Salt of the Earth: Gary Holthaus

January 6, 2008

Gary Holthaus thinks this part of the world took the wrong path. Holthaus is administrative director of the LaMoure, N.D.-based Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society. The group promotes what it calls “a more sustainable society through an ecologically sound, socially just and economically viable food system.”

That includes turning away from the region’s large-scale, chemical-intensive and export-oriented agriculture in favor of small, diverse farms that produce organic food primarily for domestic consumers.

One of the society’s key beliefs is that the health of soil, food, people, society and economy are intertwined.

Q: What does your organization do?

A: We’re involved in education, advocacy, research and what we call community-building. Examples include helping to develop a new better-yielding organic wheat variety and a program called My Neighbor’s Acre, in which society members help fellow society members in need.

Q: What are some of the changes your organization support?

A: There are a whole lot of things. One would be to avoid the vertical integration in agriculture that the big transnational corporations are able to engage in and control so much of the food system. We’d like to make it more viable for small farmers to compete. We’d like to end our agri-dumping on foreign countries because our subsidies allow us to sell stuff cheaper than peasant farmers can grow and sell it in their local markets. I’d like to improve the quality of our soil. Some folks have a fit when this gets said, but we don’t really know what we’re doing with pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. And we don’t have a clue about the long-term effect. We’ve been playing a dangerous game for a long time.

Q: It sounds like you’d welcome a return to 40 or 50 years ago, when western Minnesota and North Dakota had more small farms and more-active small towns.

A: Absolutely. The loss of small farms has contributed to the loss of small-town life. I’m not interested in nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. But what does interest me is what we’ve learned over the last 60 years and how we incorporate the healthy parts of that into a food system that creates healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy animals and healthy humans.

That’s not a matter of going back. It may look the same visually, but (because of more information and scientific know-how) we’re in a lot better position to do it right than we were in the ’30s when folks thought they were doing it right.

Q: The longstanding conventional wisdom is that farms need to get bigger to be more efficient and productive. You think that’s a false premise?

A: Absolutely. (One study found that) the most productive farm is about 4 acres and that greatest efficiencies occur on small farms. The way it works out, the guy with 4 acres has $16,000 income and the guy with 12,000 acres – even though he’s less productive and less efficient – has $72,000 income. I think a lot of people today are looking at the notion that just because something is bigger, it’s better.

Q: So how do you change the conventional wisdom?

A: We’ve got to change the story America has been telling itself – that bigger is better, chemicals can fix anything, there’s a technological fix for everything. I think we need to change the story because stories are the most effective means we have to change people’s minds about things. Argument doesn’t work. All that does is get folks angry or defensive. Facts don’t help. We’ve known about climate change for three or four decades, and it hasn’t changed our behavior a bit.

Q: You had quite a varied career before joining the society last year … .

A: Grew up in Iowa. My granddad farmed. My dad hated farming and worked in a post office all his career. But we spent every weekend on grandpa’s farm until he died.

I’ve done a whole bunch of different things, it’s true. (They include teaching, commercial fishing, working for nonprofits and writing a book, “From The Farm to The Table: What All Americans Need to Know About Agriculture,” published by the University of Kentucky Press.) After I was finished with the book, I was looking around for what to do and saw the society was looking for an administrative director.

Q: You hope to broaden your membership, right?

A: We need consumers, urban members. There’s interest growing exponentially in healthy food. Consumers and farmers are natural allies, it seems to me.

We need each other.

Adapted from Changing the Story of American Agriculture by Jon Knutson, The Forum.

Founded in 1979, the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society has about 450 members in 20 states. Most of the members are in the northern Great Plains. For more information go to


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