Bob Steffen has passed away and we are no longer receiving oats from Massena Farm. This article is a wonderful testimony to him and his life's work.
on the phone with Bob Steffen, he of the clear voice and
crystalline expression, and you think you’re talking to
a young buck of a farmer just getting his hands dirty.
Then he tells you he was born in 1917. “People can’t
believe I’m [more than] 80 years old,” he says.
that’s the result of a life of farming the right way.
“I was born and raised on a farm,” says Steffen, owner
of Massena Farm, near Bennington, Neb. “We didn’t
appreciate it, but when I think about it, the diet we had
was much better than the diet people have now.” The
veggies were organically grown, he notes, and the milk and
meat were from grass-fed cows – and grass is now known
to boost the levels of Omega-3 fatty acids in our bovine
that time, of course, herbicides were unknown,” Steffen
says. And other than a brief flirtation with herbicides
during one particularly wet growing season, Steffen has
avoided the trap of chemical farming. Instead, he has used
the agricultural techniques pioneered by Dr. Rudolf
Steiner. And in the process, he has become a living
history book of Steiner Agriculture in America.
had just graduated from Creighton University’s Rural
Life Institute, in Omaha, Neb., in 1941 when one of his
teachers, Father John C. Rawe, learned about the Steiner
method. That year Rawe, author of the book Rural Roads
to Security, sent Steffen and his wife, Clara, to the
Kimberton Farm School in Kimberton, Pa., to study under
Erenfried Pfeiffer, a protégé of Steiner. Pfeiffer
invented some of the preparations and other techniques
used in Steiner-style farming, authored many books and
articles on the subject, and is generally credited with
bringing it over from Germany and introducing it to
Steffens intended to teach the Steiner method at
Creighton. But shortly after they got there, the four
students who had enrolled in the program were drafted. So
the Steffens took posts at Father Edward Flanagan’s
famed Boystown, a home for troubled boys, and brought
Steiner Agriculture to its 160-acre Overlook Farm outside
farmers avoid chemicals, hormones, and non-therapeutic
antibiotics. Instead, they seek to understand how living
things behave, how they interact, and the spirits that
underlie them. They use the cycles of the moon and planets
to guide their planting schedules, and treat their soil
and seeds with preparations made from organic plant and
animal elements, developed by Steiner and his compatriots.
first, Steffen says, Father Flanagan was skeptical about
some of Steiner Agriculture’s central tenets, especially
the relationship between spirits called elementals and the
plants and animals of the farm. But the Irish-American
priest eventually came around.
“They have their leprechauns.
So they’re not that far off from where we are,”
1945, Steffen was sent to the Pacific theater, where he
served about 18 months. When he returned, he got right
back to the job of teaching young boys – and
conservative Nebraska farmers – about the Steiner
method. Dr. Herbert Koepf, Pfeiffer’s successor at
Kimberton and author of The Biodynamic Farm,
repeatedly visited and conducted workshops on the use of
preparations, composting, crop rotation, the Stella Natura
planting calendar, and other techniques recommended by
were ridiculed,” remembers Steffen. The 50s and 60s saw
the development of “conventional farming,” with its
emphasis on monocropping, herbicides and pesticides, and
state agricultural officials mocked Steffen’s contention
that animals and plants must exist side-by-side to make a
farm complete. The conventional farmers and their
governmental supporters derided his composting, and
blasted his practice of putting alfalfa, which adds
precious nitrogen to the soil, into the crop rotation.
1956, Steffen bought the 76.5-acre Massena Farm, but it
would be two decades before he would farm it himself.
“That job at Boystown was a full-time job,” he says,
leaving no time for his own land, which he rented out.
When he finally left Boystown in 1977, Massena had a weed
problem. “We’re still trying to deal with it,” says
Steffen. Instead of herbicides, though, his weapon is an
intensive crop rotation involving soybeans, oats and hairy
vetch, which throws off the weeds’ growth patterns,
prevents erosion, and keeps the soil alive at the same
time. He also trades his hay for a neighboring farmer’s
aside, Massena is a fine piece of land, Steffen says. Alex
Podolinsky, who brought Steiner Agriculture to Australia,
visited once, and deemed the farm good. Podolinsky liked
it “mostly because we have a lot of trees,” says
Steffen, and Steinerites hold that trees help a farm
“breath”, and provide shelter for elementals.
land means quality produce, Steffen says. “We sell to
restaurants, and I’ve been told more than once that our
vegetables keep better.” He has no doubt that his
produce has a higher nutritional content than does the
stuff on supermarket shelves, and its consumers seem to
like the taste, too. “We have no trouble selling what we
is also experimenting with hullless oats that don’t
require the expensive de-hulling process commonly used by
conventional farmers, which removes much nutritional
first batch he says, “did not make a very thin flake,
thus requiring a longer cooking time.
The next batch will hopefully result in a thinner
so, it’s hard to make a living farming in America,
Steffen says. Produce prices have long been kept
artificially low. And lately, another factor – the high
land taxes brought on by encroaching development – has
made it even harder to balance the books.
once there were only farms, there’s now a housing
development across the road from Steffen. Such development
has pushed property taxes up – some farmers have seen
their tax bills double – and that forces more farmers to
sell their land to speculators, continuing the cycle.
“Some years, the entire crop goes to paying the
taxes,” Steffen says.
whole tax policy is crazy, because every dollar that
farmers pay in taxes, they get back just 70 cents in
services,” he says.
With costs rising and age encroaching, the Steffens
have begun discussing the future of the land.
“What is going to happen to this land when we
can’t handle it anymore?” Bob Steffen asks.
He doesn’t know the answer.
his concerns, Steffen isn’t slowing down yet. He and
hired field workers continue to work Massena Farm. He also
owns a piece of land in Iowa, where another farmer raises
cattle that the two own together. He’s thinking of
renting a piece of land adjacent to his Iowa plot, so he
can farm it responsibly and curb the runoff that is now
damaging his watering pond.
right is a struggle, though, and sometimes a lonely one.
There’s nobody that has a sense of place,”
Steffen says. “Nobody
has a feeling of responsibility for this little piece of
earth we’re on….People with new ideas are always
surrounded with a vacuum.”
Editor’s Note: Massena Farms produces the oats for
second batch of the new, hullless variety of oats is due
out the end of this year and should result in a thinner
flake than the first crop.
However, flaking the oats is really not necessary.
The whole kernels, called groats, are highly
nutritious, although they do require overnight soaking
and/or longer cooking time.
are very satisfied with the new product and hope our
customers will be, too,” says Bob Steffen.
“Oats are one of the oldest cereals for many
cultures and are still one of the most nutritious and
beneficial foods that help keep the digestive system