Neil Pashley isn't gloating, but he is an exception to the economic rule of American farming. As neighboring farmers struggle to make ends meet this year, he will make a profit on his corn and soybeans.
The reason is simple. Pashley farms organically. He fertilizes with manure from his milk cows; maintains strict crop rotations to boost fertility, control erosion, subdue insects and weeds; mechanically cultivates to remove the weeds that survive.
Pashley's crop yields are the same or better, but his costs are much lower than his neighbors' because he uses none of the expensive chemical pesticides and herbicides or synthetic fertilizers that underpin much of American agriculture.
Yet Pashley and a handful of other farmers who follow the same cultivation practices in northeastern Ohio are going against the grain of most U.S. farming, which relies on chemicals and petroleum-based fertilizers at a cost of more than $10 billion a year.
Spurred by the Agriculture Department with a campaign to reduce soil erosion, thousands of farmers are switching to no-till or minimum-till agriculture, which emphasizes less soil cultivation but which requires huge amounts of powerful herbicides to control weeds.
The tradeoff has stirred concern among farmers and conservationists about the detrimental impact of these highly toxic chemicals on soil structure, water quality and public health in general. Little research is conducted on long-term effects of increased herbicide usage.
And the Reagan administration, reversing a trend begun in the Carter administration, has strongly resisted efforts to involve the USDA more deeply in studying organic farming practices and the effects of farm chemicals on the environment. One of the current administration's early actions was to dismiss the only full-time organic farming specialist in the department. Secretary John R. Block set the tone when he called organic research a "dead end."
But over administration objections, the House in July passed an organic farming research bill that Rep. James H. Weaver (D-Ore.) had pushed to little avail for three years. Weaver argued that organic practices could help cut farmers' production costs, while protecting soil fertility. Weaver's language, ordering more government research, has been incorporated into the Senate's pending 1985 farm bill.
No one is certain how many of the country's commercial farmers are plying their trade organically, but there are many indications that the number is growing as farmers seek ways to cut costs or reduce environmental risks.
Garth Youngberg, director of the Institute for Alternative Agriculture, in Beltsville, Md., said he continues to use the USDA estimate that between 20,000 and 40,000 farmers work organically. But, he added, "More are joining the fold . . . more than ever, the economic situation is motivating farmers to look at this."
Youngberg, who formed the institute after he was fired as USDA's organic specialist, also noted that agricultural scientists and land-grant colleges are showing an unusual new interest in organic techniques. "The circle of actors and participants in organic meetings is broadening almost every day," he said.
A few schools, such as the University of Nebraska, Iowa State, Michigan State, Maine, California-Davis, Washington State, Montana State and North Carolina State, have begun serious programs in organic research, but the locus for such activity is still the Rodale Research Center, an arm of the Rodale publishing empire in Emmaus, Pa.
George DeVault, editor of Rodale's "New Farm" magazine for organic farmers, said he believes that "economics are the big thing" in persuading conventional farmers to look at organic techniques. "Our magazine concentrates on the common-sense cost-effectiveness of farming this way," he said.
DeVault said his magazine now goes to more than 60,000 readers, which makes him think USDA estimates on the number of organic farmers are low. "Every time we turn around we run into organic farmers we never heard of," he said.
"The bottom line is that it costs farmers many times less to produce comparable crops, and the organic farmer's financial needs are less than those of the chemical farmer," DeVault said. "This really is the answer to the problem the administration is dealing with, trying to reduce surpluses and cut the cost of farm programs. It wouldn't hurt a thing if yields came down a bit."
Out here in Ohio, Pashley and some of his organic farming friends are bitter about the agriculture establishment's resistance to their ideas. They complain at length about their inability to get advice from the county extension agents who represent Ohio State University's agriculture school.
Dominic Marchese, a dairyman in adjoining Trumbull County who switched to organic methods 10 years ago, is particularly vocal. He has waged a one-man campaign to get USDA and the extension service to provide more help for farmers who want to make the change from chemicals but don't know how.
"When I started 14 years ago, the land was like cement from the chemicals and the continuous corn that was grown here," he said. "The first three years I used the Ohio State agronomy guide and followed their instructions on chemicals closely. But it bothered me. It just didn't seem right to be pouring all that stuff on the land and running the risk of getting it into the food chain."
