[This story was reported in February. This year, 2011, marks the third and final season of Beyond Organic Farm's operation.]
The directions to John McKenzie’s farm in northeast Boulder are straightforward, if unconventional. Follow Cottonwood Path north to the makeshift wooden bridge. Take a right at the rusty pickup truck—watch out for puddles—and follow the dirt driveway to whichever field is being worked.
The farm, much like its owner, is an understated success. McKenzie, 56, is a fourth-generation farmer on this 80-acre plot. But his work extends beyond the fields, which are now farmed by students from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Over the past 30 years he has established himself as a local leader on food and farming issues and now works to address modern farming challenges such as environmental and economic sustainability.
“I’m from the farm,” McKenzie states simply. He has the tough, tanned hands of a laborer, but the meticulous trim of McKenzie’s mustache and coiffed gray hair give the farmer a certain stateliness. His experiences growing up among the crops and cattle have both informed and inspired his current work in the broader agricultural field.
Guiding a group of graduate students on a tour of the farm, McKenzie walks the fields with knowing nonchalance. Rusty tractors and their attachments have taken root in uncultivated corners of the farmstead. Some of these relics are bound for scrap metal—namely the bean picker that is sprouting small trees—while others are still used to till, sow, weed and harvest the fields.
“This is the equipment that kind of runs the show,” he says, adding, “It actually works, believe it or not.” McKenzie recounts the history of each implement with brevity and fondness and makes an apologetic disclaimer about efforts to tidy up.
Kyle Baker, the student manager on McKenzie’s farm, describes the disarray diplomatically as he pounds a fence post. “John, like most farmers, is good at keeping useful things around,” he says.
Baker and his crew of student workers are using salvaged lumber and nails from a downed hay barn to construct a pig corral. Four students comprise the farm’s wage-earning core, while more than a thousand others volunteer their services throughout the summer.
Under McKenzie’s expert tutelage, students from CU have been managing the farm since 2009. The farm and the university have an informal association at this point. McKenzie hopes to forge a formal liaison in the future, but says it has yet to happen because of the school’s frustrating, lumbering bureaucracy. Regardless, being exposed to agriculture is essential for the students, most of whom have no prior experience in the field, he says.
“If you want to become a good citizen, or just be able to read the papers or vote on a more informed basis, you’ve got to know a little bit about this,” McKenzie says. Agriculture is implicated in every major issue our society faces, including obesity, energy and the environment, he argues. What people eat affects their health. How they get it affects the health of the planet.
Food miles (the distance food travels from farm to plate) are one such consideration. Most food in the United States travels an average of 1,020 miles from soil to supermarket, according to a 2008 study published in Environmental Science and Technology. The supply chain to produce the food adds another 4,200 miles, give or take. In McKenzie’s case, a mere four miles separate the farm and the farmers’ market, where much of the produce is sold. The farm also supplies Lucky’s Market, an independently-owned grocer located just three miles down the road. This proximity makes the concept of local food both tangible and enjoyable for the student workers.
“It’s fun,” McKenzie says. “It’s much funner than going to school.” Many of the students-turned-farmers would agree. They are usually itching to get out of the classroom and into the fields. McKenzie says the farm acts as a sort of school anyway. It provides hands-on experience to supplement agricultural classes, which he says are disappointingly absent from his alma mater’s course list.
McKenzie studied at CU, earning a bachelor’s degree in American Studies as well as a law degree. He also has a master’s degree from Colorado State University in Agricultural and Resource Economics. To address what he views as a lack in college curricula, McKenzie has been teaching economics and agriculture courses on campuses along the Front Range over the last two decades. He aims to show students the connection between people and the contents of their plates.
McKenzie’s great-grandfather, a miner, first purchased the property in 1893. The family has since farmed or leased the land to tenant farmers for well over a century. McKenzie, the youngest of four, continues this tradition with an educational twist.
“We find value in the stuff he’s done, stuff his family’s done,” says Baker, the student manager. The students in turn aim to conserve the farm’s resources and its history. They reuse and recycle almost everything on the property, from weathered lumber to scrap metal, and they grow the crops organically without chemical pesticides or fertilizers.
McKenzie’s farm was among the first in Colorado to be certified organic. In fact, he played an instrumental role in the Colorado Organic Producers Association, the non-profit organization that first conceived the concept and standards for an organic certification program in Colorado some 20 years ago. The USDA has since taken on this duty and its 2008 Census of Agriculture reported 220 farms in the state have followed McKenzie’s lead and been certified organic.
But for McKenzie and the students the green sticker of approval isn’t enough. Emblazoned on the farm’s website is a deeper mission: “We wish to take farming back to its roots, roots buried deep in the local soils, local waters, and local communities that make up Boulder.” The students dubbed the operation “Beyond Organic Farm,” a term taken from Michael Pollan to denote the way they are exceeding standards to make the farm wholly sustainable.
McKenzie confirms this concept, working toward sustainability by emulating natural systems. He calls his approach “working with the birds and the bees.” To manage pests, for example, the farm fosters healthy populations of predatory insects, birds and, soon, bats. A single bat can consume up to 600 bugs per night. Thus biological solutions, in this case natural predation, can eliminate the need for chemical herbicides and pesticides.
Like in all natural systems, the students have seen successes and failures on the farm.Risk is inherent to farming, “but you could make the argument that the diversity gives you sustainability,” McKenzie says.
