Paul Keene, founder of one of this country’s first organic farms and a pioneer of the mail-order food business, died April 23, 2005, at age 94 in Mechanicsburg, PA. Keene is famous for initiating Walnut Acres Farms in the mid-1940s, which started as a 100-acre stretch of empty land and was transformed into a multi-million dollar company before it was sold in 2000.1
According to a New York Times obituary by reporter Margalit Fox, Keene never intended to be a commercial farmer. He began his career as a mathematics professor, first teaching at Drew University in Madison, NJ, then transferring to a school in Northern India. In India, Keene was introduced to the works of Sir Albert Howard, founder of the organic food movement, and conversed with Mohandas Gandhi, an advocate of simple living. Both experiences reportedly influenced Keene’s desire to live in harmony with nature.1
Keene also met Enid Betty Morgan in India, whom he married in 1940. The couple returned to the United States a short time later, studied organic farming for a few years, then bought Walnut Acres in central Pennsylvania.1
The Keenes defied popular farming methods of that era by using manure and botanical pest controls like ladybugs, instead of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Although their original plan was to simply live on Walnut Acres as self-sufficient farmers, the Keenes achieved unexpected commercial success from their first product—organic apple butter. 1
By the time the company was sold in 2000, Walnut Acres was generating several million dollars in annual sales and producing hundreds of organic products, which were available through a mail-order catalog. The Walnut Acres label is now owned by the Hain Celestial Group, a natural foods conglomerate.1
Bob Anderson, president and founder of Sustainable Strategies—Advisors in Food and Agriculture, former Walnut Acres president of 30 years, and Keene’s son-in-law, said the following about Keene’s impact on the organic farming industry:
“Paul has left behind many legacies. He has left behind a legacy of working gently on this earth. He strongly believed we have to farm in harmony with nature and put back more than we take away” (oral communication, June 2005).
He was awarded the 2nd Sustainable Agricultural Leadership Award by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) in 1993 (L. Smith, e-mail, July 18, 2005) and the Organic Leadership Award by the Organic Trade Association in 1998.2
Lauren Smith, director of development and membership programs for PASA, said Walnut Acres was a significant participant in the founding of PASA.
“Paul Keene gave roots to the sustainable and organic agriculture movements in Pennsylvania and beyond, and the strength and integrity that he so selflessly gave this movement has helped pave the way for many groups and individuals who’ve derived strength from the acts and practices of this one man,” Smith said (e-mail, July 18, 2005).
Mr. Keene was born in Lititz, PA, on October 12, 1910. He attended Lebanon Valley College in Annville, PA, as an undergraduate, and he received his master’s degree in mathematics from Yale. He is survived by his sister, 3 daughters, 6 grandchildren, and 8 great-grandchildren.1
“Paul was my mentor, my strongest champion, and not only my father-in-law but a good friend,” said Anderson. “I knew him not only as a visionary and as someone who loved the earth, but as someone who loved people. He was just a wonderful father, a great grandfather, and he loved nothing more than having his family near.”
1. Fox M. Paul K. Keene, 94, Organic Farming Pioneer. New York Times. May 18, 2005:B10.
2. Sullivan P. Organic Food Pioneer Paul Keene Dies at 94. Washington Post. May 19, 2005:B5.