearded farmer is making the point that management and marketing skills have become as important to the family farm's survival these days as good rains and warm sun -- and the computer can be a particularly useful management and sales tool.

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The brothers David and Dan Seiple have also begun weaning their 750 acres of red Pennsylvania loam away from heavy dependence on agricultural chemicals to one where renewable resources will eventually predominate.

Greater diversification is an important feature of this alternative farming program, which, in turn, demands greater management skills. The aim of all these changes is improved profitability, and so far it appears to be working for the two brothers.

The Seiples are joining an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 farmers around the United States who are in various stages of making the switch to a more sustainable form of agriculture. These farmers have given up dependence on one main crop in favor of a diversified operation involving crop rotation and fertilizing systems that include legume covers and the use of animal manures, where available. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are used, but at reduced rates.

``Alternative'' or ``regenerative'' farmers, as they are called, include some who totally subscribe to organic methods but a majority who use some chemical inputs. The idea, however, is to use chemicals only in the absence of cost-effective natural alternatives.

The trend is gaining momentum among farmers caught between rising costs for fertilizers and pesticides and reduced or static crop prices. Soil loss and other environmental problems associated with heavy dependence on chemicals are other motivating factors.

While yields are sometimes a little lower than those from conventional farms, production costs are much lower. The result: greater profitability. Steadily improving soil quality, erosion rates reduced to and often well below acceptable limits, and less chemical pollution of rivers and streams are other beneficial results.

A banker in the Midwest recently told a group of farmers: ``It used to be that a farmer had to make more money than he spent; now he has to spend less than he earns.'' The two parts of that statement are not the same. There's a subtle but significant difference that farmers practicing regenerative agriculture appreciate.

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These farmers have seen their costs go down, as they slowly adopt practices that ``work with, rather than against,'' natural laws, according to George de Vault, editor of New Farm magazine, journal of the Regenerative Agriculture Association headquartered in Emmaus, Pa. It is not ``farming the way Grandpa did,'' as the critics like to say, because it ``makes use of the very best that technology has to offer.''

The Seiples' computer is one example. So are the tillers, cultivators, harvesters, and other farm machinery that have been developed in recent decades. The chisel plow, popular with regenerative farmers because it aerates the soil without inverting it, was not available to Grandpa. Then, too, a wealth of scientific data has been accumulated over the decades that apply to regenerative agriculture. These farmers also use recommended crop varieties, certified seed, and, according to a 1980 United States Department of Agriculture report on organic farming, ``innovative methods of waste and residue management.''

Tom Harding, whose Progressive Agri-Systems Inc. of Stockertown, Pa., is one of the few agricultural consulting services to meet the needs of this new breed of farmer, sums up regenerative, or what he prefers to call alternative, agriculture in two words: ``information intensive.'' It substitutes know-how for ``recipe or calendar farming'' -- the application of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides at set times each year frequently on a just-in-case-they're-needed basis.

The alternative farmer, for instance, may well use a chemical pesticide, but it will be applied only when soil temperatures or the number of degree days indicates that the pest is about to emerge. Traps might also be used to indicate the most appropriate time to spray. The result is effective pest control at less cost and with less threat to the ecosystem. Agriculture, Mr. Harding points out, ``is by far the major source of water pollution in this country.''

Frequently, too, the right rotation of crops can eliminate he need to apply pesticides. Knowing the green manure legumes best suited to their climate and soil conditions has enabled many farmers to grow plants that supply all the nitrogen they need, and, because many soils are naturally rich in phosphate and potash, a few farmers have been able to eliminate fertilizer purchases altogether.

The Seiples made a tentative switch to a more sustainable form of agriculture a few years ago when they called in Progressive Agri-Systems, because they were less than happy with the prospects for farming in general and saw a need to make some changes if they were to stay in business. Out of what used to be largely a potato-growing operation, they diversified the farm to grow a much wider range of crops, including corn and wheat. The new system allows for more rotation and cover cropping. Several acres are given to pick-your-own fruits and vegetables, because demand from nearby suburbs makes this a feasible moneymaker.

A particularly good revenue-producer is Halloween pumpkins. The point the Seiples stress is that to succeed today farmers have to sow with the consumer in mind. As Tom Harding puts it, farmers have to think in terms of marketing as well as growing their products.

Meanwhile, membership in the Regenerative Agriculture Association has jumped from some 3,000 in 1982 to more than 60,000 today. Approximately 60 percent of the members are in the grain-growing Midwestern states.

Dick and Sharon Thompson are Corn Belt farmers who made the switch to regenerative agriculture so successfully that their 300-acre farm near Boone, Iowa, has become a mecca for those wishing to make the change. They switched some 15 years ago from dependence on chemicals and continuous corn to natural fertilizers and a five-year rotation of corn, soybeans, oats, and hay.

After early problems with poor yields, their corn harvests returned to the 125 bushels an acre they had achieved with chemicals. Soybean and oats yields equal the region's average, but soil erosion rates are about half that of their neighbors.

The Thompsons maintain that their new approach to farming requires little extra effort but a lot more thought (management skills) than previously.

Jim Morgan, executive director of the Regenerative Agriculture Association, makes the point that regenerative farmers who bought overpriced land ($4,000 an acre, now valued at $2,000) will be in financial difficulties ``just like anyone else.'' But by and large ``the regenerative farmer is holding his own wherever he is.''

The reason for this might be seen in a study done a decade ago by Washington University in St. Louis. Conducted by William Lockeretz, it compared the results on 14 organic and 14 conventional farms in five Corn Belt states. It found that corn yields on organic farms were between 3 and 7 percent lower than on conventional farms but that organic farmers used 60 percent less fossil energy, principally in the form of petroleum-based chemicals. In short, if the organic or regenerative farmers held their own by markedly reduced input costs 10 years ago, by today's costs these same farmers would be considerably better off.

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