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Eliot Coleman Reflects on Four Decades of Organic Farming in Maine

  • He finds himself an inspiration to a whole new generation of back-to-the-landers.
    By Mary Pols
    Portland Press Herald, April 8, 2014
    Straight to the Source

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When Eliot Coleman was in his 20s, farming was just the next adventure, after earlier passions for rock climbing, skiing and mountaineering. Then in 1968, he and his first wife, Sue, went to visit their heroes, Helen and Scott nearing, the back-to-the-landers in Harborside whose books, particularly 1954's Living the Good life," continue to influence and inspire young farmers to this day. They ended up negotiating the purchase of the back half of the nearings' farm; he still farms there with his wife, Barbara Damrosch, a food writer and author of "The Four Season Farm Gardener's Cookbook." Coleman, 75, talked to the Maine Sunday Telegram about Maine's food movement and why his passion for organic farming has never dwindled. We've edited the conversation lightly. 

Q: You've been living a Nearing-style good life for almost five decades, farming organically in Harborside on land you bought from the Nearings in 1968. Do you feel like your values are suddenly very fashionable?

It seems to be a popular thing right now. Everybody thinks this makes sense. The idea of eating decent food, food without junk in it and food that hasn't been destroyed by processing, is finally getting through to people.    

Q: Were you a real outsider when you first came to Maine?

We were super weird. Back in '68 when I moved here, if you mentioned organic to someone at the University of Maine they would look around on the rug to see if you had tracked in something. Just the fact that the University of Maine now has a degree in sustainable agriculture (added in 1988) - that is an enormous leap. Of course, they were looking for a way to fill the seats and pay the bills. I remember talking to someone there who said to me, "If they wanted courses in elves and fairies, we would have courses in elves and fairies."

In the early 1970s I was invited to talk about organic at a local farm meeting, and I was almost knocked over by the palpable wave of hate. Somebody had said to them, "organic farmers want to break all our farms up and give them to the poor." Once I got past that, I would have been able to tell them about large-scale organic farmers who were actually putting more money in the bank. I could ask them: "Does this interest you, putting more money in the bank?" But no one was listening then. They thought it was all whole-wheat bread and naked hippies.

When we got here, there were three generations: the 25-year-olds, the 50-year-olds and the 75-year-olds. The 75-year-olds loved us. We had a root cellar. We talked about that. And we got along very well with the other 25-year-olds. It was the 50-year-old Mainers who just couldn't bear us - because I had a college degree, which they always thought was going to lead you into ease and wealth, and here I was, cutting stumps out of the land. But the world has changed. The 25-year-olds are 75, like me now, and I get along with everybody. I would say that your average lobsterman is pretty hip these days. 

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