Last season the farm produced more than 40 varieties of vegetables and only lost one—a crop of tomatoes—to a bug infestation. Baker says they have plans in the works for 50 to 60 varieties of vegetables this year.
Efficiency and specialization may be sacrificed to achieve a range of produce, but then the loss of a single crop stings less, McKenzie says. A pesticide may have eliminated the bugs and saved the tomatoes, but chemicals introduce other risks and consequences. No element in an ecosystem is independent from the others, so individual problems cannot be solved in isolation from the system as a whole, he explains.
And problem solving is McKenzie’s forte. In recent years he has applied his agricultural entrepreneurial knowledge to founding a corporation called InnovaStat. He uses computer-generated models to conducts risk analyses for farm operations in order to improve efficiency.
“You take tools that businesses use and why not apply them to ag, water and development?” McKenzie asks. Such sophisticated decision-making technologies are standard in the corporate world, but have yet to trickle down to other high-risk industries like farming, he says.
The modeling is relatively straightforward: determine the variables, input the data, and run what are called Monte Carlo simulations. These simulations randomly combine the variables to predict possible outcomes. When run repeatedly they can determine the likelihood of each outcome over time. The results can be used to minimize uncertainties and reduce risk, thus boosting efficient productivity. Farmers can use the technology to analyze the risks of insufficient rainfall, crop failure and low market prices to determine what and when to plant each year.
“There’s a lot of work to be done with how you can benefit the most people with limited resources,” McKenzie says. He sees particularly useful applications of Monte Carlo simulations to address problems of global food security. In developing countries, the consequences of a bad harvest are more serious, he points out.
Subsistence farmers can’t afford much of anything, least of all bad decisions, he says. The ability to predict the ideal use of resources in the context of development is paramount.
The challenge with these models is not finding solutions to the problems, but validating these solutions for his audiences, McKenzie says. Some distrust the corporate crossover as being impractical, but McKenzie says it’s as practical as it gets.
Much of his work has a frustrating resemblance to marketing, he says, but McKenzie is convinced that the skepticism will subside with time—a mindset he has adopted from experience.
Thirty years ago, when he touted concepts of local food, food security and organics, many of McKenzie’s fellow Boulderites considered him crazy. Luckily, the atmosphere has changed since then. Former skeptics can now buy local, organic produce at the Boulder County Farmers’ Market—another venture McKenzie helped get off the ground more than 20 years ago. He was a founding member and the organization’s first president.
McKenzie’s list of accomplishments also includes the Ditch and Reservoir Company Alliance, a non-profit organization he helped found a decade ago, and for which he has served three years as executive director. The Ditch Alliance serves as an information source and an advocate for water management organizations in the arid West. It also served as the impetus for student involvement on the farm when Baker first visited McKenzie’s property as the Ditch Alliance’s intern.
At the Ditch Alliance’s ninth annual conference in Loveland last month, McKenzie spoke about the economics of efficient agricultural water use. He also co-leads workshops with Eve Triffo, the organization’s secretary, regarding Colorado’s water laws.
Triffo, a former Los Angeles lawyer, retired to Colorado about 10 years ago with her husband “to be someplace with water.” Not licensed to practice law outside of California, Triffo now puts her legal knowledge to use in the dynamic and contentious realm of western water rights.
“I am an urban encroacher,” she says of her move to Colorado, “and I have been trying to make up for it ever since.”
As city-dwellers migrate to the rural periphery, it puts increased pressure on water resources, which are becoming scarcer as the climate warms and dries. Irrigation ditches that were once used to water crops and livestock are now being used to water lawns, Triffo laments.
Triffo and McKenzie focus their presentations on ways to better distribute water resources among users. They also work to make water-related bylaws more accessible to the farmers and ditch owners to whom they apply. Colorado water law is currently contained in six daunting and jargon-filled volumes and development of the western landscape is further complicating the associated water issues.
“With all these topics it’s muddy,” Ralph Kunselman says. “It’s muddy water.”
Kunselman, plaid-clad with a round-cheeked smile, works for a ditch company in Cañon City. He can attest to the precariousness of water issues in Colorado and after attending a number of McKenzie’s workshops over the years is appreciative of McKenzie’s expert knowledge.
Since McKenzie is now busy in the business world, he rarely gets dirt under his fingernails with the students anymore. McKenzie, his wife, Anne, and their two grown sons moved out of the farmhouse and into town last year. Four of the student workers, including Baker, now live in the house, but McKenzie is still clearly at home on the farm.
As he continues the tour, McKenzie gestures to a five-acre plot to his left. The field is lined with cottonwood and willow trees along a small creek. McKenzie says that as a kid he loved playing in the creek, which also serves as the field’s source of irrigation.
“It’s been intensively farmed,” he says. “It just needs a year off.” McKenzie respects the limits of his land, but sees no such downtime in his own future. The needs are too great, he says.
Human population continues to increase, but food and water supplies do not. Unsustainable agricultural practices exhaust the land and urban encroachment increases pressure on its resources. Despite these challenges, McKenzie remains optimistic about the future of farming.
He poses a question to his student visitors, “Have you ever heard that saying ‘When shit hits the fan?’” Amid hesitant laughs and a few affirmative nods, McKenzie points to a corroded piece of farm machinery. The implement holds both practical and metaphorical significance for the challenges of agriculture. “This is a manure spreader,” he says with a rare grin, “and that’s the fan.”