Kempf Shares New Farming Vision
AMES, Iowa — John Kempf said plants have the potential to be completely resistant to disease and insect pests and produce abundantly when supported by proper nutrition.
Kempf, who grew up in and remains part of a Middlefield, Ohio, Amish community, told his remarkable story of how he developed a system of regenerative agriculture during his keynote speech at the recent Practical Farmers of Iowa annual conference.
Kempf was a child in 1994 when his father decided to leave his construction job and raise vegetable crops. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, Kempf's family was one of the leading vegetable producers in northeast Ohio.
"We lived east of Cleveland, south of Lake Erie with lots of snow in the winter and high humidity in the summer," Kempf said.
The conditions attracted a range of disease and insect pests.
"We were very intense pesticide users," Kempf said. "My dad was the pesticide distributor for the local region, and I was a licensed pesticide applicator when I was 16 years old."
When Kempf completed school at 14, he was given responsibility for all the pesticide, nutrient and foliar applications on the farm.
"It was fascinating for me to observe how different nutrient and pesticide applications caused a different plant response," Kempf said.
Kempf's family lost most crops to a variety of diseases and insects from 2002-04. They grew tomatoes, cantaloupe, cucumbers and zucchini, and no insecticides or fungicides slowed the challenges.
Kempf, in 2004, noticed cantaloupe grown on a new piece of land they rented had no powdery mildew leaf infection while the same plants growing in their soil had 80 percent infestation. The same plant variety had been planted on the same date and received the same fungicide, pesticide and fertilizer applications.
Kempf set off on a journey to find out why. He asked people in academia, the USDA and private consultants.
"We were under economic duress on the farm," Kempf said. "We had major problems and we had to figure out how to fix those problems or we were not going to be farming any more. I had a tremendous incentive to figure this out."
Healthy plants, regenerated soils
Kempf learned that plants have an immune system just like humans.
"We know that our immune systems do not work equally well," he said. "We all have friends who become ill at the sign of the first bug and others who never become ill. The only difference is how well their immune system has been supported with nutrition over the course of their lifetime. That same concept holds true for plants, which have the potential to be completely resistant to disease and insect pests and produce amazing crops when they are supported with the right nutrition."
The Kempfs made a rapid transition to greatly reduce pesticide applications in 2005, going pesticide free in 2006 and remaining pesticide free ever since. From that experience, other farmers started asking him to help.
"By midsummer 2006, my dad told me I'd either have to stop working for other farms or do it properly and get paid for it because I was spending entirely too much time doing it," Kempf said. "I printed some business cards and invoices, came up with the name Advancing Eco Agriculture, and we started doing plant nutrition consulting work."
Today, the company has a staff of 30 working with more than 4,000 farms across the United States. They assist commercial fruit and vegetable operations but are adding broad acre crops.
"We have learned that when we work with plants to produce extraordinary plant health, not only are we improving plant health, we are also developing regenerative agriculture systems in which the soil health is rapidly regenerating as well, much faster than we would have anticipated," Kempf said.
What excites Kempf the most is when plants have a functional immune system, they have the capacity to transfer that immunity to the people who eat that food.
Opportunities for the Midwest
Current commercial agricultural practices are based on "a search and destroy warfare mentality."
"Identify a specific pest or pathogen and figure out how to kill it," he said. "It doesn't need to be this way. In the Midwest, we have the potential to replace California vegetable production and the opportunity to address plant health challenges at the source rather than constantly band aiding the problem."
His company has worked in California, which he calls "a desert that has already happened." Water resources will not be so readily available in the future. Kempf sees the Midwest as the biggest area of opportunity for commercial vegetable and fruit production.
Kempf and some friends purchased a 160-acre farm in 2014 that had been in CRP for 20 years. The farm was organically certified and in 2015 they planted 60 acres of vegetables that were contracted at premium prices. The supply chain wants local Midwest production.
Kempf challenged everyone to do their own research and homework.
"This information from this conference is too valuable for you to keep to yourself," Kempf said. "Take what you have learned, apply it and come back next year and bring two people who would not normally be at a conference like this. That's what we need to do to make a change in agriculture."