When he decided to make the switch, Marchese found himself in the same bind as other organic farmers. There was little the government or the college experts could tell him about making the transition or about organic methods. He found that the organic way required knowledge that the agronomy guide couldn't provide and management skills that chemical farming deemphasized.
"I went to see Neil Pashley's farm and he got me onto what he was doing," Marchese said. "I went cold turkey over to organic, and my yields suffered because I was learning as I went along. It took a full five-year rotation to get back to the production levels I had with chemicals.
"Our problem now is that there is very little research to help us with the problems that keep coming up at the local level. We're out here doing this all alone . . . . there's no one in the extension service we can turn to."
To fill that gap, Rodale's New Farm magazine and the Regenerative Agriculture Association that supports it have set up a nationwide telephone network to provide help to organic farmers with problems. More than 1,000 farmers have agreed to offer counseling at no cost.
Lying beneath all this is something more than economics: a belief that chemical farming takes more from the soil than it puts back, depleting agriculture's most valuable asset.
Pashley, who abandoned chemical farming in 1967, is nearly messianic on the subject. "We're coming to the end of agriculture as we know it," he said. "No-till will simply speed it up . . . . Man and technology are destroying the base that we live on. Destroy life in the soil, you destroy life above the soil."
"In our natural farming, you have to always put something back into the soil," he continued. "But we have gotten so far away from farming in this country, it's pathetic. It breaks your heart to take Interstate 80 and travel west. There's no limit to what they could do in Illinois and Iowa, but with their chemical farming they have destroyed the base in 30 years."
A trip through Pashley's fields shows what he is talking about.
His soil is rich and aromatic, moist and spongy from a recent 4-inch rain. The surface is littered with castings from earthworms, a sign that they are at work creating fertility. A spade plunged down anywhere brings up dozens of worms. The plants are strong and healthy. A cornstalk torn from the ground brings with it a huge rootball, with thousands of tiny root hairs reaching out for nutrition. Ears forming on the stalks show no signs of insect damage. Weeds rise up in the rows, but not enough to slow plant growth.
The difference is underlined in a neighbor's no-till cornfield down the road. The corn appears healthy, but the surface of the soil is as hard as a parking lot. A stalk's rootball is tiny, its brace roots distorted above ground by excessive nitrogen fertilizer. The spade finds no worms. The earth has an odd, antiseptic smell and shows little evidence of important organic matter. The same 4-inch rain, unable to penetrate the surface crust, has run into the ditches and carried valuable topsoil with it.
The experience of Pashley and Marchese and Dick Bailey, another Ashtabula County dairy farmer who switched to organics a decade ago, runs counter to the common belief that their "natural" or "regenerative" agriculture does not produce yields as abundant as those of the chemical farmers.
All three report grain yields comparable to, or better than, the local averages. All three maintain that their dairy cows are healthier and more productive as a result of organically produced diets. Bailey's herd of 45 milkers is regularly one of the top producers in Ashtabula County.
Pashley's record is equally impressive. He obtained 100 bushels of corn per acre last year compared to the county average of 104. His soybeans came in at 50 bushels per acre, compared to the county average of 33.
But comparable yields are not entirely the point. Even if the organic farms produce less than conventional fields, their production costs are far less and profit is far more likely.
Ohio State University economists calculated that last year's typical corn farmer would spend $99 an acre on pesticides and fertilizers. Pashley spent about $10 per acre on organic soil additives. In other words: with four fewer bushels per acre he took in about $12 less, but he spent $89 less per acre than his neighbor.
"I say I've got $150 per acre in my pocket before I even plant," Pashley said. "I'm putting money in the bank with my kind of farming. My rich soil is a good bank account. All these other guys think about is how much they can make off so many acres."
While it might seem hard to argue with their logic and the success of their tillage practices, Pashley and Marchese both said that some of their traditionalist farmer-neighbors still look on them as oddballs. One county extension agent wrote that Pashley was a "medicine man."
"To do what we are doing, you have to be strong and you can't let people talking about you hurt you," Pashley said. "You dare to be different and sometimes it is painful. But eventually the so-called experts will have to admit they were wrong."