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Can Organics Save the Family Farm

Posted 9/6/04

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Can Organics Save the Family Farm?
[September 2004] by Eliot Coleman

A groundbreaking essay by the nation's foremost organic grower and writer.

Thor Heyerdahl¹s classic adventure story, The Ra Expeditions, has a lesson
for agriculture. Heyerdahl wanted to prove that ancient Egyptian sailors
could have reached the New World in traditional boats constructed of bundled
papyrus stalks. He and his crew studied fresco paintings, three to four
thousand years old, on the tomb walls of pyramids for instruction on the
size, shape, and style of the crafts. In the paintings there was one rope
represented, from the stern's curled-in tip down to the afterdeck, for which
they could discern no purpose suggested by modern physics, and in the
ensuing construction it was left out. Ra I collapsed in mid-ocean for lack
of that rope. Their second attempt, Ra II, with the newly appreciated rope
in its assigned place, completed the voyage without a hitch.

In the story of agriculture's transition from the traditions of the past to
the realities of the present, there is a missing element that is the rope¹s
equivalent system will eventually fall apart.

That crucial element, found in healthy, viable dirt, is called "soil organic
matter." In the mid-1930s, organic farming arose from a recognition of the
vital importance of this soil ingredient. Some farmers saw the undesirable
changes in their soil and the diminished health of their livestock that
followed the shift to chemical farming in the twentieth century. Their
appreciation for soil organic matter was reborn. They realized that they
needed to return to pre-chemical practices, and improve them if possible,
rather than reject them in favor of chemical shortcuts. They believed this
was the direction they needed to go if the health of the soil, the health of
the produce, and the health of the human beings consuming the produce were
to be maintained. Some of their improvements to old methods included more
successful methods of compost making, better management of crop residues leaves, roots, or stems that are left after harvest nutrients, where necessary, in their most natural form.

The organic pioneers wrote and spoke about their realization that the farm
is not a factory, but rather a human-managed microcosm of the natural world.
Whether in forest or prairie, soil fertility in the natural world is
maintained and renewed by the recycling of all plant and animal residues
which create the organic matter in the soil. This recycling is a biological
process, which means that the most important contributors to soil fertility
are alive, and they are neither farmers nor fertilizer salesmen. They are
the population of living creatures in the soil plant-food potential of the soil accessible to plants organic matter.

The number of these creatures is almost beyond belief. It was often said
that a teaspoon of fertile soil contains at least one million live
microscopic organisms. Hard to believe as that may be, that number is now
considered far too conservative. Once you begin to understand that the soil
is a living thing rather than an inert substance, a fascinating universe
opens in front of your eyes. I once watched a specialist on soil creatures
perform a minor miracle. He held the rapt attention of a roomful of
teenagers by showing slides and telling tales of the endlessly interrelated
and meticulously choreographed activities of these creatures. The students
were entranced because the subject matter was like a trip to another planet.
They were peeking into the secret world of nature.

The idea of a living soil nourished with organic matter also helps cast
light on the difference between a natural and a chemical approach to soil
fertility. In the chemical approach, fertilizers are created in a factory to
put a limited number of nutrients in a soluble form within reach of plant
roots. The idea is to bypass the soil and start feeding the plants directly
with preprocessed plant food. In the natural approach, the farmer adds
organic matter to nurture all those hard-working soil organisms. This
approach is usually called feeding the soil rather than feeding the plants,
but what it¹s really doing is feeding the soil creatures, and that¹s why it
works so well. The idea that we could ever substitute a few soluble elements
for a whole living system is a lot like thinking an intravenous needle could
deliver a delicious meal.

