In 2004 the Kempf family farm in northeast Ohio was devastated by blight. Half of their crops, which included tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, and cantaloupes, were wiped out. There was one productive area on the farm though: a new section that yielded some beautiful cantaloupes. The family’s 16-year-old son John wondered why.
He hypothesized that the new section had not been subjected to years of chemical applications. This realization led John Kempf on a decade of research. With only an eighth-grade Amish education, he read prodigiously in areas of botany, pathology, entomology, physiology, and immunology. He knocked on the doors of academics, organic farmers, and agricultural researchers. He found brilliant thinkers who knew a lot about their own disciplines but were missing the bigger frame of how all these areas fit together. To his surprise, Kempf remembers, “I was taken seriously because I was able to ask really intelligent questions and I didn’t tell anyone how old I was.”
Kempf’s research led him toward a new approach. Previously, the family had been a pesticide supplier for the region and the first farm in its area to test all the chemical cocktails. But Kempf decided that chemicals were destroying entire ecosystems on his farm. His new system, which he calls “regenerative agriculture,” is not exactly organic. Mainstream organic agriculture, says Kempf, is all about “negative certification.” According to Modern Farmer, this approach is “preoccupied with what farmers aren’t allowed to do—no GMOs, no chemical pesticides, no this, no that, etc. While that ensures that organic products are largely free of pesticides, it provides no assurance that crops in an organic farmer’s field are thriving, or that organic produce is healthier than its conventional counterparts.” By contrast, regenerative agriculture encourages a more positive approach.
One of Kempf’s devotees, Samuel Zook (profiled here in The Atlantic), describes how it looks on his farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania:
Zook: The inputs changed drastically. Instead of trying to grow crops that are healthy with fungicides and pesticides, I started to grow crops that are healthy with nutrition.
Interviewer: What was the hardest part about making the change?
Zook: Well, there was a big psychological block that I had to get through. I’d see a couple bugs out there and feel like I immediately had to do something about it. But, I learned that if I sit back, things will often take care of themselves. That first summer for instance, we saw a lot of horn worms. Before that, I would have sprayed them right away, but this time I waited and a bunch of wasps came along and killed them. Once I saw that, I started getting really excited.
Interviewer: So, when you use a pesticide you’re killing the predators too, right?
Zook: Right. You’re killing the entire ecosystem.
Interviewer: Have all of your problems disappeared?
Zook: I wish I could say that, but not entirely. We’re not living in the Garden of Eden yet. The issues I had before have disappeared, but we still have some other issues that we’re working on. One of the main things that has improved is how it feels to farm. Before, if I applied fungicide on my tomatoes, I had to wait three to seven days before I could reenter the area. Now, it’s so nice to just walk in my field any day of the week and not worry a bit. That in itself is huge. The other thing is, when I used to mix these skull-and-cross-bones chemicals to put in my sprayer, I’d have to be suited up. The children would be around and I’d say, “Now, get in the house. It’s not safe.” Now though, if the children want to help, it’s fine. If I want to mix the solutions better, I’ll just put my hand in a stir it around.
If Kempf’s regenerative approach to agriculture defies conventional categories, so do his entrepreneurial techniques. He is the CEO of a growing international start-up called Advancing Eco Agriculture. He works with a New York public relations firm and has even testified at the United Nations. He maintains a shiny website and a presence on Twitter. The language on the website sounds like it was written by a young Stanford business grad launching a Silicon Valley start-up: “We align our business with our values, recognizing that capital, community, and commerce can create more than their sum, and is a holistic equation for an expanding paradigm of investments in business, people, and planet.”
But Kempf also draws from the old ways. He remains a member of the Amish church. He does not drive a car or travel by airplane. He wears a homemade shirt and a hooks-and-eyes vest (see him on video here). His insights are not the result of modern educational institutions beholden to big industry, corporatist universities, and government. It is rather the product of a solid Amish education that stresses practicality and the “down and dirty work” of farming. Kempf represents a powerful recovery of communal obligation, holism, and other ancient wisdoms.