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Natural Farming Backed As Good Idea

January 30, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Cutting back on fertilizer and killer chemicals to take care of bugs and weeds isn’t a step backward at all, and may be the start of a long future journey for American farmers, an Agriculture Department conference was told Monday.

Will Erwin, an Indiana farmer and member of the federal Farm Credit Assistance Board, said that so-called low-input, sustainable agriculture - called LISA by advocates - does not mean returning to the era of horse power and manual labor on the farm.

″We cannot look back, we cannot look at it as going back,″ Erwin told the conference.

But there are some good reasons - economic and environmental - why farmers can and should trim back on some of the the items they use, such as fertilizer and pesticides. And the manner in which those items are used.

″Farmers are only 2 percent of the population,″ Erwin said. ″I think one of the base problems we have as farmers is that we still think we are the powerful farm bloc. Subconsiously, we want to believe that. We don’t have that kind of clout anymore.″

Erwin said farmers also ″are perceived as being carried″ by the federal government through various programs and subsidies.

″There is a growing force in our society that says to farmers that we paid you not to produce while you used chemicals and fertilizer to produce more and more - and we want lower cost programs and a safer ennvironment,″ he said.

The concept of low-input, sustainable agriculture has been around for a long time. It has grown since the energy crunch of the 1970s, and as environmental issues such as soil and water pollution have taken a deeper hold.

Congress in the 1985 farm law authorized USDA to conduct research and education programs in ″alternative farming systems,″ often referred to as low-input or sustainable agriculture. In 1987, Congress appropriated $3.9 million to push the LISA concept.

The two-day conference at the department attracted about 150 registrants to hear farmers and other talk about their experiences with low-input production methods. More than 100 of those registered represented special interest groups, USDA agencies and other federal offices.

Vivan Jennings, deputy administrator of the Extension Service, called LISA ″an issue whose time has come″ but cautioned that no one should expect miracles.

″We should recognize it’s not a panacea,″ Jennings said. ″It’s not going to solve all of our problems, and we need to remember that as we move ahead.″

Luther Berntson, a North Dakota farmer who uses the low-input approach for years on his 2,000-acre operation, said that federal farm programs helped put production agriculture into a rut.

″I don’t need to remind you that the government farm programs of the past have not rewarded the best management practices,″ he said.

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