Through the years, as organic farmers have worked with this world of nature,
they have developed harmonious farming practices that are outstandingly
productive. The general level of expertise today among the best organic
growers allows them to equal chemical agriculture in yield while far
surpassing it in quality. Coincidentally, they discovered that this approach
to farming could save not only their soil, but the family farm

Since the 1930s, organic farming has been subjected to the traditional
three-step progression that occurs with any new idea directly challenging an
orthodoxy. First the orthodoxy dismisses it. Then it spends decades
contesting its validity. Finally, it moves to take over the idea. Now that
organic agriculture has become an obvious economic force, industrial
agriculture wants to control it. Since the first step in controlling a
process is to define (or redefine) it, the U.S. Department of Agriculture
hastened to influence the setting of organic standards establishing a legal definition of the word "organic" spokespeople naively permitted it.

Wise people had long warned against such a step. Almost thirty years ago,
Lady Eve Balfour, one of the most knowledgeable organic pioneers from the
1930s, said, "I am sure that the techniques of organic farming cannot be
imprisoned in a rigid set of rules. They depend essentially on the attitude
of the farmer. Without a positive and ecological approach, it is not
possible to farm organically." When I heard Lady Eve make that statement at
an international conference on organic farming at Sissach, Switzerland, in
1977, the co-option and redefinition of "organic" by the USDA was far in the
future. I knew very well what she meant, though, because by that time I had
been involved in organics long enough to have absorbed the old-time ideas
and I was alert to the changes that were beginning to appear.

When you study the history of almost any new idea, it becomes clear how the
involvement of the old power structure in the new paradigm tends to move
things backward. Minds mired in an industrial thinking pattern, in which
farmers are merely sources of raw materials, cannot see beyond the outputs
of production. They don't consider the values of production, or its economic
benefits to the producers. While co-opting and regulating the organic
method, the USDA has ignored the organic goal. And since it is the original
organic goal, and not the modern labeling requirements of the USDA, which I
believe can save the family farm, we need to know the difference. To better
convey this difference, I like to borrow two words from the ecology movement
and refer to "deep" organic farming and "shallow" organic farming.

Deep-organic farmers, after rejecting agricultural chemicals, look for
better ways to farm. Inspired by the elegance of nature's systems, they try
to mimic the patterns of the natural world's soil-plant economy. They use
freely available natural soil foods like deep-rooting legumes, green
manures, and composts to correct the causes of an infertile soil by
establishing a vigorous soil life. They acknowledge that the underlying
cause of pest problems (insects and diseases) is plant stress; they know
they can avoid pest problems by managing soil tilth, nutrient balance,
organic matter content, water drainage, air flow, crop rotations, varietal
selection, and other factors to reduce plant stress. In so doing,
deep-organic farmers free themselves from the need to purchase fertilizers
and pest-control products from the industrial supply network network that normally puts profits in the pockets of middlemen and puts
family farms on the auction block. The goal of deep-organic farming is to
grow the most nutritious food possible and to respect the primacy of a
healthy planet. Needless to say, the industrial agricultural establishment
sees this approach as a threat to the status quo since it is not an easy
system for outsiders to quantify, to control, and to profit from.

Shallow-organic farmers, on the other hand, after rejecting agricultural
chemicals, look for quick-fix inputs. Trapped in a belief that the natural
world is inadequate, they end up mimicking the patterns of chemical
agriculture. They use bagged or bottled organic fertilizers in order to
supply nutrients that temporarily treat the symptoms of an infertile soil.
They treat the symptoms of plant stress arming themselves with the
latest natural organic weapons. In so doing,
shallow-organic farmers continue to deliver themselves into the control of
an industrial supply network that is only too happy to sell them expensive
symptom treatments. The goal of shallow-organic farming is merely to follow
the approved guidelines and respect the primacy of international commerce.
The industrial agricultural establishment looks on shallow-organic farming
as an acceptable variation of chemical agribusiness since it is an easy
system for the industry to quantify, to control, and to profit from in the
same ways it has done with chemical farming. Shallow organic farming
sustains the dependence of farmers on middlemen and fertilizer suppliers.
Today, major agribusinesses are creating massive shallow organic operations,
and these can be as hard on the family farm as chemical farming ever was.

