Delmar Akerland worried a long time about the dead songbirds along his fence rows before he decided to adopt organic farming methods..
Worried about his costs and what he was doing to his land and wildlife, Akerland finally decided to farm differently. Without much sense of the many problems he would face he abruptly took his Nebraska farm off its diet of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in 1967.
It wasn't easy, but in 15 years Akerland's 760-acre spread near Valley, Neb., has become a showcase of commercial farming by nonchemical methods. Visitors from all over the world are drawn to the place by the idea of growing food on a large scale without the costly fertilizer, pesticide and fuel expenses that characterize most of contemporary American agriculture.
One reason they seek out Akerland is that the traditional sources of farming research data and guidance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the state extension services, can't offer much advice on alternative farming.
No one is calling it a groundswell, yet, but economically-pressed farmers are showing more interest these days in producing food on a large scale in less expensive, more soil-conserving ways. Akerland's approach is one of those ways.
When the USDA published a report on organic farming in 1980, it received about 40,000 requests for copies. The department's organic specialist handled an estimated 2,000 individual requests for more information in two years. Half of the hundreds of farmers who attended Nebraska's alternative-agriculture day last year were conventional farmers seeking more information.
To fill that information gap, Akerland and other farmers have formed a new research organization, the first of its kind on a nationwide scale, to helpothers avoid the trial-and-error method of nonchemical farming.
The executive director of the new Institute for Alternative Agriculture, based in Greenbelt, Md., is I. Garth Youngberg, who was the USDA's only full-time organic farming specialist until his job was abolished last year.
That action,, ostensibly for budget reasons, came at a time when Congress and the administration were at loggerheads over legislation to establish a small USDA program of research into techniques known variously as organic, regenerative and alternative farming.
The bill, proposed by Rep. James H. Weaver (D-Ore.), was defeated on the House floor after the USDA and Republican loyalists complained that the program would duplicate current research and would be too costly. Weaver and his allies intend to reintroduce the bill this year.
Last year's flap drew new attention to organic farming and its stepchild treatment in traditional research channels. Witnesses before Weaver's subcommittee talked about their inability to get the kind of guidance they need. They talked about the economies they have achieved, the quality of food they have produced, the need to do things differently.
Meanwhile, the institute in Greenbelt isn't waiting for help from Congress or the USDA. With some private and foundation grants as seed money, Youngberg and the board of directors, which includes Akerland and other organic farmers, are laying plans to make research grants, publish information and stimulate interest in farming with as few chemicals as possible.
"Yes, the image has been a problem for organic farmers," Youngberg admits. "We chose the word 'alternative' deliberately . . . so we could embrace and relate to the whole agricultural spectrum in the United States.
"We have no intention of being combative," he said. "We hope USDA will see us as a resource, maybe even work with us, so we can help by communicating to farmers the things that are relevant to organic or alternative agriculture."
Once the institute gets rolling, Youngberg envisions a team of researchers working as "an alternative agriculture think tank . . . looking at the implications of farm policies in this country, the impact and restraints on organic farmers by today's tax, credit, energy, trade and commodities policies."
The institute also intends to try to dispel the popular image of the organic farmer as a freakish health-food nut who is trying to check out of the 20th century.
"Organic farmers today--and we think there are between 20,000 and 30,000 of them--use traditional rotation techniques, without chemicals, but they are in no sense old-time farmers. They are very sophisticated, using modern machinery, different legumes and corn and wheat varieties, different tilling methods," Youngberg said. "What they are not getting from USDA are ways of improving these systems. This is not a nonscientific movement. These farmers want and need science."