July 24, 1989 12:00 PM

On a spring evening at twilight, the warm breeze that wafts through tiny Hilmar, Calif., smells of damp earth, dairy farms and almond blossoms. The biggest town nearby, Turlock, promotes itself as “A Natural Place to Grow.” Glenn Anderson, the only organic almond farmer in this part of the San Joaquin Valley, is wading through waist-high weeds in his little orchard—a growth he says is just as effective as commercial fertilizer for adding nitrogen to the soil. Suddenly the silence is split by the roar of a tractor: The almond farmer across the road has decided to spray his trees with another load of fungicide. Anderson sighs. “Some of it will drift over here onto my trees, of course,” he says. “You try, but you can never be absolutely pure.”

Some farmers are purer than others, though, and in this corner of Hilmar the debate over agricultural chemicals—whether applied to grapes, apples or strawberries—has nurtured a good-natured family feud. The sprayer across the road is Anderson’s older brother, Ron. For nine years he and Glenn have disagreed about how to farm the land they grew up on. Ron, 60—who pioneered almond farming in the area—runs a textbook operation based on year-round applications of the latest pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers. Glenn, 54, nurses his almonds through the season with nothing stronger than water.

Last year a researcher from the University of California at Davis began a comparison study of the brothers’ orchards; in its first season the study showed that Glenn’s almonds cost less to produce and brought in a bigger profit than Ron’s. Of course, the brothers aren’t really competing, but the spirit of scientific inquiry gives way to sibling rivalry whenever the subject comes up. When Ron declares, “I’m not afraid to predict that Glenn will have a crop failure because he doesn’t use pesticides,” Glenn struggles to maintain his serenity. “My brother told me that when I got more productivity per acre than he did, he’d be convinced,” he complains. “Well, I did that, and he’s still predicting disaster.”

No one who knows the Andersons would be surprised by their argument. Ron, the firstborn, has always done the expected: married a teacher from the local school, raised two children in the house his grandfather built and farmed alongside his father, Martin, until the elder man’s death in 1987. “I never thought of leaving except when the Army called,” Ron says. “When I was released from the service, my dad came to bring me back to the farm. I guess I never had any other option really.” Working the land and moonlighting as an electrician, Ron earned enough money over the years to buy 100 acres from relatives. “My brother likes to make remarks about my ‘net worth,’ ” he says, waving a hand toward his swimming pool and Jacuzzi, “but he had his chance.”

Glenn doesn’t dispute that. He claims he could have been “a millionaire many times over” if he had held onto the 20-acre dairy farm he bought from his father in 1961. Instead he sold it in 1967 and moved to Hawaii with his first wife and their three children. “I think there was something subliminal going on, that I wanted to move away from the family,” he says. But in 1980, divorced and remarried to the Tongan woman who had been his housekeeper while he served as an agricultural adviser to American Samoa in 1972, he found himself with a foundering moped dealership, alimony payments and a young daughter to support. When his father, ill with cancer, invited him to rejoin the family business, he came home. But he had no intention of engaging in the kind of petrochemical combat he had become skeptical of while working on his father’s dairy farm. “We would sprinkle DDT,” Glenn recalls, “and we just kept getting flies that were more resistant. When I came back, I had in mind to start an organic orchard. To my dad and my brother, that made me a Johnny-come-lately crackpot.”

Glenn has little to his name these days besides his beat-up purple ’74 Subaru; the 20 acres he farms belong to his mother, Anna, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Still, his devotion to chemical-free farming appears to have paid off. Last year he spent 35 cents a pound to produce his almonds, while Ron spent about 60 cents a pound producing his. Glenn also spent less time in the orchard—”I go fishing a lot,” he says. Ron, who has already laid out $20,000 this year and put in countless hours applying compounds to combat pests, weeds and fungus, observes wryly, “Glenn’s philosophy is to spend as little money and as little time as possible.”

Both Anderson families drink bottled water now because the ground water around Hilmar has been polluted by fertilizers and cow feces. Still, says Ron, “I don’t believe any of the materials I’m using [have] a detrimental effect on the earth, for crying out loud. Civilization is not dying. The Good Lord won’t let it.” As for the public clamor for chemical-free foods, “It’s a psychological hysteria,” he says, “and people like Glenn are capitalizing on it.”

Last year a limited crop sampling showed no chemical residues in the meat of Ron’s almonds or in Glenn’s. But Glenn thinks the sampling was too limited and promises to challenge the results of the test this year—if he has any almonds to sample. Lonnie Hendricks, the University of California extension officer who has been monitoring the Anderson orchards, is convinced that Glenn’s success so far has been “no fluke.” But he also thinks conditions are ideal now for a virulent fungus that could destroy un-sprayed crops. Glenn is facing that danger calmly. “I know there will be bad years,” he says. “But I hope we have enough good ones to sustain us.”

A fungus would give Ron an easy victory, but the prospect doesn’t make him rejoice. “I know my brother is what you would call nonconventional,” he says. “But who knows—maybe if people keep fooling around like Glenn is, we’ll develop some alternative methods of farming.”

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