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Features

It's his nature

Some say organic farming is the future. Dennis Stoltzfoos is already there - and one step beyond.

By DAN DEWITT
Published January 14, 2007


Dennis Stoltzfoos, a proponent of the “beyond organic’’ movement that opposes the commercial approach to organic foods, takes water to the chickens at his farm.
photo
[Times photo: Keri Wiginton]
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LIVE OAK -- Dennis Stoltzfoos once told another farmer he planned to spray his own pasture with molasses.

"He said, 'You don't want to do that. You'll have loads of grasshoppers.' I'm thinking: Grasshoppers! Yeah! That's more food for my chickens!" Stoltzfoos said, pumping his fist.

"We just think so differently here."

Call him a radical, even, because using blackstrap molasses as fertilizer and a feared pest as feed are just the beginning of his unusual ideas.

While most U.S. farms consume huge amounts of fossil fuels, Stoltzfoos, on one day in mid December, fired up an internal combustion engine only twice.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture views raw milk as an incubator of dangerous bacteria, and state ag officials once banned Stoltzfoos from selling it. Stoltzfoos fills his 2-year-old daughter's sippy cup with milk still warm from the udder.

He is so sure animal fats are the cornerstone of health that he worries the slight thinness of his eldest daughter's face is due to the candy his wife ate during pregnancy.

He fumes about the organic movement's alliance with soy-eating vegetarians. He has never bothered to pursue organic certification because he thinks it has become meaningless as regulated by the USDA or U.S.-duh, as he always pronounces it.

Stoltzfoos, 43, is tall, slim, hunched and balding, with a curtain of blond-gray hair hanging over the back of his neck. His baggy jeans and manure-splattered rubber moccasins suggest clothes are of little consequence to a man bent on saving the nation from its diet.

But fanatical as he seems, many his concerns are completely mainstream: E. coli outbreaks in bagged spinach and Taco Bell lettuce, high rates of childhood allergies and obesity, the destruction of farm land and culture. What's more, he says he knows how to fix all these problems.

"I think 20 years from now, we'll look back on conventional farming and see it as a flat-earth approach," he said. "I think this is the future of farming."

Taking the lead

Stoltzfoos, the youngest of 11 children in an Amish-Mennonite dairy family, left the farm at age 20. He worked part-time as an emergency medical technician, he said, but soon felt as if he was just rescuing the same heart attack victims over and over. In 1989 he moved from Pennsylvania to Tampa, where he set up practice as a natural diet consultant.

He became disillusioned with this job, too, he said, as he began to think of herbs and supplements as poor substitutes for nutritionally complete natural food. Convinced this was the path to true health, he and his wife, Alicia, bought the farm near Live Oak two years ago and embraced "beyond organics," which he describes as the growing rebellion against commercialized organic foods.

"He's a real pioneer. He's out there and he's leading the way for other farmers in the state," said Sarah Pope, a raw milk advocate from Lutz.

After a breakfast of eggs and milk on a warm morning last month, Stoltzfoos left the red-roofed house he shares with his wife and three daughters. Walking south with his helper, Steve Moreau, he came to his "eggmobile" - a galvanized steel chicken house on wheels attached to a lemon yellow Chevy truck splotched with primer gray.

Rolling forward about 100 feet, Moreau revealed the principles of grass-based agriculture pioneered by Joel Salatin, a Virginia farmer featured in Michael Pollan's acclaimed 2006 book, The Omnivore's Dilemma.

Every plant and animal is a tool, according to Salatin. By doing what they do naturally, they bolster the efficiency of the most important tool of all: the grass that works as a solar cell to convert sunlight to food energy. The farmer's job is to put the plants and animals together at the right time.

The rust-colored chickens climbed down from their roosts and into the fresh pasture, clucking as they found and devoured blades of green rye. In the patch of grass where they had spent the previous day, they left behind nitrogen-rich droppings.

Besides fertilizing the soil, his cows distribute seed in their manure. During the growing season, the cows stimulate grass production by grazing, which Stoltzfoos controls by moving cattle in and out of pens formed by portable, solar-powered electric fences.

On conventional farms, these jobs would be done by diesel-powered combines and chemicals manufactured with artificially generated heat and pressure.

Organic farming has eliminated man-made chemicals but otherwise plugged in to the same system, Stoltzfoos said.

