Three weeks into the month of April our local area began to emerge from the throes of winter. Spring conditions have suddenly arrived to the delight of farmers. “Spring planting” is a term frequently heard in farming regions. Frost is now out of the ground and the soil will soon be warm enough to receive a new infusion of seed. In my youth I was privileged to observe farming operations firsthand thanks to the involvement of close family.
Personal childhood recollections relate to my father’s active participation in horticulture and agriculture. He constructed a greenhouse on our property during the 1930s. During World War II two events edged him out of the greenhouse business in central New York and into the state agency of a national agricultural seed company. A heavy snowfall did serious damage to our family-owned greenhouse. In addition, the government mandated that the greenhouse business was non-essential to the collective war effort.
I preferred to explore my grandfather’s farm buildings and fields located next door to my childhood home. In retrospect, when “Agent Dad” taught farmers about hybrid corn varieties and the value of synthetic chemical fertilizers, as a pre-teen I should have listened more carefully. My interests, instead, were along the lines of farm and field exploration and adventure together with fishing in the nearby river. He frequently spoke, for example, about such issues as “single cross” and “double cross” hybrids and the advantages of using synthetic nitrogen-based inorganic fertilizer. Dad was not college trained in contemporary 1940s agricultural technology. Rather, he was self-taught, surpassing the experience and knowledge he had acquired on his family’s farming operation in Northern New York during the 1910s and 1920s. Farmers of that day were not familiar with hybridization or synthetic inorganic fertilizers. As late as the 1940s when my father became an agent for a firm embracing the newest agricultural technology, some of his farmer clients remained dubious and doubtful.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century. Without hybridization and genetically modified plants, together with heavy reliance on synthetic fertilizers such as ammonium nitrate, our food supply would be woefully inadequate to satisfy the 7.6 billion earth residents of today.
During the last few decades a large portion of our population has become enamored with organic foods and procedures. Several requirements prevail for foods or food production to be considered organic. Crops may not be raised with synthetic chemical fertilizers, hormones, or antibiotics. Animals must have access to free range conditions. There must be no irradiation of foods. Pest, weed, and disease control must be applied by biological means. They must not be genetically modified. In short, foods and food production methods must be “natural” according to strict regulations. Organic farming and gardening are deeply ideological.
Flashback to early and mid-20th century farming methods and the agricultural endeavors of my father. He followed the principles established by the famous agricultural innovator Norman Borlaug, considered the father of the “Green Revolution” of the 20th century. In earlier years primitive world agricultural practices had deterred crop production, especially in underdeveloped, high population countries. Residents of those countries faced widespread starvation. Billions of people in those countries were saved from nutritional disaster. Borlaug was the winner of a Nobel Prize for his innovative methods of developing high yielding hybrid plant varieties, use of synthetic fertilizers and chemical treatments for pests, weeds, and diseases, as well as modern mechanization and irrigation. He was recognized for likely saving the lives of one billion human beings. The organic movement arose in response to the Green Revolution. Both had beginnings in the 1940s.
Practices in modern agriculture continue the accomplishments of the Green Revolution. In terms of many contemporary residents during and after World War II my father was ahead of his time in utilizing hybrid crop varieties, chemical fertilizers, and modern technologies of pest, disease, and weed control and irrigation. He taught these lessons to the farmers in his agency region previously steeped in old-fashioned agricultural traditions. He would be among the first to endorse the concept that modern agricultural technologies were merely an extension of processes in the natural world in effect since plant and animal food crops have been present on our planet. These processes sustained the nutritional needs of divinely created humanity. After the Wisconsin Ice Age early humans selected the best plants over many generations— an example of early genetic modification. The value of nutrients in manure was also discovered thousands of years ago. These practices resulted in the appearance of healthy domesticated plants and animals we still enjoy today.
My father, Paul Virkler, was an energetic innovator in his life projects. One of his major ventures was the move from central New York to northern New Jersey in 1951 to take over the pastorate of a small church. This move coincided with my parents’ lifelong desire to serve God. The tiny church did not provide any salary, but God provided for the purchase of a 40-acre parcel of property. Twelve of those acres needed to be cleared of 25 years of shrubby growth and young trees. Paul was “up for the job.” Ultimately, those twelve acres were planted in hybrid sweet corn with one acre reserved for tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, beans, zucchini, cucumbers, and peppers. Lima beans were but one of our personal family favorite veggies along with our famous sweet corn.
From 1952 to 1985 the family farm produced over three million ears of sweet corn. Virtually ALL of our produce was sold retail at the road in front of our property. Our clients were appreciative and curious concerning the farming expertise needed to bring the crop to maturity. Some customers wondered if our crops were organically raised. I responded that the same chemical nutrients utilized by plants in organic fields were present in the ammonium nitrate fertilizer applied several times to the sweet corn crop during its growth stage. Were these fertilizers “natural?” As a science teacher I could honestly state that all chemical elements such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium occur as part of the created “natural” physical world. Most customers were pleased that Dad planted a rye cover crop each fall after the harvest to be plowed down the next spring—certainly the epitome of an “organic” process! The truth was that rigid application of formally defined organic methods would have precluded most of the profit from our family farming operation. As with any technology, we used research and sound advice provided by state and national agricultural organizations to insure the safety of our procedures.
Each year at the roadside stand, we distributed a new edition of our newsletter entitled “Kernels of Truth.” Along with questions posed by our customers in many previous years, we took the opportunity to give God the glory for the miracle of crop development. We combined many questions from customers to ask a rhetorical question: “What is the most important ingredient in growing corn?” Following is our 1984 newsletter reply:
Faith. Jesus Christ spoke of having faith as small as a grain of mustard seed in order to accomplish great things. To watch a tiny seed grow from insignificance to maturity and fruitfulness demands a considerable measure of faith. The same Jesus Christ spoke of an even more significant sphere in which we can exercise our faith when He said, “The true Bread is a Person—the One sent by God from heaven, and He gives life to the world…..I am the Bread of Life.” (John 6:33-35 Living Bible)