John Kempf is a longtime farmer in Ohio. He grew up on a conventional fruit and vegetable farm. His dad was a pesticide distributor and he became a licensed pesticide applicator at age sixteen. But in the early 2000s, no matter what they sprayed, they started losing more than two-thirds of their crop every year. I caught up with John in his outdoor home office in the farm field.
“The third year of that three-year period, 2004, we rented a field from a neighboring farm that bordered up right against our own fields. So now our rows were going across the former field border. We planted that field into cantaloupe and at harvest time on the old soil that we had been farming the past decade with intense pesticide applications 80 percent of the leaves were infected with powdery mildew it almost cost us the entire crop. On the new soil we had not been farming the prior decade that didn’t have the pesticide exposure there were no leaves infected. And there was this stark contrast like a knife line running down through the center of the field.”
Kempf started asking questions. He wanted to know what would allow one plant to be disease resistant when another two feet away was susceptible.
“What I learned fairly simply is that plants have an immune system much in the same way that we do. Some people become ill with the first cold or flu bug that comes along and other people practically never become ill. And the difference between those two is how well their immune system has been supported with nutrition over the course of their entire lifetime, in fact even from before they were born. The same idea holds true of plants as well, that plants have an immune system and when that immune system is supported with the right nutrition and right micro-biome, they can be incredibly resistant to all types of disease and insect pressure.”
Based on what he was learning, Kempf started changing the way he farmed. He stopped using pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and began transitioning to a way of growing that’s known as regenerative agriculture.
“For me regenerative agriculture accomplishes three things. One, it produces plants that are so healthy that they’re completely resistant to diseases and insects and completely eliminate the need for pesticides. Two, these healthy plants not only have this tremendous immunity but also pass that immunity on to people and we can have a legitimate conversation about growing food as medicine. And three, when we are growing these really healthy plants with robust immune systems they also regenerate soil health, build soil organic matter, sequester carbon and store water in our soils to ultimately regenerate landscapes and regenerate ecosystems.”
This is a very different way of thinking about growing than our conventional agriculture. On the ground it looks like limiting soil disturbance through low or no-till methods, keeping soil covered at all times with mulches or cover crops, moving away from monocultures to grow a diversity of plant and animal species, and integrating perennial food plants like shrubs and trees. Kempf says studies show 60 percent of farmers who switch to regenerative agriculture do it for the same reason he did—they experience a personal crisis.
“In the last five years, regenerative agriculture has moved from being a very fringe conversation to a conversation that every farmer has heard about and has participated in to some extent, to a greater or lesser degree. And so that in and of itself just the fact that there is this very large conversation happening already speaks to the fact that there is a significant crisis happening already as well.”
Kempf doesn’t believe our conventional agriculture can hold on much longer. More and more farmers are experiencing the kinds of crop failures Kempf’s family did, and farm debt, farmer suicide, and climate change are all putting tremendous pressure on the system. Today, Kempf works with growers all over the world as a consultant. His personal mission is to have regenerative agriculture be the mainstream by 2040.
“It’s much more powerful to be for something than it is to be against something. So it’s much more powerful to be for regenerative agriculture than it is to be anti GMO anti glyphosate anti-technology. When we seek to produce change in the world, we can do that much more powerfully with honey than we can with vinegar.”
Learn more about John Kempf and regenerative agriculture here:
This piece first aired in July 2020.