The growing market for organics has attracted companies, such as Kraft Foods and General Mills, which ship their organic products as widely as their conventional ones. Large producers have lobbied for loopholes in organic standards to allow hens to be packed into vast chicken houses; organic dairy cows may be raised in feedlots, which have been linked to the most dangerous strains of E. coli.

Joan Shaffer, a USDA spokeswoman, acknowledged a "lack of specificity" in the rules but defended them as providing a uniform nationwide standard for consumers.

Stoltzfoos, of course, disagrees: "The idea of the U.S.-duh regulating organics is the most repulsive thing I've heard in years."

A pet peeve

The day's next job, milking the cows, starts with more walking.

Moreau, Stoltzfoos and his two eldest daughters, Caroline, 2 and Lily, 4, wandered through a grove of oaks to retrieve a herd of Jersey cattle and shoo them back to the milking barn, a corrugated metal lean-to jutting from a converted truck trailer.

The cows, lured by troughs full of natural mineral powder, formed a loose line behind milking stalls made of nailed-together 2 by 4s.

Anyone who has visited a conventional dairy would notice what was missing: the powerful smell of waste, the slurry of manure hosed from the floor of the milking parlor - and the remarkably large quantity of milk produced by one herd.

The 11 cows available for milking produced a total of 10 gallons, which Stoltzfoos poured into a white plastic bucket and then decanted into plastic jugs.

The yield is higher in the summer, when the cows eat grass rather than hay, and he plans to double the size of his herd. But also consider that he charges $12 per gallon, which is reasonable, he said, because his milk is the distilled essence of the natural world, a "white, liquid superfood." Along with selling eggs for $6 per dozen and poultry for $4 per pound, he grosses more than $8,000 per month.

"People will pay a lot of money for pet food," he said.

That is a standard, bitter joke with him. After the state Department of Agriculture shut him down for five months in 2005, he received a license to market his eggs, poultry and dairy products as pet food.

Selling raw milk for humans is illegal in Florida, and, according to many food scientists, dangerous and foolish. The fat-soluble vitamins in milk, A and D, stand up well to the heat of pasteurization and even ultra-pasteurization, when milk is heated briefly above the boiling point. Raw milk drinkers risk E. coli outbreaks, such as the one that swept through a natural foods co-op in Washington state in 2005.

Other scientists say there is no doubt milk from grass-fed cows is higher in vitamins and essential fatty acids and that pasteurization destroys some nutrients, including beneficial bacteria. Also, they say, raw milk from small farms is safer than milk from the filthy, urban dairies that created an outcry for pasteurization in the early 20th century.

But none of them actually recommend drinking it.

"If I were a dairy farmer, I would be very careful not to sell raw milk," said Ron Schmidt, professor of food science at the University of Florida. "The benefits do not outweigh the risks."

The costs of farming

The underground market of consumers who ignore these warnings is small but "rapidly, rapidly growing," said Sarah Pope, leader of the Tampa Bay chapter of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a raw milk advocacy group.

Founded in 1999, it now has more than 9,000 members nationally, Pope said, and the 350 local members purchase about 1,500 gallons per week from a secretive network of small dairy farmers.

When Stoltzfoos started raising cattle five years ago at a tiny dairy outside Dade City, supplying these buyers was easy because most of them lived nearby. Forced north by high land prices and neighbors hostile to his methods, he now relies mostly on one of his customers to distribute his products.

This customer drives to his farm from her home in Bradenton and stops to supply several co-ops on her return trip, consuming more gallons of gasoline than the amount of milk Stoltzfoos' herd produces in one day.

This causes Stoltzfoos to think, after lunch and before he heads back outside in the afternoon to move his broilers and beef cattle, how he could make his kind of farming efficient enough to feed 300-million Americans.

Prices must come down to attract a larger market. But consumers must also learn to pay more for naturally raised products - enough to lure more families into farming and to allow them to compete with developers to buy land closer to cities.

Some organic farmers also suggest redirecting the billions of dollars in federal subsidies away from industrial agriculture and back to family farms.

Not Stoltzfoos.

"Subsidies come with strings attached," he said.

"And the U.S. will not tell me what to do."

Dan DeWitt can be reached at dewitt@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6116.

 

 

 

 

[Last modified January 12, 2007, 14:14:55]


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