The difference in approach is a difference in life views. The shallow view
regards the natural world as consisting of mostly inadequate, usually
malevolent systems that must be modified and improved. The deep-organic view
understands that the natural world consists of impeccably designed,
smooth-functioning systems that must be studied and nurtured. The
deep-organic pioneers learned that farming in partnership with the natural
processes of soil organisms also makes allowance for the unknowns. The
living systems of a truly fertile soil contain all sorts of yet-to-be
discovered benefits for plants who consume them. These are benefits
we don't even know how to test for
because we are unaware of their mechanism, yet deep-organic farmers are
aware of them every day in the improved vigor of their crops and livestock.
This practical experience of farmers is unacceptable to scientists, who
disparagingly call it mere "anecdotal evidence." The farmers contend that
since most scientists lack familiarity with real organic farming, they are
passing judgment on things they know nothing about.

It is difficult for organic farmers to defend ideas scientifically when so
little scientific data has been collected. However, the passion is there
because the farmer¹s instincts are so powerfully sure of the differences
that exist between organic and chemical production. I often cite an
experience of mine in an unrelated field instincts. Twice I have been
fortunate to hear great artists perform in an
intimate setting without the intermediary of a sound system. The first was a
saxophonist, the second a soprano. The experience of hearing their clear,
pure tones directly, not missing whatever subtleties a microphone and
speakers are incapable of transmitting, was so different, and the direct
ingestion of the sound by my ears was so nourishing (that is the only word I
can think of), that I remember the sensation to this day. The unfiltered
music was like fresh food grown by a local, deep-organic grower. That same
music heard through a sound system is like industrial organic produce
shipped from far away. Through a poor sound system, it is a lot like
chemically grown produce.

Like most other farmers I know, I am sensitive to the reactions of my
customers, especially young customers, as evidence of the advantages of
organic farming. Children are notorious for hating vegetables, but that is
not what I hear from parents in the neighboring towns in response to the
vegetables we grow on our farm. We have been told that our carrots are the
trading item of choice in local grade-school lunch boxes. We have been told
by stunned parents that not only will their children eat our salad and our
spinach, but that they ask their parents specifically to purchase them. I
put great faith in the honest and unspoiled taste buds of children. They can
still detect differences that older taste buds may miss and that science
cannot measure.

Lately, there has been a lot of talk alerting us to the takeover of many
organic labels by industrial food giants. But to anyone who wishes to eat
really good food, I say the sky is not falling. These takeovers only involve
industrial shallow organics. They only involve those companies large enough
to attract takeover money. Most of these companies sell processed foods,
which are substandard nutritionally, whatever the provenance of their
ingredients. When the organic version of the Twinkie eventually appears, it
will be immaterial who controls it. Some of these companies do sell staple
foods, but they only meet the shallowest of standards, thus ignoring those
valuable production practices that only family farmers seem to care about

For example, I don¹t buy organic eggs from the grocery stores. Merely
feeding organic grain to chickens, without giving the animals honest access
to the outdoors, does not make a free-range hen or produce truly edible
eggs. The yolks of these eggs are pale and, being mass-produced somewhere
far away, they are not fresh. I purchase eggs from a neighboring farmer who
runs his chickens on grass pasture where the sunshine, green food of unknown factors don¹t buy organic milk from the large producers who keep thousands of cows
in confinement and who claim their milk is special because they feed the
cows organic grain. As if preventing access to grass is not bad enough,
these producers then ultra-pasteurize the cows¹ milk so they can ship it
nationally uncooked milk. I buy milk from a very successful local raw-milk dairy where
the cows eat grass outdoors (as they were designed to do) and produce milk
that studies have shown is far richer in many important nutrients due to the
grass diet alone.

In other words, the only organic companies that have been bought out are
those whose quality is so dubious you don¹t want to buy their food no matter
how many times they can legally print the word ³organic² on the label. Real
food comes from your local family farm, run by deep-organic farmers. These
farms won¹t be bought out because they are too honest and too focused on
quality over quantity to attract the takeover specialists. The good news is
that small, committed, organic family farms are the fastest growing segment
in U.S. agriculture today. Old-time deep-organic farming will save these
farms because there will always be a demand for exceptional food by astute
customers who can see past the hype of the USDA label and realize the
importance of making their own fully informed decisions about food quality.


