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irke Baehr has become famous in this past year, but on a Tuesday afternoon you might find him at a modest farmer’s market held in a church parking lot banked by tall lush woods in a residential area of Knoxville. When you meet him, he looks you in the eye and shakes your hand firmly. He has a quick command of facts and a sure way about him, that rare confidence that comes with international acclaim. One of the most popular lecturers in the history of the Internet’s esteemed Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) series of talks on provocative subjects, in April, Birke’s message was dubbed in Italian, when he was a guest on a show broadcast nationally from Rome. Known as a fierce and uncompromising advocate for organic agriculture, he has more high-profile lectures coming up this fall on the West Coast—at the Mother Earth News Fair in San Rafael, Calif., as well as another TED event in Redmond, Wash.—as well as spots in upcoming British and American documentaries. He has strong opinions, that farming should be done without pesticides or other chemicals, that animals should be treated well, that food should be as natural as possible, that consumers should know the farmers who provide their food. He expresses his views politely but frankly. Some of those views concern subjects most Americans, even the organic farmers who

rural Jefferson County, Mills admits, “I was not too into all this stuff myself, you know. I knew about pesticides and chemical fertilizers and all that stuff. But I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention until I started taking him to some of these conferences. And I tell you, I’ve become a real big advocate of what he’s doing.” Birke’s always observing, but today he and his grandfather are shopping, too. “We got some green tomatoes to make fried green tomatoes,” he says. “We’re going to have them for dinner.” Three or four years ago, he was just another skinny West Knoxville kid, albeit a smart, outgoing one. “He was born two months premature,” says his mother Tricia. “We thought, he must have something important to do, he sure was in a hurry to get here. He was always very bright, and interesting to talk to.” He has a twin brother Brandt, who’s not yet famous. “They’re very different,” his mother says. Brandt is introspective, artistic. Growing up in the very suburban west side of town, the boys had a mom who shopped at Kroger and a dad who traveled a lot. If Birke was known for anything, three or four years ago it was for his pluck as a middle linebacker for a community football teams organized by the local Optimists Club, and like most Tennessee boys, he daydreamed of playing in the NFL. They called Birke “Hit Man.” “He used to tell me that when he became an NFL football player, that me and my wife wouldn’t have nothing else to worry about,”

“Click on that!” he demanded, and summarily took over the computer. “Well, that’s interesting,” his indulgent mother thought. Birke explains. “That was really when the light bulb went on in my head, because I knew from all my friends in third grade that mercury was poisonous, that it was gonna kill you, don’t eat it or anything, don’t break your thermometers and mess with it. So I didn’t know what happened with corn syrup, just being an 8year-old kid, and I asked my mom, and the only thing she really knew it was in was sodas. And that was really—Wow. I just said to her, I’m not gonna drink sodas anymore. And so that really got the ball rolling.” It rolled a good deal farther, as Trucia recalls of her willful son. “At Kroger, I’d put bread in a grocery cart. He’d pick it up, look at it, read the ingredients—and put it back on the shelf.” “It’s got high-fructose corn syrup in it, Mommy.” She would respond, “You don’t say.” She adds today, “I had no idea.” Accustomed to leaving Kroger with a cartful of food, she sometimes left with only 10 items. Their genius son posed a dilemma, and she recalls the problem: “What are we gonna have for dinner? Birke won’t let me buy anything at the store.” Fortunately, an Earth Fare, a grocery chain that emphasizes organics, opened nearby. The Baehrs, who weren’t wealthy, at first balked at the

“Genetically Modified Organisms is what it stands for. How it goes against nature and everything is really freaky for me. Like Frankenstein, that was the first thing that came to mind.”

REBECCA L. NEELY PHOTO

— Birke Baehr

set up tables here, know little about. “Everybody thinks that Europe is so anti-GMO (genetically modified organism) and pro-organic,” he says, “and it wasn’t, really, from what I could see.” It goes without saying that he opposes GMOs. He is patient in explaining his terminology to the uninitiated. “Genetically Modified Organisms is what it stands for,” he says. “How it goes against nature and everything is really freaky for me. Like Frankenstein, that was the first thing that came to mind.” Birke would be a remarkable fellow, even if he were not 12 years old. He wears a University of Tennessee Vols cap, as does his companion, who’s about six and a half decades older than Birke. Birke calls him his “buddy.” Don Mills is Birke’s grandfather. A local businessman who grew up on a farm in

grandfather Mills says, laughing. “He would take care of us.” The Baehrs were pretty typical Americans in their eating habits. Tricia cooked at home, and did most of her shopping at Kroger. She did prefer whole-grain bread, like a lot of mothers do, and didn’t buy sodas except for birthday parties and family pizza nights. Their life began to change, unexpectedly, when, at age 8, Birke wandered behind his mother as she sat at the computer in a mundane daily chore: checking her email. Birke peered over her shoulder and practically shouted, “What’s that?” On the little news feed beside her home page—Tricia Baehr hadn’t even noticed it— was a report of a university study indicating that levels of mercury were sometimes present in high-fructose corn syrup. WWW.SMLIV.COM

higher prices, but as their son patiently explained, they could pay more for organic groceries—or pay the doctor. It was the origin of a line that got applause years later at the TEDx lecture. She began helping Birke with his research. Before long, Birke “went down that rabbit hole” of studying the agricultural industry, she said. At the time, he predictably got some peer resistance. “At the time, a lot of my friends were kids who ate Cheese Puffs, and that kind of stuff, and played video games all day. And I also had some friends—maybe three or four— whose moms were into the organics, and they knew all about it. So I had friends who thought I was crazy, and others who didn’t.” The more he learned, the more urgent his mission seemed. “I just remember digging deeper and deeper, finding more and more re45


Smoky Mountain Living Aug. 2011