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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Paul Keene, Walnut Acres founder, 1911-2005

TAGS: Archive News

Walnut Acres founder Paul Keene, who proved that organic farming could make a profit, and whose mentors included J.I. Rodale and Mohandas Gandhi, died April 23. He was 94.

Mr. Keene and his wife, Betty, started farming in Penns Creek, Pa., north of Harrisburg, in the 1940s. The 108-acre farm they bought with $5,000 in borrowed money eventually grew into a 600-acre property with a manufacturing plant, serving a mail-order business that shipped more than a million catalogs a year.

During his lifetime, Mr. Keene saw the organic movement grow from a few renegades bucking the postwar trend of chemical agriculture into a $12 billion business.

?We?ve moved from the lunatic fringe to the leading edge of agriculture.?

?We?ve moved from the lunatic fringe to the leading edge of agriculture,? Mr. Keene told U.S. News and World Report in 1995. ?It doesn?t seem that long ago that everyone thought we were kooks or commies.?

Born in Lititz, Pa., Mr. Keene received a master?s degree in mathematics from Yale University. In 1938, he went to India to teach and returned with a vision of sustainable agriculture. During the two years he spent there, Mr. Keene worked with organic farming pioneer Sir Albert Howard and with Gandhi, who told him to sell everything he owned and work for a better world.

The Keenes met and married in India. They returned in 1940, but Mr. Keene found academia unsatisfying. ?An unreality about it gnawed at my spirit,? he wrote. ?Had I become too separated from life at the roots??

The Keenes moved to Walnut Acres Farm in 1946, with ?two children, two parents, Betty?s elderly missionary father, a team of horses, our dog Lassie, and an old car,? Mr. Keene wrote. ?Glory was everywhere. ? The place has no plumbing, no bathroom, no telephone, no furnace—we must heat with a wood-burning stove? That?s all right. Isn?t it great to pioneer? We must pay off the mortgage with that one team of horses, plus an old plow and an old harrow—and live besides? Tut, tut—we?ve lived on nothing before; we wouldn?t know how to live otherwise.?

They farmed without electricity or tractors, using animal manure and beneficial insects and picking rocks from the soil by hand, said George DeVault, former editor and publisher of New Farm magazine. An early harvest resulted in about 100 quarts of apple butter, one jar of which attracted the notice of the food editor at the New York Herald Tribune. Her raves increased sales enough to get the Keenes through their first winter, DeVault said.

The Washington Post described Mr. Keene as a ?perpetually smiling, gentlemanly philosopher-farmer.? He wrote columns for the Walnut Acres catalog, which were collected into a book, Fear Not To Sow Because of the Birds (Globe Pequot Press, 1988).

Mr. Keene received the Organic Trade Association?s Organic Leadership Award in 1998.

The Walnut Acres Certified Organic brand was acquired by Acirca Holdings in 2000. Acirca executives said the Penn?s Creek farm and plant were too isolated and not cost-effective. Acirca closed the plant, laid off 100 workers and discontinued the catalog and all but 20 of the items in the line. Acirca?s strategy fell short and it eventually sold Walnut Acres and its other brands to The Hain Celestial Group in 2003 for an estimated $13.5 million.

Mr. Keene is survived by three daughters, Marjorie Ann Hartley and Ruth Keene Anderson, both of Middleburg, Pa., and Jocelyn Betty Keene of Pasadena, Calif.; a sister; six grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren. His wife of 47 years, Enid Betty Morgan, died in 1987.

The Penns Creek farm remains in the family, leased to an organic farmer, and Ruth Keene Anderson lives there.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 7/p. 10

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