How did deep get turned into shallow and good food revert to mediocre? It is
a logical result in a world blind to the elegance of natural systems. Humans
think in terms of more milk rather than exceptional milk, cheaper eggs not
better eggs. Since modern humans tend to consider nature imperfect, they
focus on improving nature rather than improving the function of agriculture
within nature. Humans want to change the rules rather than try to operate
more intelligently within them. A recent advertisement from a biotech
company reinforced that idea by highlighting the phrase ³Think what¹s
possible.² It¹s true that these companies think they have the power to
remake the parts of nature they don¹t understand. However, if they
understood them, they would realize they don¹t need remaking. It is our
human relationship with the natural world that needs remaking.

Family farms thrive when they operate as participants in nature¹s elegantly
structured system. Take my own farm. I have visited organic vegetable farms
across the U.S. and Europe, and I believe ours is fairly typical. We augment
the fertility of our soil with both homemade compost and green manures to
provide all-important organic matter, plus locally available organic
residues (in our case from the fishing industry). We grow thirty-five
different vegetables year round, both in the field in summer and in
greenhouses in winter. We use no pest-control products because we have no
pest problems that need to be controlled. Fertile, healthy soils teeming
with beneficial life grow vigorous, healthy plants. Rather than depending on
product inputs, we have created a knowledge-input agriculture where
biological diplomacy and management skills replace war mentality and
chemical weapons. Our aim is to cultivate ease and order on our farm rather
than battle futilely against disease and disorder. When we have had problems
(low soil fertility, plant stress) we dealt with them by correcting the
cause so the problem would no longer exist. If, instead, we had treated the
symptom, then that treatment would have been required again and again unless
the cause went away on its own.

If we view modern society through the lens of this agricultural model, the
parallels are striking, and the potential for deep-organic farming to
transform more than just the family farm becomes obvious. It has the power
to transform the world. Our present economic infrastructure is focused on
selling treatments for symptoms, rather than finding inexpensive ways to
correct the causes. For example, the medical profession, under the influence
of the drug companies, peddles pills, potions, and operations rather than
stressing alternatives to destructive Twinkie nutrition, over-stressed
lifestyles, and toxic pollution. The economists push conspicuous consumption
as a panacea, despite the fact that alternatives to hollow lives, addictive
behavior, and meaningless work would bring us far more satisfaction. The
government colludes in preparing for conflicts and then waging them (symptom
treatment), rather than committing our country to permanent resolution of
differences through diplomacy (cause correction). Although deep-organic
farmers demonstrate daily the existence of a successful parallel universe
where cause correction rules over symptom treatment, the significance of
that option is unknown and thus unheeded. If its implications were fully
known, deep organic farming would certainly be suppressed, because it
exposes the artificiality of our symptom-focused economy and, incidentally,
explains why society¹s most intractable problems never seem to get solved.

So what is the future? If you want to eat really good food, support your
local deep-organic farm. Committed growers are engaged in a quest to grow
better food because they understand that real food makes an enormous
contribution to human well-being. In the food world, family farmers are the
last link maintaining the old-time values of quality rather than quantity,
of the deep satisfaction from meaningful work rather than the shallow return
from excess consumerism. The values of caring farmers were once so common,
so basic to human existence, that they did not need to be expressed. In
today¹s world these values have been so overwhelmed by greed and shoddy
thinking that they now very much need to be put into words. When pronounced,
those words seem quaint and idealistic. Just as organic foods have become
the last refuge protecting eaters from GMOs, rBGH, and food irradiation, so
have family farmers become the last refuge protecting the values of the
early organic pioneers against the onslaught of the industrial organic
hucksters. I cast my vote for quality and for idealism rope back in place.